“Madre e hijo” (below) is my latest self-portrait — number nineteen in an ongoing series. I identify enthusiastically with Frida Kahlo’s comments about her own self-portrait series:

“This is my ongoing self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques. I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone because I am the person I know best. I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling. Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is a strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.”
— Frida Kahlo

I have gained much inspiration from visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and several other art galleries and art museums in Europe whose exhibitions and permanent collections feature portraits. As a result, figurative art and portraiture have become new and exciting genres for my own artistic expression. While I cannot say that I am following in Vincent Van Gogh’s footsteps by painting self-portraits, I do see the value in doing so to chart my personal and artistic development. These self-portraits teach me much as regards technique, and they allow me to explore many diverse painting styles — as I attempt to “redefine portraiture” in a contemporary sense — meaning incorporating portraits into contexts with relevance to far more than myself alone, and with styles that range from caricature to semi-realism.

Perhaps like the self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, my own painted selfies also reveal where my head is at — and rather candidly — at any given point in time. I have painted nineteen self-portraits to date. More are certain to come.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

NB. Van Gogh painted more than thirty self-portraits in the last five years of his life. Rubens painted seven self-portraits. Rembrandt painted more than forty self-portraits. And Frida Kahlo painted fifty-five self-portraits.

Madre e Hijo, 60 c 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.


“Madre e Hijo”, 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. This new self-portrait is based upon a photo of myself as a three-year-old, together with my mother, in 1957. This, my nineteenth self-portrait, is a somewhat simple, but poetic (Stimmung), light impasto, semi-realistic painting, which is partly inspired in theme by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Sun” (“Solen”, 1909), which also is a homage to the Sun; and Picasso’s many mother and son paintings. But here, rather, the sun takes on an all-pervading expression of hope, realignment, and healing after a period of intense challenges and changes, as it is symbolized by a double-sun which burns through the gloaming of our somnolence. The twilight blue background, painted with soft velvet texturing, hints as well at blankets of both sky and sea; giving a sense of opportunity, expansiveness, and profundity. I have avoided common clichés such as red suns, piercing sun rays, and the sun setting in landscapes or seascapes, and I have instead painted the background in a way that implies parched earth reflected blue by the expansive twilight sky. This vision is delightful but within its mysteries lies a reminder of an inescapable Truth: even the best moments of our lives are but temporary. The figurative renderings are composites of our features then and in later years, extrapolated from an old sepia-print daguerreotype from the mid-50s. I tried to capture the unspoken worry in the face of the Mother, from various life challenges: the Cold War, divorce, etc.; as well as my own exaggerated quirkiness — not unlike The Fool in the Tarot — unwittingly joyful, but like the Mother, trying to smile somewhat forcibly for the photographer. In the original photo, the smiles are beaming and beautiful, but here I wanted to reach beyond the moment in between the coaxed frozen smiles elicited by the photographer; resulting in a universal archetype all can relate to (contortions included). These altered faces are painted and shadow-masked in desert camouflage-style; thus alluding to the understanding that major efforts must be made in the face of conflict and struggle. This is accentuated by the purposefully uneven border around the portrait, which is wavering and stretching toward the sun — in hope of the best future for her son. And at the same time, the lifting of the corner can be interpreted as the eventuality of the photographed moment blowing away with the Winds of Time, and being quickly forgotten. I have in this way attempted to move beyond the photographic portrait, and capture the emotional and psychological attributes behind the photogenic smile, posing questions as to the truest image: that in the photograph, or in the painting which goes beyond the photographic still moment. The theme, the style, and the liberties of portrayal taken are also a nod to Pablo Picasso’s transitional portraiture. It was in that same year (1957) that Picasso started his huge series based upon Diego Velazquez’s iconic “Las Meninas” painting (1656). Picasso’s politically confrontational series was painted twenty years after Guernica (1937), and it continues the political protest of said earlier painting against the mistreatment of Republicans in Spain under Francisco Franco. And it was Franco who ruled Spain with his iron fist when my family moved to Madrid, just a few years after the photograph was taken.

NB. My mother was herself a realistic painter, and she accessed personal strength and resolve through presenting herself outwardly as “unflappable”. Thus, admissions of internal struggle were rare; and worries and problems were protected by an underlying “on the need to know” basis of secrecy. She would never have presented herself publicly as she was on the inside … and the contortions of her own life were severely controlled under the mask of the enigmatic strong and beautiful Black Woman archetype. It was ultimately the source of her successes and of her undoing. I was her confidant from an early age. And she often commented that she and I “grew up together”.

In addition, this relatively New Mother and Son duo are also hoping that the tomorrows in their intimate relationship might forever be filled with dreams of Promise and Light. Life is a beach; and the sun shields us until the arrival of Darkness. This is echoed in the word “Cuando …”, hinting at the title text from a major popular song from my childhood years in Madrid, Spain, just a few years afterward: “ Cuando Calienta el Sol”: Cuando calienta el sol aquí en la playa; Siento tu cuerpo vibrar cerca de mí; Es tu palpitar, es tu cara, es tu pelo; Son tus besos, me estremezco, oh, oh, oh …

And on another level, this painting also serves as a commentary on those moments where we take a step back (voluntarily, or not) in order to catch our breath and to reflect upon our state of mind, and of the future of our world and humanity in the always instructive Yin – Yang cycle of existence. Moments of respite allow us to enjoy the spoils of our labor and folly, and to assess our learning, forgive and heal ourselves from our egocentric and careless transgressions … before we once again challenge ourselves and our environment in Life’s seemingly never-ending cautionary tale.

THESEUS 1: APPEAL.

Lulled by the gentle
Cradling of the waves
And the soft shimmer of
The early morning moon,
The sleeping ship coasts
Upon the foamy crests
In dreamy quietude.
The insouciant reverie
Is dutifully maintained
By the mesmerizing
Tonalities and rhythms
Of creaking planks
And ocean spray.
And keeping sole watch over
Survival and expectation
Are a lunching rodent
And the insomnious Theseus,
Kneeling in silent supplication
To the celestial guardians
Of love and beauty.

DAEDALUS 3: ELEGY.

Icarus, my son —
In all honesty, I guess we were
Always walking on the edge.
Suspended tautly between highs
And lows, we feared mediocrity
More than imbalance.
For us, the challenge was but
The means of attaining individuality;
A space unto ourselves and
Forever out of reach of
Those who dreamed but
Never dared to risk.
We soared like eagles and
We fed on desires that
Sting the heart, yet
We neither gave nor received
Beyond our passion for
Excellence through solitude.
And now that I have witnessed
The birth of my conscience,
There remains no other recourse
Than to re-invest myself in
The ongoing saga which is the
Phenomenon of life.
Heretofore, I’d always thought
That phenomenon is emptiness;
But having now lost all
That has been dear to me —
I realize that emptiness
Is a kind of phenomenon.

(From Adam Donaldson Powell’s “Collected poems and stories”, Cyberwit Publishing, 2005.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

« Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. »

— Pablo Picasso

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