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David Stern Studio

Pandemic Portraits

Ever since Jan van Eyck painted one of the early self portraits in 1433, the exercise of looking at oneself has become a genre of painting.
Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Duerer, who also is one of the earlier adaptors of the practice, (self portrait at 28 in 1500) concentrated on the presentation of themselves, in some way also advertising their ability as magnificent craftsmen to the world.
There is the beginning notion of the independent artist in this period of the Renaissance, and both artists are looking out in an unflinching and almost confrontational way, avoiding the viewer a glimpse of their emotions.
This notion had become an accepted view by mid 17th century and artists were creating their individual interpretations of reality including religious and mythological themes.
Rembrandt van Rijn, was the first true “modern artist”, who not only created his own interpretations and iconography but also found a distinct personal way of painting. In his hands, the self portrait had become more than just a self-presentation of the artist, but a much deeper exercise in self observation and reflection. Rembrandt created more than 40 self portraits over a period of around 40 years, creating a record of his own aging, showing his state of mind and emotions at certain points in his life. Given the heavy price tag canvas, resin, oil and pigments had, the sheer number of these works is astonishing and points to the tremendous importance these portraits had to the artist.
Spending so much time and money on an exercise of self-reflection and discovery, rather than to paint for the market or accept commissions shows b spirit of exploration and discovery regarding the human condition, here his own self.
In the 350 years after his death in 1669 Rembrandt has become the artist’s artist and to me he became a lifelong role model in his independence and interest in the human figure and human condition. I started doing self portraits at an early age - about 22-24, even before I had found my artistic voice, and have continuously done it ever since. There were periods when I painted just one self-portrait per year and others when I made a self portrait drawing every day for one year. For the longest time I used a mirror, trying to faithfully record my features and own emotions. Since about 1999, I mostly paint and draw self-portraits as a barometer of my own condition out of - (of course daily subconsciously collected) - memory.
At certain moments I felt the need to record my own condition more than in others, trying to connect the outside reality to my being. I recorded one 13 day stay in Cologne Germany as a visual diary consisting of one large self-portrait on paper with pigments and acrylics -‘the Cologne Diary’, and in the late 1990's I did one large ink drawing per day for a year and called the exercise ‘the daily drawing project’.
During the first three months of the Corona pandemic I was confined to my apartment, as millions of other New Yorkers, the daily commute to the studio seemed too risky and although I work alone, I felt too uneasy to go there and create like nothing had happened. So I resorted to draw a self-portrait per day, small, as the conditions in my study did not allow to create larger works. These are just 11 3/4 x 8 1/2 inches and the means are reduced to Japanese and fountain pen ink, applied with fountain pen, toothpicks and brushes. My ‘pandemic portraits, as a friend of mine calls them appropriately. I found it helpful to do these, to keep my sanity and connect myself to the horrific news , we received every day already for almost 2 months.

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