One of the most contentious submissions in the Show Me the Monet series was a painting entitled ‘All by myself’. It comprised 81 small self-portraits of the artist, David Cobley, 80 of which were in the styles of established or famous painters whose work has influenced Cobley. The exception was a portrait painted in the artist’s own style. The work was contentious in the sense that it provoked greater disagreement between the members of the judging panel than any other painting.
The debate focused on whether ‘All by myself’ satisfied the criteria; originality, technique and emotional impact. On the technique aspect, the judges agreed that the artist is an accomplished technician, although they observed a certain unevenness in quality between portraits. Emotional impact is inevitably a subjective dimension and is heavily dependent almost as much on what the viewer brings to the picture as on the response the artist seeks to evoke. Originality proved to be the particular area for dispute.
Self-portraiture has a long history and the introduction of better quality mirrors in the fifteenth century gave an impetus to the art form. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) painted at least a dozen self-portraits, and in the seventeenth century Rembrandt is said to have painted more than 90, several of which he incorporated in larger compositions. Van Gogh painted 37 between 1886 and 1889. In short, Cobley is certainly not the first prolific self-portraitist, but he may well be the first to include so many in one painting.
When introducing his painting Cobley said, ‘I think it explores the question of identity in quite an interesting way.’ If he means personal identity then I don’t think it does. A very high percentage of the images are front facing and are very heavily cropped to the extent that we do not see above the hair line, do not see the point of the chin and seldom see an ear. It is a technique enjoyed by film directors wishing to create an inquisitorial tension. There is limited change of expression. The eyes attempt to outstare the viewer. Often they present a barrier, not a window. It is difficult to penetrate beyond them to learn anything of the person within.
Despite Cobley’s introduction, the impression remains that he has been pre-occupied with capturing the styles of others rather than finding himself. I agree with judge Charlotte Mullins: ‘No. It’s an exercise’.
The asking price of £100,000 reflects further the artist’s miscalculation of his own worth.