Self-Portrait as the Billy Goat: Self-portraits from the physical to the imaginary

Pawel Althamer: Self-portrait as the Billy-Goat 2011 | Courtesy of the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

The Whitechapel Gallery is presenting the first major public display of the ISelf Collection in the UK this spring. Continuing its programme of opening up rarely seen collections from around the world, the four exhibitions are each titled after a key artwork in each display.

The latest, Self-portrait as the Billy Goat, brings together a selection of physical, psychological and imaginary self-portraits by more than a dozen leading international artists including Pawel Althamer, Louise Bourgeois, André Breton and the Surrealists and Enrico David.

The works reveal how these artists stage their own bodies or self-reflections to examine the different ways that we build our sense of personal identity.

A series of photo strips by André Breton and his Surrealist colleagues open the first chapter in a series of displays. Taken in 1929, they experimented with a new form of instantaneous self-portraiture, the photo booth. Rather than choosing a straightforward pose, they look sideways or away from the camera, playing with different poses – smoking, thinking or laughing, depicting themselves as complex and multi-faceted individuals.

By staging their own portraits the artists in this display examine the mechanisms that we use to present ourselves to the world. In her Untitled (1977/2010) photographs, Cindy Sherman stages her appearance through a curtain call where she poses as four different actors. The agency of the artist in the set-up of the image also comes to the fore in Linder’s disturbing portrait You Search But Do Not See (1981-2010) where she appears to be almost suffocating in a plastic bag.

Tracing the psychology of the artist and the role of mother, daughter, wife and lover was at the forefront of Louise Bourgeois’ work. She presents herself as mother in Untitled (2005) and was to influence Tracey Emin, whose intimate nude gouaches Im here (2014) and Fist Clasped (2014) are included in the display.

The exhibition title is taken from Pawel Althamer’s flayed and melancholic self-portrait in the guise of Auguste Rodin’s famous The Thinker (1903), with an additional twist in that he represents himself as a Billy Goat. The relationship between body and feeling is considered further by Gabriel Kuri through his work Self portrait as Chart With Looping Volume (2012) which reflects on notions of unity and disembodiment.

This display aims to reveal how artists convey the complex dynamics below the surface of their appearances. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets YSOR (2011) from an ongoing series of delicate, abstract white paintings explores the landscape of her mind. On show alongside this is Prem Sahib’s Undetectable (2013), a minimal sculpture which we later understand to be an AIDS test.

Self-Portrait as the Billy Goat runs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until 20 August 2017.

Main image: Pawel Althamer: Self-portrait as the Billy-Goat 2011 | Courtesy of the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

Louise Bourgeois: Untitled 1947-49 | ©The Easton Foundation/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Louise Bourgeois: Untitled 1947-49 | ©The Easton Foundation/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

André Breton: Photomaton, André Breton C 1929 | ©ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

André Breton: Photomaton, André Breton C 1929 | ©ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

Enrico David: Untitled 2014 | Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London | © Enrico David

Enrico David: Untitled 2014 | Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London | © Enrico David

Tracy Emin: Fist Clasped 2014 | © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS © Tracey Emin

Tracy Emin: Fist Clasped 2014 | © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS © Tracey Emin

Linder: You search but do not see 1981/2010 | Courtesy of the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London. Photo: Christina Birrer

Linder: You search but do not see 1981/2010 | Courtesy of the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London. Photo: Christina Birrer

Cindy Sherman: Untitled No. 507 1977/2011 | Courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures and Sprüth Magers

Cindy Sherman: Untitled No. 507 1977/2011 | Courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures and Sprüth Magers

Raqs Media Collective: A Day in the Life of______, 2009 | Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London

Raqs Media Collective: A Day in the Life of______, 2009 | Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London