A Saga about Identity


Picture 1. Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait, 1500, Oil on panel,

Alte Pinakothek, Munich.


'But we never see him in the way that we see the images he has depicted. We feel him in everything as a pure depicting origin (depicting subject), but not as a depicted (visible) image. Even in a self-portrait, of course, we do not see its depicting author, but only the artist's depiction. Strictly speaking, the author's image is a contradictio in adjecto. We find the author (perceive, understand, sense and feeling) in any work of art. For example, in a painting we always feel its author (artist) but the so-called author's image is, to be sure, a special type of image, distant from other images in the work, but it is an image and has its own author who created it. The image of the narrator in a story is distinct from the I, the image of the hero of an autobiographical work (autobiography, confession, diaries, memories and so forth), the autobiographical hero, the lyrical hero, and so froth. They are all measured and defined by their relationship to the author as person (as to special subject of depiction) but they are all depicted images that have their authors, the vehicles of the purely depictive origin. One can speak of a pure author as distinct from a partially depicted, designated author who enters as part of the work."[1]

"Some say, because Adam ate the apple, he was lost or fallen. I say it was because of his presumption, and because of his I, my, mine, me [syn ich, meyn, myr, mich], and the like"[2]

"When perfection comes, that means -and when it is known, then it is announced that- creaturehood, createdness, I-hood, self-hood and my-hood are all disdained and valued nothing."[3]


INDIVISUAL is a saga about my identity through images of my own art works.

I must admit that a great deal of the inspiration that animated the happy and smooth development of this work was generated by the life and works of Albrecht Dürer. He as the initiator of self-portraiture in European art and of the German expressionist tradition, comes to complete a series of influences in my work the first of which happened early in my career as an artist by the ouvre of George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz.

Dürer inspired me in various ways to do this work. Firstly in a formal way, his series of self-portraits ending with that of 1500 (picture 1, above); and by the drawing dated 1519 (picture 2, below); and secondly thematically, he inspired me because of the fact the he initiated the trend of self-portraiture in European art.

His self-portraits gave me the idea of my self-portrait and the drawing gave me the idea of making it like a mosaic which in the language of digital design, 'mosaic' translates as pixelation.

On the other hand, I see that this drawing represents a twofold synthesis of his work. On the one hand, the fragmentation of the figures represents the result of his practical analysis of form -analysis means 'fragmentation'. On the other, his turning to the analytical stage signals a serious changes in his life and therefore the drawing becomes emblematic of that period when he created it. About this drawing the German Scholar E. Panofsky says: "In a drawing of 1519 (picture 2)-the critical year- the human heads are thus broken up into a number of facets like a cut diamond, and two drawings of about the same time (not shown here), forming a kind of transition from theory to practice, convey a similar impression of polyehedrality by purely "artistic" means; they show human faces modelled exclusively by a series of straight parallel lines which meet each other at an angle and thus produce, quite automatically, a facet-like effect."[4]


Picture 2. Two heads Divided into facets and St. Peter, 1519,

Dresden, Sächische Landsesbiblioethek. Drawing T 732(839), 115 by 190 cm.



In my own work, life and time I find similarities with Dürer's about which I will discuss below. First, I will try to give a short account of the context and the changes he went through.

Around 1519 (the year Leonardo died), the aftermath of the Reformation that Luther started in 1517, imposed considerable ideological stress upon Dürer inducing him to make significant changes in his life and work.

In the 'critical year' of 1519, Dürer abandons his "decorative style" and his scientific illustrations and instead concentrated on religious subjects of a strictly evangelical character and developed a passion for the investigation of form. The visionary element was suppressed in favour of scriptural virility that ultimately tolerated only the Apostles, the Evangelists and the Passion of Christ. The change indicated a tendency towards a volumetric approach to form, a 'cubistic' one. However, what Dürer intended in his "cubist" manner was not a justification for breaking away from what is commonly understood by "reality" but, on the contrary, as an aid to clarifying and master it.

