Self-portraiture and Narcissism

Elisavet Kalpaxi

    Research output: Contribution to ConferencePaper


    ‘Self-portraiture and Narcissism’, at ‘Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society’ conference, organised by the Centre for Psychoanalysis, Middlesex University, 20/06/2009.

    The relation between self-portraiture and narcissism is stressed throughout western art theory. From the 1970s onwards it refers mainly to revisions and amplifications of aspects of psychoanalytic theories on narcissism (mainly Freud’s and Lacan’s) blended with the 70’s notion of ‘cultural narcissism’.

    Through psychoanalysis self-portraiture can be considered an agent of narcissism, and the reproduction and, therefore, objectification of one’s image as inherently linked to self-representative interests. However, this assumption is not always justified by the artworks themselves. The motives and intentions behind the creation of self-portraits are diverse: some self-portraits imitate the works of preceding important artists; some are explicitly made for self-promotion; some are commissioned by collectors who determine the subject matter. The self-portrait results from a number of conscious decisions, and is a medium for social recognition and publicity: a phenomenon linked to artist’s positioning within a social and professional context. Furthermore, some self-portraits do not indicate psychological closure; they rather reveal an intentional openness to the viewer who can assess identities or narrativize their contents. This idea clashes with the objectives of narcissism.

    Psychoanalysis provides a method for employing the mechanisms of the human psyche in order to study social behaviour and the power that social norms and mores exercise on the individual. Apart from a ‘shielding façade’ of narcissism, in fact, the image of one’s body in self-portraiture can also be seen as a symbolic representation of the narcissism-conscience antagonism within the subject. Through the narcissism-conscience antagonism the reasons many artists kept their self-portraits private, the absence of self-portraiture from western art until the Renaissance and the negative associations regarding self-portraiture can be legitimized, as the self-centredness and auto-referentiality implied by self-portraiture comes into conflict with the decentring required in culture. Through the framework provided by psychoanalysis, I suggest that the more a work looks outwards to the viewer the less narcissistic it is.

    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2009
    EventPsychoanalysis, Culture and Society - Centre for Psychoanalysis, Middlesex University, London , United Kingdom
    Duration: 20 Jun 200920 Jun 2009


    ConferencePsychoanalysis, Culture and Society
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


    • Self-portraiture, psychoanalysis, art, photo-therapy


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