Staging the Modernist Self: The Self-Portraits of William Orpen

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò, Independent Scholar, London, United Kingdom

    One of the most financially successful and honoured painters of the twentieth century, William Orpen’s reputation, now diminished, rests predominantly on his accomplished society portraits and war paintings. Yet Orpen (1873-1931) also produced an extensive body of compelling self-portraits, depicting himself in a variety of guises that mark diverse performances of his ‘self’. This neglected area of Orpen’s production stands apart from his distinctly official works as the painter of the British establishment and war artist and as such merits attention for its singular engagement with the modernist self. I consider Orpen’s self-portraits as the visual equivalent of autobiography and autobiografiction, drawing on modernist literary examples for comparison, with a particular focus on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I also analyse a range of images to investigate how Orpen could engage with, satirize, mask, elaborate and fantasize his identities in these works. While a comparison with historically specific notions of selfhood can illuminate Orpen’s visual autobiography, I also consider the role played by his own biography in the questioning and staging of his own identity. Consistently characterized by critics as a great draughtsman yet frequently condemned for a lack of intellectual curiosity, I argue that Orpen, away from his official status, was intensely engaged in elaborating and examining his identities through self-portraits that also connect with a modernist preoccupation with the very process of creating art.