For the purposes of this piece of writing, art will be restricted very largely to painting and performance art of Europe and the US. Some references will be made to art from elsewhere, particularly when considering the broadened art world of contemporary art practices. Identity will follow the lines of modern sociology (in which identity is taken as being created at the meeting place of subjective processes inscribed within the way people live, and the social narratives that position us towards particular ways of being). Within this line of thought, the individual is shaped by genetics, environment, upbringing and life-choices but in conditions that are largely socially prescribed at the time.
Art has a long history as a vehicle for exploring questions about identity at individual, community and national level.
Sometimes this has focused on the individuality of the artist (their temperament; their style); sometimes trying to reflect the individual subject as part of the social structures of the time (religion, status etc); sometimes the subject matter has focused on the notion of identity as being part of an individual’s journey in life. Sometimes identity has been treated as a cultural given, sometimes as a mask, sometimes as layers or fragments, or as some dreamlike existence.
In the Western Art tradition, initial links between art and identity used the human figure to symbolically convey something of the divine and, through that, indicated identity as being the choices made to find a path in life. Later, art was used to capture the likeness of important individuals as commissioned portraits but often as a signifier of their social and political status rather than as simple portraiture. Sometimes this involved a symbolic use of materials or colours (eg the richness and scarcity of Lapis Lazuli). Where a broader range of people was painted, this was not necessarily to capture their importance and uniqueness, but more often as practice subjects for painters.
Going further, some painters attempted to capture internal personality. The viewer was given an appreciation of the fuller identity of the person being portrayed. This was created by showing the subject surrounded by belongings (human and inanimate); or in a context that showed off their opulence or extensive grounds; or portrayed them at work or in a simple domestic interior.
In parallel, throughout the five centuries following the Renaissance, there was an increased focus on the painter as an individual with the skills to portray people in these ways rather than simply as a fulfiller of stylised commissions. Thus, we have two inter-twining strands: (a) The identity of the artist and the influence of this on their work, and (b) The artist’s attempt to capture the identity of the person being painted.
A range of paintings have become well-known for this projection of identities, both of the artist and of the subject.
Some examples are:
The Alfonini Wedding (1434) Jan Van Eyck
Mona Lisa (1503); Lady with an Ermine (1490) Leonardo da Vinci
Doge Leonardo Loredano (1501-5) Bellini
Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) Hans Holbein
Self Portrait (1660) Rembrandt
Mr and Mrs Andrews (1749) Thomas Gainsborough
Taking examples from 1850 onwards, the discussion can be expanded slightly.
Vincent Van Gogh started his career as a teacher and as a voluntary missionary in a poor community before training in art. Influenced by the social novels of the time (Flaubert, Zola etc) he started painting peasants and peasant working life. In his The Potato Eaters (1885), the rural poor identity is created by a focus on the meagre food, the sparseness of possessions, the shadowy living conditions and the careworn features – all done in muted, earthy colours. His paintings from this time of ‘dark realism’ were heavy and simple. He was unsure of his creative abilities. Later, having moved to Paris and associated with various Impressionists, he became more enthusiastic about his work. His colour palette lightened. He used purer colours in more separated ways eg Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887). Just a few years later, repelled by the bustle of Paris, he moved to the countryside at Arles, painting in his feature swirling style but increasingly suffering with his mental illness – an identity captured in his Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889).
When Chagall painted ‘I and the Village’ (1911) he was living in Paris, thinking of home – a home he associated with village life, which he imbued with magical imagery and symbolism (a woman floats upside down; a tree grows from the palm of a hand) and with his Yiddish culture. Trying to express his identity as tied up with this village history and culture, Chagall moved towards abstraction and made strong use of colour.
Picasso did a number of self-portraits, reflecting his changes in working style as well as lifestyle. One from 1901 was done as a new painter at the start of what was later referred to as his Blue Period. One done five years later, after he moved to Paris, got support from gallery owner Ambroise Vollard. This one was painted more in pink tones, and was the work of an artist gaining reputation and respect.
His ‘Girl Before A Mirror’ (1932) was in the tradition of Veritas painting with the device of an image and mirror image. The two views of the young woman depict the transience of beauty. The green colour of the forehead, the darkening features of the face, the deepening of line – all add to the distinction between youth and old age; innocence and experience; serenity and strain: many dualities, all in one highly-charged image. The fact that the sitter was Picasso’s lover, Marie-Therese Walter, adds an extra dimension to the work as his depiction of an identity potentially changing with time.
On a wider scale, artistic approaches to identity changed as society changed.
The mid-C19th was characterised by the growth of cities and the drift from rural to urban. There was a wish to capture the changing sense of place but also the effect this might be having on people’s identities and sense of self. The focus was on the existence of a new ‘urban personality’ that could be captured in artworks that tested the boundaries between rural nostalgia and urban excitement.
In the early 1900s, in Berlin, the sense of progress from new technologies was balanced by pessimistic views of alienation, isolation and lack of individuality. Artists wanted to use colour and shape in a new art for a new society. An avant-garde subculture blossomed into the 1920s in which artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emile Nolde played down the uniqueness of the artist as an individual and developed a style that used simplified concise forms, broad areas of complementing colours and reducing things to distorted shapes. Adopting this approach they felt able to express the nature of the society they were in.
By the mid-1930s, the new government in Germany wanted a different, more suitable, art. This was determined as being based on North European ideals of health and physical strength (cf weakness, illness); on youth and ambition (cf an old order that looked backwards in its sensemaking); on the good of the mass of the Folk, and on the interplay of family and nation (cf the self-centredness of the individual). These were expounded as a culture against which all art could be judged. There was a bundling together of topic, style and artist whereby some were approved, and others categorised as degenerate. An exhibition of Degenerate Art highlighted how some supposedly degenerate artists used degenerate subject matter to foster an outlook that, if allowed to continue., would cause the further degeneration of society.
In Russia the style was Soviet Realism: monumental works, depicting the ways that workers collectively could drive progress via the State. This was the collective identity. If there were depictions of individuals, this was of renowned leaders who had driven forward this ideal. It was the identity of the State that was being promoted, often via linkages to the new: constructions, science, technology etc..
America, at the time, had a quite different version of Realism. It was a time of economic depression. The State stepped in as a remedial force eg via the New Deal US Farmers Security Administration. Under this scheme artists and photographers captured something of the lived identity of the rural poor eg Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother (1936).
One movement away from depicting real or idealised portraits of people or groups emerged in post-war America, and found its form in Abstract Expressionism, epitomised by Jackson Pollock. It fitted the identity of the nation at the time. This was a free art for a free country. The action paintings produced were the result of embedding the bodily gestures of the artist in the art work, with these gestures themselves reflecting the identity of the artist. It had roots in automaticity and spontaneity. Pollock described the process as being in the painting, letting it emerge, the work having a life of its own. This was only possible because of Pollock’s temperament and his acute awareness of his own body and the effects that could have. He said that he didn’t have a method, but that he was the method.
With later social changes underway in the 1960s/70s, identity became more generally equated with individual freedom of choice. Particularly in the USA, there was an increased attention on the specifics of identities related to gender, ethnicity etc.
There had always been women painters but those who did get recognition usually did so within existing parameters. A range of feminist artists began redefining the female identity. Art was seen as one way to peel back the layers of patriarchal conditioning and culture.
Sometimes this took the form of direct opposition to accepted ideas eg Monica Sjoo’s God Giving Birth (1969), and sometimes there were attempts to promote social change through a recognition of women’s histories and work, as in The Dinner Party (1974) which Judy Chicago had produced collectively with more than a hundred women.
