Émile BERNARD | Symbolist self-portrait (Vision) [Autoportrait symbolique (Vision)]

France 1868 – 1941

Symbolist self-portrait (Vision)
[Autoportrait symbolique (Vision)]
oil on canvas
canvas 81.0 (h) x 60.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 2008
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In his self-portrait, Emile Bernard crowds the remainder of the canvas with naked women and paired lovers. The artist’s tilted head and melancholy expression resemble the hovering face surrounded by a halo in the upper section of the composition. The face represents the Veil of Veronica, a medieval Catholic relic retaining the features of Christ on his way to Calvary.

This mystical vision with its references to the pleasures of the body seems at odds with the religious subject matter. Bernard had become increasingly interested in the Symbolist movement, which arose in France in the late nineteenth century. Symbolist painters explored the breadth of spirituality from Christian beliefs to the occult. They also reacted against the naturalistic aims of Impressionism. Bernard seems to be working through these contradictions as he contrasts bodily pleasures with Christian salvation.

Bernard’s close friendship with Gauguin ended in 1891, after which he began to paint more religious subjects. Bernard became concerned about his reputation and legacy and responded to these pressures by painting a self-portrait where we witness his spiritual experience. By contrast, Gauguin’s self-portrait in this exhibition includes two works of great personal significance for the artist.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay