“I don’t draw like nobody. You speak one way, but I come on and say it different. You can draw a mule, dog, cat, or a human person, I’m going to draw it different.
Because you always see things different.”
— Nellie Mae Rowe, Cancerian artist
Cancerian artists seem to be more obsessive self-portraitists than any others. You will see what I mean when you scroll down the page.
Of today’s crop Helene Schjerfbeck, Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt and David Hockney were and are also exceptionally prolific self-portraitists, which has meant even more to choose from. Interestingly, Kahlo looks pretty much the same in all her pictures – they are like icons of herself – whereas with Rembrandt’s portraits you can trace his aging from fresh-faced stripling to care-worn old man. Hockney’s are an on-going experiment in ways of seeing and representing what he sees. Schjerfbeck’s portraits become more and more abstract, disconnected, emotional, as she ages.
The thing I love about self-portraits is the gaze. And I think some of the painters have succeeded in revealing the soul in their eyes more vividly than almost anyone else. I’m thinking especially of Hopper, Rembrandt, Kollwitz, Degas and Chagall here – all of whom seem to gaze with such limpid intensity. But equally Rowe, Wyeth and Modigliani remain hidden. Wyeth and Modigliani were, of course, known for their nudes.
One of the things about this exercise is that it has made me look at certain artists with fresh eyes. I noticed at once that several of the (widely acknowledged) greatest colourists of all time have Cancer Suns – Rubens, Degas, Hockney. This made me think again about Frida Kahlo’s use of colour, which is, now I look again, superb. And as for Nellie Mae Rowe! Have a look at some of her other work, but you can see the intense indigo in this self-portrait sings.
So I do ask myself what is it with the Sun in Cancer?
This is the fourth sign of the Zodiac so we are still in the quadrant of the self. It’s still all about me. And as a water sign, of course, it’s about the emotional me. It’s also a cardinal sign. Cardinals are doers. That emotional me needs to be expressed.The question most likely to be asked by a Cancer Sun is “How do I feel?” With each of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, you can almost see him asking himself that question.
Frida Kahlo’s work is entirely an exploration of herself and her lacerated emotional world. She’s a big influence on the contemporary artist Tracey Emin whose emotional world is on full-frontal display at the Hayward gallery in London this summer. Both women are particularly fascinated by their own bodies, which would seem rather earthy, but in fact their art is an outpouring of their ragged emotions.
But the emotions don’t always have to be screaming. Kollwitz was also, of course, exploring emotions in her work – loneliness for one. And Chagall‘s entire output (nearly) was devoted to an especially Cancerian emotion – nostalgia.