Theatrical, comical, tawdry and tenuous – self-portraits by the likes of Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman sit alongside Rembrandt’s great late painting, but he is simply the most present
Rembrandt’s late self-portrait sits in its glazed frame in the centre of a large grey wall at Gagosian’s central London Grosvenor Hill gallery. Usually it hangs in Kenwood House on the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, sharing the galleries with Gainsborough’s wonderful portrait of Lady Howe, a Vermeer, and assorted 18th- and 19th-century paintings of varying qualities. But no matter. Here it is again, on a grey wall all by itself, with no bits of furniture getting in the way, on loan from English Heritage. But Rembrandt is far from alone here. His circa 1665 Self-Portrait with Two Circles (not the painting’s original title, if it ever had one) shares a whole gallery with much more recent artists, many of whom are part of Gagosian’s stable. For now, I have my back to them.
I have been looking at this painting for more than 40 years. The light on the face and cap, the two partial circles on the wall behind him (perhaps the outline of an otherwise unpainted Mappa Mundi), and what Picasso called “that elephant eye of his”. Rembrandt is the elephant in the room. Even out of sight, around the corner or in a different part of the gallery, you know he’s there, when you’re looking at a Gerhard Richter, a Richard Prince, or a funny painting by Dora Maar. You want Picasso? Here’s his last self-portrait, the skull grinning through in a 1972 sketch. The charcoal scribble across the mouth is almost a duplicate of the scratching on Rembrandt’s collar, a singular moment in the portrait where Rembrandt picked up his painting knife or used the back end of his brush to scratch through the wet paint with a sort of impetuous haste.
Rembrandt shares a room with Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Robert Mapplethorpe and a small Andy Warhol. Another, later Warhol, a vast self-portrait of the artist in a fright wig, glowers across at Rembrandt from the adjacent space. Bacon and Freud both look forced. Both Andy, in that wig with its electrified nylon hair, and Rembrandt, in his smock and cap and furs, have dressed for the occasion. Self-portraiture is always a performance, even when it affects not to be. Perhaps most of all when it tries to be as natural and as candid as it possibly can. This entire show is a piece of theatre. With his tawdry, threadbare magnificence Rembrandt upstages everyone, and there’s quite a crowd. You want Howard Hodgkin (why would anybody)? – here’s a dabbled over confection, consigned to the entrance lobby. You want Damien Hirst? Check – a photo of the young artist gleeful, next to a severed head. There’s plenty of mortality here: Robert Mapplethorpe, sick with Aids, with his skull-topped cane; Georg Baselitz’s Grosse Nacht, a compellingly nasty 1962-3 figure, hand on cock, whose limbs appear diseased. This is from the best period of Baselitz’s work. You want Christopher Wool’s giant Rorschach-like head-blob thing? What for?
A few works directly nod to Rembrandt. A Jeff Koons copy of another 1642-3 self-portrait, with a blue gazing ball, is kept, sensibly, out of sight of the real thing. Glenn Brown and Cindy Sherman ape an old-master look and dress. Brown’s red-nosed slithery version of an El Greco portrait, with frighteningly filmy eyes, and Sherman’s photograph, with a prosthetic mask, both attempt a kind of time-slip. Chicago painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s 2019 self-portrait “After Rembrandt” also uses Rembrandt’s fur jacket and chemise-like shirt. It is all a bit tenuous, really. And anyway, Rembrandt always wins. Not that it was ever a contest, because that would be pointless. It would also be spurious to look for a contemporary equivalent to Rembrandt, because there isn’t one. Somehow his self-portrait has a kind of presentness – in the here and now – much else lacks, which is a kind of marvellous riddle.
• At Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London, 12 April to 18 May