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Frédéric Bazille: Self-Portrait (1865/66)

" … a life far removed from its author."

Most of the great nineteenth and twentieth-century painters produced self-portraits, works that at first looked very much like them but which later took on other lives. Writers perform this trick, too, for they also inescapably produce self-portraits. I might argue that anything any artist produces amounts to another self-portrait, whatever the content, and that each work goes on to live a separate life from its creator. Artists live life as PluralSelves, with at least as many instances of themself as works they produced. Publishing distributes an artist's work more broadly than their studio. In this way, an artist's presence need not depend upon that artist's physical presence. Their influence stretches much farther than they ever know.

Few consumers of any artist's work ever think to drop that artist a note of appreciation to thank them for exerting the influence they produced.
For some, it's a genuine embarrassment of riches. Some artists produce so much output in such dizzying variety that it becomes difficult for anybody to think of them as individuals. They seem to become a group of producers, styles shifting over the decades, none of them anybody very closely related to any one of their previous individual works, each of which likely was also a self-portrait at first. They leave behind a puzzle or a series of them, leading an observer to wonder which, if any, really represented them.

When I encounter my past work somewhere, I feel as though I have traveled back in time. Truth be told, I might not remember the content of anything I've ever produced nearly as well as does the least fan of that work, who might remember as life-changing some phrase I never realized amounted to anything special. I leave those past selves behind or claim that I have. They continue living their lives long after I abandon them. They are less my children than they become my detritus, leftovers grown beyond their personal usefulness. I don't know if it's different for anybody else, but my past work belongs on a shelf, never again in one of my Currently Reading piles. They were once self-portraits but no longer work very well as mirrors.

A published work's on life support, able to live beyond its creator thanks to ink, paper, and design. The design seems the most significant contributor, for the look and the feel serve as the attractive packaging. Without them, the writer only ever produces piles of undifferentiated paragraphs on paper, one very similar to any other. With them, they might create stunning self-portraits. My office holds framed copies of the covers of two of my volumes, The Blind Men and This Isn't A Cookbook. I take great pride in the production of each of them and fondly remember both the contributors to creating those publications and the self who produced their raw material. I acknowledge that I am neither author now, though I was once each of them, though never simultaneously. Those works trail behind me; those covers almost glowering down upon my present efforts at self-portraiture, this very story which might one day move far away to live a life far removed from its author.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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