Portrait of the Artist As… at The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London

The exhibition Portrait of the Artist As…looks at the ways in which artists have portrayed themselves, their peers and their predecessors over four centuries. Curated by the students of The Courtauld’s MA Programme Curating the Art Museum, it draws on the holdings of two major collections, The Courtauld Gallery and The Arts Council Collection, and includes 30 works in various media from the 18th century to the present day. We spoke to Sascha Feldman and Davida Fernandez-Barkan, both students on the course, about the experience of putting the exhibition together and historical or theoretical underpinning to the curation.

A: So why the Self Portrait as the subject matter for this exhibition?

SF & DFB: The interesting thing about our theme is that it addresses not only artists’ self-portraits, but also portraits of other artists. We came up with the idea by really digging through the collections available to us to find good works that had something significant to say to one another. I think what stood out to us about this theme and the works that illustrate it is the level of dialogue between the artists featured, on both a direct and indirect level. We have Van Gogh’s self-portrait, and then we have Francis Bacon presenting his own interpretation of one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. We have Edvard Munch asserting himself as the archetypal “tortured artist,” and then we have Sarah Lucas presenting a sort of feminist response to that archetype. As you walk through the exhibition, you will be able to see all of these overlapping conversations taking place, and that has been very exciting for us.

A: As a curatorial task you have had two rather magnificent collections of works to choose from the Art Council’s collection and the Courtauld’s own holdings? What was the experience like of putting the show together?

SF & DFB: Bringing the Arts Council and Courtauld collections together was an amazing opportunity, but was also extraordinarily difficult. The Arts Council Collection consists of modern and contemporary works by British artists, whereas The Courtauld Gallery has European works from the medieval period to the early 20th century, so finding works that could sit in the same room together was quite a challenge. We went through dozens of exhibition ideas before we found one that worked. I think what makes this idea viable is that it focuses on themes that have been revisited time and again by artists over the past four centuries. You can only curate a trans-historical exhibition if you have a truly trans-historical theme.

A: How is the show curated? Do you follow a linear timeline or are the works in dialogue with one another from different eras, for example? What unifies the works you have selected the self portrait?

SF & DFB: The show is organized into groups of work that have a particular relevance to one another; sometimes that relevance is thematic, and includes works from different eras, whereas other times the relevance is more temporal. For instance, we have several works by artists affiliated with the School of London in close proximity to one another.

A: You make the illusion to James Joyce in the title and the exhibition seems to be addressing some of the ambiguities and complexities artists have experienced in the wake of modernism in portraying themselves. What is the historical or theoretical underpinning to the curation?

SF & DFB: We came up with the title of the show almost as soon as we had come up with the theme. It’s such a catch-phrase in modern culture; it’s been parodied by everyone from Dylan Thomas to Grayson Perry. But I think what underlies the constant return to this phrase is the fact that people are truly fascinated by artists, especially modern and contemporary artists, who can seem so elusive. People want to “get inside their heads” and understand them. Some artists’ portraits seem to offer a deeper understanding of those artists, while others deny access to artistic interiority pretty emphatically. I think one of the major themes throughout our show is the varying degrees to which artists allow and deny this access.

A: You have a lot of works which enter into the debate of the self portrait as a device for artists to align or transplant themselves with their heroes and predecessors. In which works do you feel this is explored in the most interesting ways?

SF & DFB: It’s a major theme of the exhibition, and we encourage visitors to trace these relationships and influences as they walk through the galleries. In an 18th century drawing by Jonathan Richardson the Elder, the artist presents himself in a fur cap, an accessory most famously associated with Rembrandt. Other interesting examples are Roger Fry’s copy of a Cézanne self-portrait, Frank Auerbach’s portrait of his friend Lucian Freud, and a work by Glenn Brown that appropriates and transforms Frank Auerbach’s distinct style of painting.

A: Do you have any favorite self portraits in the exhibition? Why do you feel these works are particular stand outs to you?

SF & DFB: This project really encourages and requires the development of personal relationships to the works we’ve chosen. I’ve become quite attached to an Edvard Munch lithograph, which we’ve been able to see and spend time with face to face in the Courtauld Institute Print Room over the last few months. It’s a really intoxicating self-portrait; I’m drawn to it because I can’t be completely sure if he’s showing his true self, or if this grim character is something he has tried on for size.

A: And to finish, can you tell us about how the MA Curating course at the Courtauld prepared you to mount this exhibition?

SF & DFB: The course, led by Martin Caiger-Smith, is a dynamic mix of art historical & curatorial theory matched with interactive, hands-on projects. We’ve studied conservation, the history of museums and display, the roles of the curator, the complexities of modern and contemporary art museums and temporary exhibitions, and have met with many art world professionals to speak about commercial galleries, auction houses, the relationship between artists and museums, and the acquisition and preservation of artwork. We were very lucky to carry out interactive and multidimensional projects at Tate Britain and the National Gallery, where we were invited to troubleshoot real-world curatorial questions and to design a virtual display of our imagined scenarios, using the museums’ historic collections. All thirteen of us interned at major London arts institutions during the academic year, and traveled together to Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Essen in April to gain a broader understanding of the European and international art world.

Portrait of the Artist As…, 26/06/2012 until 22/07/2012, The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN. www.courtauld.ac.uk

Gilbert and George, A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, 1970. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © The Artist, courtesy White Cube