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Exhibition reveals artists’ preoccupation with identity

The works of Ferdinand Hodler are one of the exhibition's highlights Keystone

A new exhibition devoted to self-portraits has opened at Geneva's Art and History Museum. The works of people like Hodler, Liotard and Urs Lüthi show how artists down the centuries have explored the question of identity.

Among the works on show is Liotard’s famous self-portrait with a red cap, completed in 1767. It was one of around 20 self-portraits the Geneva artist painted.

Ferdinand Hodler produced 47, and several of his sketches are on display as part of the exhibition. Among the other artists whose works are included are Giovanni Giacometti, Maurice-Quentin de la Tour and Jean Huber.

“It’s a theme which helps the artist to get to know himself better,” the exhibition’s curator, Claire Stoullig told swissinfo. “In knowing himself better, he can respond more easily to the demands of being creative.”

The paintings clearly help the visitor get a better idea of the techniques used by the artist, and what he or she was like as a person. But for the artist, self-portraits are also a very subjective exercise.

“That is what is so fascinating for the viewer. Obviously these are physical portraits of the artists themselves, but they are also psychological portraits. The slightest gesture by the artist gives a metaphysical indication, if you like, of what sense he makes of his life, of how he feels about the world,” Stoullig says.

She says that is why so many contemporary artists don’t seem to paint as many landscapes as their predecessors, but they continue to produce just as many self-portraits.

“The self-portrait asks many questions which are the very basis of art,” agrees Valery Muller, of Geneva’s Municipal Fund for Contemporary Art. “The artist is constantly asking himself: Is an image reality? Is it really me in the picture? What am I doing? Who am I? So the self-portrait is closely intermingled with the art of representation.”

Accompanying the self-portait exhibition are a number of works by the contemporary Swiss artist, Urs Lüthi. His photographs, prints and video art go to the heart of the question of identity.

The museum is showing a number of works from a series entitled: Urs Lüthi: The Complete Life and Work Seen Through the Pink Glasses of Desire. In these self-portraits, produced between 1947 and 1993, Lüthi delves into the paradoxes of identity, showing himself as a woman, an elderly man, a brain and even a tombstone.

All the pictures are black and white, but Lüthi has added a pink tinge, and thus uses an ironic twist to current notions of gender, sexuality and kitsch.

“We all have a feminine and masculine parts to ourselves,” says Muller. “Lüthi calls into question where the limits are. If I show myself in an androgynous or feminine way, am I less myself than when I am a man? He’s really questioning what identity is.”

The self-portraits exhibition is at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva until October 8.

by Roy Probert

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