Through this engagement with formal investigation coupled with the change of subject, Dürer tells history about how the event of the Reformation affected him. The Reformation was an event charged with a strong ideological bent that changed most of the values of Dürer's time, therefore it is not impossible to consider the impact that this caused in his own work and life. It is perhaps the reason why, at around that time he also, turned to investigate himself as subject matter, and to the foundations of all form to which the drawing of 1519 belongs.

Due to the Reformation his doctrines of 1512 had to be moderated in order to remain compatible with the dogma of rational naturalism; secondly, by his conversion from a humanistic and therefore more or less anthropocentric point of view to the uncompromisingly theocentric convictions of Luther. All this created in him an emotional crisis with far reaching consequences for his art. His "cubistic" period signals his turning and trying to understand the nature of these changes -though they occurred in the social sphere they touched him deeply-, by investigating the formal structure of objects.

In his approach to form, Dürer in a way 'illustrated' Leonardo's first and second principles of the 'science of painting'.[5]

Dürer, though approached the 'science of painting' in the same spirit of investigation of the principles of a craft that had already reached its zenith in Italy and spread throughout the major European countries, added the discovery that the self also could be investigated pictorially.

Dürer was one of the artists that most contributed to the histography of art and of his own art because he left a legacy of works carefully signed and inscribed; several of them with notes regarding the circumstances of execution and indications about the subject and techniques employed.

His self-portraits indicate a variety of things; they indicate that the artist self-denomination negotiates broad changes in the exercise of piety, in the production and patronage of images, and in the construction of self and person in the 1500's; and that Dürer fashions his 1500 self-portrait as an emblem of the powers of the individual creator in which throughout the panel's visual allusion to the vera icon of Christ, he mystifies the identity between image and maker, product and producer, art and artist, announcing that it is in art that human labour achieves its ideal. Furthermore, through his en face pose, granting his likeness with the "omnivoyance" of a holy icon, he celebrates himself as a universal human subject, whose all-seeing gaze is subject to none. Moreover, it historisicises for us the moment of self-portraiture in the tension between Renaissance and Reformation. What unifies Dürer's self-portraits is that they are all, in their different ways, portraits of self, inflecting a relation of picture to person during a period in history when these categories are being reinvented.

To be sure, a process towards the construction of identity as an artist and the erection of art as substitute for religion commenced during the Reformation and counter-Reformation, and the possibilities of the construction of the self, started too in connection with these strong ideological movements. In our time, my time, the self's structure and the conformation of identity sees itself affected by the ideological changes in the sphere of politics which became a substitute for religion as the aftermath of the Reformation.

Aristotle summarised the human condition of his time and of the whole of Antiquity, as homo politicus. The Renaissance as its name implies, re-birth, attempted, and succeeded to a great degree, to carry Antiquity's grandeur forward, thus it is not impossible to suggest that the state of the human condition can be re-born too as homo politicus. Now, looking from the Renaissance towards our time it is not difficult to discern that in the conformation of the western identity, political ideology has exerted a strong influence.

Perhaps in post-modern times the only addendum we could make to Aristotle's dictum is that the political human condition is strongly tinted by economics.

Although the Church's political ideology in Dürer's time suffered significant attacks it still made its presence felt through visual imagery in the structuration of identity.

In post-modern times, political ideology although not emanating from a religious source but rather from a secular apparatus, also uses visual imagery to generate the set of values that constitutes identity. Abstract Expressionism [6]  was a clear example of the use of visual art in the creation of the national identity of Anglo-America - which also coincided with the inauguration of post-modernity there.

The question remains if it is possible to achieve identity outside the nation-state and the commodity system.

Concerning my own activity as an artist, I strive to acquire an awareness of my own identity. In this endeavour, I found that Dürer's time is similar to mine in that he lived at a period when significant ideological movements were decisively altering the cultural form of the West and this affected his work. In my case, I live in a time of equally decisive ideological changes for the culture in the West which, is the transformation of the communist societies and all that that implies. Moreover, there is a direct link between these two historical moments. The Reformation as conceived by the Schoolmen was truncated with the death and influence of Luther. R.H. Tawney suggests Karl Marx revived the project of the reformers thus becoming the very last of the Schoolmen who wanted to culminate the Reformation. He adds that "Calvin did for the bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century what Marx did for the proletariat of the nineteenth, or that the doctrine of predestination satisfied the same hunger for the assurance that the forces of the universe are on the side of the elect as was to be mitigated in a different age by the theory of historical materialism."[7]

In conclusion, while the Reformation commenced the debate about identity the transformations in the communist societies of my time reformulates it. And Dürer and myself both express these changes artistically in our paintings which include self-portraits.

