Arts Curriculum

Self-Portrait

My aim is to be as open and as incomprehensible as possible. There has to be a perfect balance between open and shut. 11


Self-Portrait

Super Us, 1998 (detail). 50 acetate sheets, 29.8 x 21 cm each

For an artist who consistently claims to be without ideas, as is the case with Cattelan, selfportraiture is a logical mode: one need not look beyond one’s own face to find material. In Cattelan’s early work, his presence was implied but never literally represented, but by the late 1990s, a battery of lookalikes, mini-mes, doubles, and surrogates began to populate his work. He has plastered gallery walls with 500 painted latex masks of his face; pictured himself in miniature on a bookcase, gazing absently into the abyss; and been photographed rolling around on the floor like a panting dog. Charlie (2003), depicting a boyhood version of himself, sped around the grounds of the Venice Biennale on a radio-operated, motorized tricycle, narrowly missing visitors. This juvenile iteration of the artist having the time of his life both annoyed and entertained visitors to the exhibition.

First created in 1992, the self-portrait Super Us also demonstrates Cattelan’s irreverent approach to this type of work. It consists of multiple portraits of Cattelan produced by police-composite-sketch artists and based on accounts submitted by friends and acquaintances. The results are a record of the varying impressions that he had made on those who provided the descriptions. Beyond portraying the self as a network of other people’s appraisals, Cattelan’s goal was also to visualize the way in which our perceptions of others can never form a complete picture. The work provides 50 different views of the artist, presenting a multiple and fractured self rather than a unified, integrated whole. Cattelan states, “That piece was really about how people around you perceive you in different ways than how you really are. So I was thinking about visualizing the idea of the self. The drawings really looked like me, but at the same time they were like cartoons. They were terrific. I don’t know if it was a fluke.” 12

A more recent work, We (2010) is a double self-portrait of the artist that relies on scale shifts, doubling, and theatrical presentation to present a surreal, psychological depiction. Wearing tailored suits and well-made but scuffed shoes, the similar, but not identical, three-foot-tall likenesses lie on a small wooden bed covered with delicately embroidered bedding. Without touching, they stare blankly into space. The work depicts the artist much as he looks today, if not a little older. These identical, yet subtly different twins, have different facial expressions. As with many of Cattelan’s pieces, the work is both clever and mysterious, a puzzle you can’t solve.

Maurizio Cattelan

Super Us, 1998 (detail). 50 acetate sheets, 29.8 x 21 cm each

Maurizio Cattelan

We, 2010 (detail). Polyester resin, polyurethane, rubber, paint, human hair, fabric, and wood, 68 x 148 x 78.7 cm. Edition of 3. Photo: Zeno Zotti

  • Ask the class to describe this work. What do your students notice?

    These sketches were all done by a police-sketch artist, a person specially trained to create likenesses based on verbal descriptions of a person’s facial characteristics. The subject of all of these drawings is the artist, Maurizio Cattelan, based on information provided by his friends and family. What characteristics are common to many of these images? Which characteristics are limited to only a few?

  • Cattelan states, “That piece was really about how people around you perceive you in different ways than how you really are.” Do students agree or disagree with this statement? Whose perception is more valid, descriptions from 50 people who know you well or your internal perception of yourself? Explain.
    Show:We, 2010

  • After surveying the art included in the 2011 Venice Biennale, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith highlighted works that impressed her, including We, and invited readers to add their impressions in six words or less. Each student should brainstorm a list of six words; then as a class, see which six occur most frequently. Compare the words selected by the class with those posted at nytimes.com/interactive/arts/ design/2011-venice-biennale.html#/2 and add your impressions.
Super Us, 1998 (detail). 50 acetate sheets, 29.8 x 21 cm each
We, 2010 (detail). Polyester resin, polyurethane, rubber, paint, human hair, fabric, and wood, 68 x 148 x 78.7 cm. Edition of 3. Photo: Zeno Zotti


  • To create Super Us (1992), Cattelan asked an expert in police-composite sketches, whom he had never met, to create 50 drawings of the artist based on descriptions given by his friends and acquaintances. To make these images, trained artists draw, sketch, or paint after communicating with a witness or crime victim who describes the suspect. Though technology has improved, this process still requires interpreting the spoken word and drawing skills.

    Try this exercise, which has both writing and drawing components and some similarities to Cattelan’s process, with your students.

    1. Have each student write his or her name on separate small pieces of paper. Place the names into a paper bag. Each student takes a name from the bag but does not divulge the identity of the person selected.
    2. Each student writes a careful facial description from memory of the student he or she has chosen without naming the person.
    3. The descriptions are collected and then randomly distributed, so that each student has an anonymous description. Students now draw an image solely from the written account. When the drawings are complete, display them. Do any bear a resemblance to the students in the class? Discuss the process of creating these works and the challenges encountered.
    Visual Arts,English Language Arts
    Drawing

  • Cattelan’s double self-portrait, We (2010), makes one wonder about the artist’s intent and message. Why might he depict himself in this way?

  • Although most of us do not have the means to create an exact likeness of ourselves as a three-dimensional wax figure, a digital camera can help students create a self-portrait. Like We, this work can be as personally symbolic or mysterious as they want.
    Visual Arts
    Photography