Interrogating Appearances – The Drawn Self

Anita Taylor

Where is your authentic body? You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image; you never see your eyes unless they are dulled by the gaze they rest upon the mirror or the lens1

Over an extended period of time, I have been making large-scale drawings that explore the relationship of the female subject, as the artist and model; the defining acts of scrutiny, gaze and feeling are embodied through the act of drawing. These drawings seek to identify and visualise the relationships between what is seen, what is felt, and what we expect to see, disclosing an inherent paradox as the mind reveals the form it inhabits. This interrogation of gesture and expression has led to a sequence of drawings that question not just the appearance, but the emotional or haptic sensation of being inside a skin or body that can only be seen or recognised by the self with the aid of a mirror.

Necessarily responding to a reflection, an image already physically reduced to a flat plane and the reversal of image in the mirror; the necessity of the glance – up, down, across, scanning from paper to mirror – from flat plane to flat plane – the physical contortion undertaken in the acts of looking, glancing, reflecting, assimilating and depicting the complex examination of body or image of self. Subjectivity of rendering is inevitable, with all the limitations that deny the looking and seeing as others may see you.

In A Professional Secret John Berger states, “Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing – when it is an urgent activity – is a two-way process. To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive.”2 The interrogation through drawing becomes the evidence of this temporal exchange, or glimpse of self, of inner understanding and external signs of appearances. This two-way exchange, an affirmation of presence and of remembering the self, established through an objective dialogue as subject and of subject.

Perhaps paradoxically, most of these drawings, such as Glance [2004], follow in the convention of the tronie3 where the sitter’s identity is not important, but the gesture and inflection of the model or artist are captured as a study in its own right, or to be cast as a character in invented imagery. Focussed on depicting a concentrated expression or gesture of a head rather than an identifiable face, the drawings stand for an experience of looking, of seeing, and of being. These sit within the convention of drawings by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and similarly feed the construction of characters with the aim of convincingly populating the wider work. This distancing, through the convention of the tronie, reflects the interrogation of a face unknown but regularly met in reverse. Always looking back: a virtual presence, figured as a half reality.

Seeing Something Else (1993) with its averted gaze, stripped back with ribbons, shreds of clothes and coverings, remnants and traces of layers of identity, of skin, of muscle becoming bared, in the multi-layered reading of the face in the mirror from the perspective of being within that skin. Vestiges of fabric, of clothes, that construct identity but obscure the corporeal body and its containing skin and flesh, and all the transformations by way of shape, age and then, decay. Flies irritate, agitate, buzz, get in between, and in the way of the act of looking, the acts of being. The cathartic moment of pinning down a transitory moment on paper as slippery as catching a glimpse in the mirror. A moment that is not instantaneous like the snap and click of the single photographic lens, but a lens on the world that adapts and adjusts: the focus, the location, the distance, the perceptual basis of seeing, collating information from different sources, perceiving and rendering an equivalent depiction, that sees simultaneously all and nothing.

Using the paper metaphorically as a mirror, the surface becomes the picture plane, and then a space to explore the skin of appearance. The appearance is unseen without the aid of reflection. The mirror becomes the instrument to locate the physical and to distil the metaphorical self; to scrutinise the pores of being and reflect on the outward appearance and this solipsistic moment. These drawings seek to challenge a single point of vision, and affirm the nature of perception: the seeing between two lenses, the perceptual compromise, and the scope of subjective interpretation. A single image collated from the variants of optical vision and the thought processes of experience and interrogation.

Describing the self portraits of Fantin Latour in the publication accompanying the exhibition Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins he curated for The Louvre in 1991, Jacques Derrida states, “ we, as spectators or interpreters, must imagine that the draftsman is staring at one point, at one point only, the focal point of a mirror that is facing him; he is staring, therefore, from the place we occupy, in a face to face with him; this can be the self-portrait of a self portrait only for the other.”4

The portrayal of the self in these drawings is not a self that looks back at the spectator, but becomes an investigation of how to become a spectator of the self and to form an equivalent to that negotiation. Narcoleptic (2004) touches on this sense of slippage, figuratively using the loss of consciousness inherent in the condition of narcolepsy, to negate the gaze and the confrontation of looking. This slippage of eye-to-eye contact becomes the metaphoric blindness and the impossibility of consciousness for one to be able to see oneself as others do.