The rational formulation of form in Dürer's drawings of 1519 have a counterpart in the digital formulation of my self-portrait which is digital in form. Although he went volumetric or stereometric in the search for the rationalisation of change using the tools of his time -perhaps as a metaphor to express the need to understand the events of his time-, I went planimetric, yet not completely, because the animations in Indivisual represent a step further in my own search for the rationalisation of change. However, without the Macromedia software it would not have been possible to achieve any such result.

I firmly believe that the need to understand my time is present in my endeavour using computer technology to enlarge the existence of my work -and that of any artist. This need for understanding added to the making of this CD as a work of art deserves to be seen as relevant from an art historical point of view.

In addition, computer technology makes it possible for me, not only to be able to understand the era I live in whilst keeping me informed and being in contact with the rest of the world with the WWW, but at the same time, and with the same tools, to 'paint' digitally.


While Dürer opens the epoch towards which the activity of viewing is thematized, from what pictures mean to how they mean it, in other words, not only what history does to the works but what the works do to history, I am simply aware of my own time and I want to suggest that, by acknowledging the production and reading of the self-portrait in order to be absorbed into the oeuvre as one author-image among many, the oeuvre itself must already be read as the product of a person. Such a reading is not natural, but historical.




"The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are more certain; it has measured the height and size of stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distribution; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting...What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions...? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens."[8]


Once I started this work, Leonardo's words about painting came into my mind: "If you say that sciences are not mechanical but cerebral, I say to you that painting is cerebral, and that, just like music and geometry, it considers the proportions of continuous quantities, while arithmetic considers discontinuous quantities. Painting deals with all the continuous quantities and qualities of shade, light and distance through the science of perspective"[9]

Fifteen hundred years later the 'cerebral' aspect of painting has developed even further due to the use of computer technology, and the 'science of perspective' which, for him and his time, was the only 'science' to give a sense of reality, now it has widened with the use of multimedia which incorporates sound, 3D modelling and animation along with painting. Music according to Leonardo was 'the sister of painting', today I can add that sound is her brother and sculpture ceases to be an entirely mechanical occupation due to 3D modelling on the screen which makes sculpture as 'cerebral' as painting.

Whilst in Leonardo's time the 'science of perspective' gave the sense of reality nowadays, computer technology, in filling the planes of perspective digitally, provides us with the sense of the same reality though labelled virtuality.

By depicting reality in two dimensions following the laws of light reflection and straight-line transmission, the 'science of perspective' is not far from being also a virtual interpretation of reality. In addition, the mathematical model that vision then follows is another example of the 'virtuality' of its construction.

What is 'virtual' can be read as constructed by habit and social convention, learnt at some point in human history through the exposure of the eyes to a particular activity which in this case is reading as Professor John Wilson of the African Institute of London University proves. He arrived at this conclusion when he showed films and photographs to illiterate groups in the African continent as part of his work of teaching them to read. He found that they could not 'see' in the way that we do in the West and that the explanation to this peculiar phenomenon had a strong connection with their being exposed to literacy. He adds that, "Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of an image so that we take in the whole image or picture at a glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way. Rather they scan objects and images as we do the printed page, segment by segment. Thus, they have no detached point of view. They are wholly with the object. They go emphatically into it. The eye is used, not in perspective but tactually, as it were. Euclidean spaces depending on much separation of sight from touch and sound are not known to them."[10]

Da Vinci's time had at least a century of literacy behind it, therefore, the mathematical perspective found an easier and smoother way into his studio. However, Leonardo had no access to other ways of graphic and visual representation as we do now with computer technology. For him, and all of them in his time, the only and best alternative to depict reality was painting whose mimesis gave vision access to the structure of reality and by taking samples of it into the laboratory of painting, the circle of scientific investigation closed.

