Who/what is the subject? Representations of self in late twentieth-century french art

Monique Yvonne Yaari

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1 Scopus citations


Word and image studies focus customarily on the relationship between literature and painting, approached either thematically, as in the classical ut pictura poesis tradition, or as semiotic systems, in the wake of Lessing's seminal study.' Alternatively, they examine the interface between verbal texts and their visual illustrations. However, to date a rich area of inquiry remains insufficiently tapped - the application of theoretical constructs developed in one domain to the creative practices of another. Literary theory, for example, has much to offer to the analysis of certain painterly phenomena; and art theory can shed light on the verbal arts.' This kind of exchange is likely to appear most desirable at times of transition, when a canon expands or undergoes radical changes. My concern here is precisely with such an occurrence within the genre of the representation of self, during the 1970S and 1980s, decades known as postmodern. While my analysis centers on French theory and practice, its potential applications are in no way nationally bound. During the period examined, a variety of oblique 'returns' to premodern artistic practices have taken place - among these being the genres of autobiography and self-portrait - which modernism at its height had devalorized. The tool of choice for theorizing the recent reemergence of self-portraiture in French painting proved - for me - to be literary genre theory (complemented by philosophical reflection on the question of subjectivity). Yet, as we shall see, it was a term taken from painting, the pictorial self-portrait ('autoportait' in French) that provided the French taxonomy of literary autobiography with a name for a new category meant to reflect the expansion of the genre and its theory beyond their earlier canonical boundaries. I in turn borrow this renewed literary taxonomy to shed light on painting, using the literary category now named 'autoportrait' to think through new versions of self-representation in the visual arts. To foreground this reciprocity (and to some extent convergence), I take the liberty of using 'autoportrait' (and its variants) to refer both to verbal and visual art, alongside the Anglo-Saxon 'self-portrait', which refers strictly to visual art. The notion of representation of self, throughout this article and in the title, subsumes all three connotations. The ensuing analysis pursues a dual goal: to document and interpret contemporary French pictorial auto-portraiture; and to stimulate reflection on the nature of interart connections as well as on the workings of theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)363-377
Number of pages15
JournalWord and Image
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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