An attitude of subjectivity and introspection was central to the culture of the fin-de-siècle and it manifested itself in various ways in almost every aspect of cultural life. It binds together many seemingly different pursuits of the nineteenth century. The self was a popular subject in scientific writing, particularly in the new “science of the human mind”, psychology. Various forms of mysticism and occultism were highly popular and they contributed to new conceptions of selfhood that were not always so far removed from the scientific formulations. These ideas were familiar for the many Nordic artists studying and working in Paris and Berlin in the 1890s, and they were also transmitted to the Nordic countries through the work of such writers as August Strindberg and Ola Hansson.
The self portrait is probably the most obvious product of the artists’ self-examination. In the art of the period the theme of introspection was often expressed in figures with closed eyes, most famously perhaps in Odilon Redon’s painting Les yeux clos (1890) which became an emblem of Symbolist art and aesthetics. The motif of closed eyes is often interpreted in terms of the Symbolist aesthetic which stressed the notion of “seeing beyond”, of perceiving the truth behind everyday appearances. In self-portraits the eyes are rarely closed but they can be somehow veiled or otherwise depicted so as to suggest a look that is turned inward, towards an inner world or self rather than at the everyday world of appearances. Several examples of this can be found in the Nordic art of the fin-de-siècle.
In a self-portrait by the Finnish artist Pekka Halonen from the year 1893 the eyes are painted with the same skin tone as the rest of the face, only slightly darker. This painting can be interpreted as a representation of “metaphorical blindness.” This is a condition of the artist who turns inward into his own soul and uses imagination, the ability to create images, to produce art. The artist in Halonen’s painting seems to be in a visionary state of prophetic or mystical seeing. The visionary artist has closed his bodily eye but instead he has unsealed the eyelids of the soul – to quote the Swedish mystic Swedenborg.
In Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895) the head of the artist seems to be hovering in darkness above a skeleton art. The eyes are not closed or veiled but they are slightly out of focus. Their look seems to be turned inward. The skeleton arm refers to the transient nature of life, whereas the head can be understood as a metaphor for the immortal thoughts of the artist that are preserved in his artworks after death. Here the theme of introspection is directly connected with questions of life and death.
In this paper I discuss the self-portraits by Halonen and Munch which are mentioned here as examples, along with other artworks by Nordic artists of the fin-de-siècle. The theme of introspection and subjectivity constitutes a part of my PhD research on the conceptions of the self in Nordic fin-de-siècle self-portraiture.
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