On the other hand, Leonardo was aware of the fact that in order for painting to acquire the status of science it had to compete with the written word. In another passage of his book which was never published in his life-time, he suggests that "If the painters have not described and codified their art as science, it is not the fault of painting, and it is none the less noble for that. Few painters make a profession of writing since their life is too short for its cultivation. Would we similarly deny the existence of the particular qualities of herbs, stones or plants because men were not acquainted with them? Certainly not. We should say that these herbs retained their intrinsic nobility, without the help of human language or writings."[11]

In another passage [12]Leonardo advocates that painting is more noble than writing because the visual communicates more as " surpasses all the works of man on account of the subtle speculations with which it is concerned"[13]

Now, the achievement of seeing in perspective as Professor Williams suggested above, is an event produced by habit, and as such it becomes a historical product. In other words, it is not intrinsic to the subject matter of painting. Panofsky adding to this argues that "...the fact that one era 'sees' in a linear way, another in a painterly way is but a phenomenon on style, not a basis and not a cause of style; it is something in need of explanation, not the explanation itself."[14]

The social habits of the twentieth century produce their own laws of vision and customs, their own 'visual literacy', to which multimedia technology contributes so vehemently and so comprehensively. Thus, I firmly believe that Leonardo's 'science of perspective' finds in the twentieth century its correlation in digital art.

The arrival of vision as the main element in the constitution of knowledge signalled the end of a process that started with the invention of the phonetic alphabet. In this process, the other senses were subordinated to that of vision and literacy was born.

However, this end marked the beginning of the issue of identity as I tried to show when I talked about Dürer.

Today as it was before, the creation of identity is still linked to issues of vision and knowledge and it is very strongly influenced by the use of multimedia technology (including VR) as this incorporates more than one sense at once. The reason is that on the one hand, the total industrial production in the world is assisted or even dependent on computer technology. This fact alone contributes strongly enough to the definition of national identities.

On the other, computer technology has taken over the world of production and distribution of images. Through vision as Leonardo believed too, knowledge takes place and identity is constructed.

Leonardo could not foresee the advent of multi-media technology in which all arts are combined, yet he would be very happy to know that in interactive multimedia technology the visual element pervades over the other senses more than ever. Here a long process that started with the invention of the phonetic alphabet ends with the invention of multimedia technology. Whilst the interiorisation of the phonetic alphabet's technology translated man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world thus becoming its most distinctive characteristic; today with the computer, vision causes unsuspected effects for the construction of identity.

Indivisual represents an intervention towards the construction of my own identity as a visual artist because I analyse my self by fragmenting my self-image in pixels. Analysis means fragmentation and in this context digitalisation means analysis.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that the making of Indivisual and its meaning deserves to be looked at from an art historical point of view for the following reasons: it is a self-portrait by an artist and it was done with the technology par exellence of this era. Further, I think that digital image processing or 'digital painting' represents one of the main paths for the construction of the identity of an artist today in the same way as the use of perspective, 'the science of painting', was for Leonardo and his contemporaries.


[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, "The problem of the text" in Speech Genres and the Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W.McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press Slavic Series, 8 (Austin,1986), p.109.

[2] Theologica Deutsch. Anonymous quoted by Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Art, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 411

[3] Ibid, p.417

[4] Panofsky, Erwin, The Life and Work of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 1945, p.202.

[5]Ibid, p. 15

[6] Saunders, Frances Stonor, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and The Cultural Cold War, London, 1999.

[7]Tawney, R.H., Religion and the Spirit of Capitalism, London, 1922, p. 120

[8] Leonardo da Vinci, Dellapittura, Selected and translated by Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker, Yale University Press, 1989, p.21

[9] Op. cit. p.35

[10] Quoted by M. McLuhan in The Gutemberg Galaxy, London, 1967, p.37

[11] Op.cit., p.12

[12] Ibid p.19

[13] Ibid, p. 20

[14] Quoted by Kulterman, Udo, The History of Art History, USA, 1993, p. 218