Individually, some women artists had tackled the issues of their own individual identity. One example was Frida Kahlo. She came to the art world’s attention as the wife of the mural painter Diego Rivera but soon got recognition in her own right. She saw her work as a documentation of her lived experiences: ‘I paint my own reality’. As a child she was injured in an accident with a bus, which left her with a severe disability and pain, a facet of herself that she later revisited in her The Broken Column (1944). During her marriage her paintings were influenced by the works of Rivera but in ways that she made her own. When they divorced, she produced her Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940) in which her long hair and colourful traditional clothes were replaced by cropped hair and a baggy dark suit. She shook off any image of herself as the ex-wife and asserted a new form of herself. She opened up new ways of exploring self-identity through art.
Others stepped away from the usual ways of portraying women. Cindy Sherman unsettled stable views of being female by using carefully staged black-and-white photographs (comparable to film stills) of herself in various guises. These were clearly self-portraits but were never simply about her. They were partly a challenge to the usual male gaze and partly her simply enjoying herself. They were examples of how identities might be continually reconstructed.
Others dealt with feminist issues by focusing less on recording individual experiences and more on the female identity in general eg Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who used text in art that then became an information tool to redefine how identities got socially constructed and sustained.
Others used their own body as the medium, developing feminist versions of performance art. In Cut Piece (1964) Yoko Ono sat on a stage and invited members of the audience to cut off and keep parts of her clothing. She deliberately made herself vulnerable but retained control through specifying the actions and being the one who decided when it ended. In a more overt piece (Interior Scroll, 1975) Carolee Schneeman used her stripped-down body as the medium. She stood naked before an audience and pulled scrolls of paper from her vagina. She read the texts aloud, indicating her body as a source of alternative knowledge.
These, and later works, all contributed to a different place for women in art and a different perspective on the female identity.
In parallel, art did more to explore black identities, race relations and racism. This exploration of new identities was tied to a recognition of black histories, an assertion of black experiences, a foregrounding of black cultures, and the shift away from colonialism and empire. To a lesser degree there were strands of 1960s-1980s art that focused on identity and sexuality (eg the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe; the singing sculptures of Gilbert and George; work done in response to the public emergence AIDS) and, later, to representations of identity and disability. These approaches to art varied from the perspective of art done to explore Black or Queer identity, to using those identities to respond to the pressing political, economic and cultural issues of the time. This is not explored more fully here but is likely to be returned to in a further piece of writing.
From 1970 onwards, postmodern theories challenged the traditional views of identity by developing the notion that identities were socially constructed things. There was growing emphasis on the fluidity of identity and on the ways various identities intercut into each other: the intersectionality of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. ie on identities rather than a single fixed identity.
The growing international character of the art market meant that identity was tackled from different perspectives, in different places, by a wider range of artists.
The Chinese artist Cai Cuo-Qiang used a method based on transformation with rather unpredictable outcomes to make works that were partly indicative of how he saw his identity as an artist and as a person. For Self Portrait: A subjugated Soul (1985-89) he used his signature technique of exploding gunpowder to produce clouds of black smoke that he intended as creating a non-representational image, in this case of himself.
Duane Hanson was an American sculptor known for his hyper-realistic depictions of ordinary people. Using polyester resin and fibreglass, he cast living people and then painted the figure with all the imperfections and veins of actual skin. The results were uncannily lifelike (eg Tourists ll, 1988) but his aim was not about fooling people but in hyper-realistically depicting the alienation, frustration and confusion of the modern condition.
In 1995 Marcus Harvey made a portrait of the ‘Moors Murderer’ Myra Hindley. This was based on a then iconic black-and-white photo used by the press to accompany any article about her or the notorious crimes. In the 1995 work Myra, the face was built up from the handprints of children. To fully appreciate the work, the viewer had, to some degree, to know the specific identity of the subject and the historical significance of using child handprints as the medium.
In 1998 a group of Argentinian artists put together a work called ‘Identity’ that consisted of rows of photographs each next to a small mirror. The photos were of people who had disappeared under the country’s dictatorship. The children of the Disappeared were often put up for adoption. Viewers occasionally recognised facial similarities between the image in a photograph and their own reflection in a mirror. In some cases, actual relative connections were made between the face of a dead person in a photograph and the mirrored reflection of a person visiting the display as a grown-up adult.