The limitations of the format of the self-portrait – with a simultaneously charged and discharged responsibility – retains the status of a private enactment in the studio. A private theatre for rehearsal, one where the presentation of the self as subject is explored through observed posture, gesture, enactment, expression, characterisation and physical attribute. The limitations of spatial distance, of self to mirror(s), the location of self to the drawn equivalent on paper, the limitation of what can be seen, all provide a reductive framework.

The further limitation of materials in this instance, solely charcoal on paper; amorphous carbon in common with the human being the image embodies. This flexible, adaptable medium is used to locate, distil and form an equivalent through the accretion of dust and the removal of traces and histories. In Cleanse (2003/2009) the emblematic wringing of a cloth, with its potential to wipe away surface traces, relates to the act of erasure. Simultaneously an act of wiping away and cleansing of the face to bare an unadorned self, and an act that also reveals the form within the drawing. Divulge (2006) and Vestiges (2012) both continue this examination, the poised moment of revealing or disclosing the body. The moment of becoming bare and unembellished, and the removal of the protective trappings of the constructed identities that are routinely and ritually presented. A paused or catalytic moment of disclosure divulges a vulnerable nakedness, and implicitly a vulnerable nakedness of the self.

In depicting a specifically female experience the drawings sit within a long tradition of self-portraits by women, Artemesia Gentileschi, Gwen John, Frida Kahlo, Käthe Kollwitz, Judith Leyster, Jenny Saville amongst many others. Exploring self-image and identity. The re-possession of the female subject from a female perspective and possession of their own image in pictorial language remains a potent territorial claim.

The spare drawings of Kollwitz have long been an influence or reference point, as works that ultimately bare, scrutinise and expose the human condition. These drawings in their self-portrayal seek to define the space between inner emotional experiences and the understanding and attributes of physical semblance and resemblance5. Aiming to locate a summation of a gesture, with equivalence of mark making that distils and realises a summary of intent. The muscular spasm of a cry or the gently touch of a silent whisper; small significant moments distilled through reflection, and with the aim of prompting a response to the overlooked.

This visualisation, interpretation and reinterpretation of the nature and process of temporality, and its translation to the still and unified image, embodies the evidence of thinking, seeing and reflecting in defiance of the present tense. The images have become larger than life, confrontational in presence, size and scale, and aim to confront the spectator as much as the act of the moments of self-regard confronts the author/artist. One aspect of drawing is our measuring of the world; another aspect is how we measure ourselves. This act of drawing the self seeks to interrogate appearances, to navigate the mirror and the reflected subject, in order to locate an understanding of the ‘authentic body’. This intermittent sequence of drawings might now be considered a long-term project, a recurrent recording of the inner-outer perceptual conundrum and contemplation on the self as witness in “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”6


Anita Taylor is an artist, Professor and Dean of Bath School of Art and Design at Bath Spa University, Adjunct Professor of the University of Sydney affiliated to Sydney College of the Arts and founding Director of the Jerwood Drawing Prize. Previous appointments include Director and CEO of the National Art School in Sydney, Australia; Director of The Centre for Drawing, University of the Arts London; Dean of Wimbledon College of Art; and Vice Principal of Wimbledon School of Art. Panel memberships include the UK Research Assessment Exercise 2008 and Hong Kong Research Assessment Exercise 2014. She is Co-Investigator on the AHRC Bristol & Bath by Design Project.


  1. Roland Barthes, Barthes. R., University of California Press 1994, first published 1975 (original title Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes)
  2. A Professional Secret, Berger on Drawing, Berger, J (Occasional Press, Ireland 2005)
  3. The Multiple Functions of Rembrandt’s Self Portraits, van de Wetering, E., Rembrandt by himself (National Gallery 1999)
  4. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, Derrida, J., translated by Brault, P-A, and Naas, M. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1993)
  5. Drawing Inspiration: Contemporary British Drawing, Petherbridge, D., (Abbot Hall Gallery 2006)
  6. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera, M. (Perennial Classics 1999)