In the late 1990s a group of Young British Artists were producing work that used their own lives, or their close observation of the lives of others, to produce art. Sarah Lucas used cigarettes glued to everyday objects, informally photographed herself eating a banana, turned stuffed tights into sprawling morphic shapes, and produced self portraits such as Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996). Gillian Wearing was interested in the general discomfort felt by many people in their everyday experiences. Her Dancing in Peckham (1994) was a video of herself dancing alone in a shopping centre, exploring the movements of her own body as well as the reactions of others. Tracey Emin used events in her own life (various relationships; her unmade bed etc) in art that was deliberately sexualised and confessional, and which drew on indicators of working-class values.
Some artists took existing ideas and stretched them almost to extremes. Ron Mueck used hyper-realism to create figures from silicone and acrylics. These were sometimes unnaturally small and sometimes much larger than life, disorienting the viewer. What created most impact, however, was the detail of wrinkles, individual hairs etc. One of his most famous works was his Dead Dad, 1997, which was part of the Sensation exhibition in London. Marc Quin extended the idea of using the artist’s own body as a form of identity when he created Self (1991), a cast of his head made from several frozen pints of his own blood. The use of possessions as props for identity was pushed to a limit by Micheal Landy in his 2001 performance Break Down which involved the collection and destruction of all that he possessed so that the only thing left to identify him was his functioning body.
Another artist who explores identity through the self-portrait is the American gay photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya. He photographs himself and others in a studio setting but manipulates the image through using mirrors to alter perspective, or through using collage. This complicates the relationship between the viewer and the subject on the basis that it is not straightforward to know an identity simply by looking at a person.
Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist. His work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context. A feature of his art is the brightly coloured Ankara fabric that is taken as being traditional to Africa but which, in reality, has a more complex background.
Kara Walker is an American contemporary artist who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. She is best known for room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes that focus on the AfroAmerican experience and the history of slavery. These depict horrific events that lure the viewer into the scenes.
In an exhibition at Birmingham’s IKON gallery (2019-2020), Meryl McMaster – a Canadian artist of Indigenous/European dual heritage – explored wider questions of being. She works with elaborately sculpted garments and poses in some performative self-portraits. Her work draws on cultural references of Plains Cree First Nation, of colonisation, ancestry and narratives of self and place. It is an artistic mechanism that allows her to explore, and present, her own self-identity.
There are many other contemporary artists who explore identities. Their work may evolve into examining wider issues, but the self and the artist’s own experience are often the starting point. This can be personal trauma, or transitions through ageing, or relationships with others, or the artist’s appreciation of their own gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Such art, which can take many forms in an age of expanding technologies, is one way people create evidence of their own existence.
This article has taken a broad overview of the changing ways that art has tried to engage with identity.
- The attempts to avoid traces of the identity of subject or of the artist, to retain a focus on the divine, redemption and glory.
- Artists being skilled at capturing personality and setting this in a social or political context.
- Art being used by nations, groups and states to promote values and ideologies.
- Art focusing less on the subject and more on the artist’s need or desire to express sensations.
- Art liberating views of gender, ethnicity and sexuality from traditional restricting narratives.
- Attempts to portray identities as having shifting, constructed, complicated and multi-aspect natures.
In contemporary society (with a globalisation of people and lifestyles; a fluidity of beliefs and cultures; the impact of the internet and the instantaneity of information; the blurring of truth and fakery, and the fragmentation of social identifications into many personalised versions) it might be asked if we are now in a period of post-identity.
Is there still anything meaningful for art to contribute to discussions on the subject?
Despite any tendencies to universality of experiences or to an individualisation of situations, contemporary art appears to be still committed to ongoing concerns with identity, if anything in even stronger and more diverse ways.