Jan van Adrichem: Philip, can you tell us when you started painting self-portraits?
Philip Akkerman: In 1981, I started with an almost endless series of self-portraits, and before that I did it as a boy every now and then.
JvA: And could you say this was the beginning of your starting to paint or were you already painting before that time?
PA: Yes, I started painting when I was about twelve years old, the usual things, landscapes and still lives and self-portraits. When I went to the academy I was into modern art, trying a new style every three, four months. One of the new things I just tried out was in 1981, I wanted to do some self-portraits for some months. But after two years I discovered that I had done self-portraits for two years without wanting to change to another subject again. And then I decided to go on painting self-portraits for the rest of my life, without ever changing again, because it suited me very well.
JvA: Was it a conscious decision in a specific moment?
PA: In 1981 it wasn't a conscious decision, it was just an intuitive decision to do something else again. But after these two years it became a decision, really intellectual.
JvA: The fact that you arrived at self-portraits – was that a concious break with a thing you did before? And what kind of painting did you do before that particular moment you started doing self-portraits?
PA: Yes, I said it was an intuitive thing that I started doing self-portraits for some months, and you could say that I was doing different things before that every three, four months painting different styles. It was almost abstract and conceptual, photographs, sculpture, and I was a bit. let's say I wanted to return to myself somehow for a few months. So maybe that was the decision to do self-portraits. That's also a returning to yourself. And it was also a bit of returning to something old. I paint self-portraits in a classical way, with normal paint on a normal scale. It's very realistic. So it's a return in many ways.
JvA: Is it a return to older techniques? it's a return to yourself, you say. But could you say how you looked at the situation in these days when you, at the art situation in general, in the period when you started doing self-portraits?
PA: Yes, I was bored with the situation in the art world. I was bored with white galleries, glossy magazines, and teachers who want you to make strong, modern art.
JvA: Could you say how you think that your self-portraits developed as a series over the years? I think you just said, "I have a great liberty within the medium, within the subject – but you yourself must have come to certain conclusions concerning your development, certainly now that you see retrospects more and more often.
PA: Yes, if you look back you can draw parallels with real life. For instance, when I started I was kind of young. Young people want to be aggressive, and kick around, and. You know, do something different. So my first few self-portraits were against society or whatever, you know, like a punk. I was against something, that's why I did it and was a bit aggressive which is also real life. When you are young, you want to kick against everything, and then you get settled, you find a wife, for instance, children, so you settle down. That also happens with self-portraits. In this kicking-against-everything-period, I made a painting with a certain artistic result. And I looked at it, and I thought I want that result once more, but with a little difference. And I couldn't do it. I mean, my technical means didn't allow me to paint this sort of special artistic thing I wanted to achieve. So I started to have artistic ideas which, you could say, is a cooling down. I looked for a technique with which I could achieve my aim. And I found the technique of the old masters, with three layers, drawing, black-and-white, and colour, so you divide three problems into three different work shifts. Painting is done with 300% concentration, and you can reach your goal better. Then I worked with this old technique. And when I mastered that – I didn't really master it – but when I understood it and knew how to work with it, I started having other ideas about self-portraits, about life, more philosophical ideas. I am not a philosopher, but I had more ideas like that. You settle down, you have thoughts about life. That's really a parallel with real life.
JvA: And the fact that you choose the self-portrait and you say the technique allows you 300% concentration on what you do, the fact that both the painter and the subject are you yourself, both go together, is that very important to you?
PA: Yes, I make a division between everyday life, everyday work, and what I really want to say. Let's say, I make a division between my theme and the materialistic thing. I have one thing that I am obsessed with, and I think everybody is obsessed with, it is a philosophical question like, "What is this life, what is it all about?" I can't understand it, nobody can. You can handle this problem with three tools. One is philosophy, thinking about it. One is religion, believing in revelations, or dreams or whatever. And one thing is art. With art I think you are not trying to understand a problem, but you're just visualizing it or making music of it. With art you have a tool to handle this problem. I don't understand life, in general, but how to handle it, for me, is to paint the thing that is closest to myself, and that's myself. I am always painting my own face, not to understand life, because I will never understand it, but to live with it.
JvA: Now, doing self-portraits at this moment in time is very provocative for various reasons. Could you say how you see you might relate to the situation that existed, let's say, ten years ago that you then already considered old-fashioned, because there is a serial aspect in your work as well.
PA: Yes, provocative, as far as the modern movement is concerned. When art historians started to think about art, they imposed certain patterns on art history, from the cave-men, blooded hand on the wall, until today they want to see a pattern. What they denied is the diversity of our culture, because they made a history of highlights. They said, you can go from the cave-man's blooded hand on the wall, just say – I'll anything – to da Vinci, Rembrandt, Mondrian, and it has a goal. So when this goal is reached, the end of Modernism, art is dead, or whatever. But they deny that there are a lot of other painters, besides da Vinci, who do other things. But art history of highlights denies all these other painters, they deny diversity, and – let's say – when painters became aware of these art historian ideas, they started to paint and work in these art historian patterns, and then the modernist epoch began. And artists really wanted to end these patterns, or not end them, but work on the same patterns. When it was finished, they said art is dead. That was about ten years ago, when Conceptual Art died. And ten years ago, if you started doing self-portraits in an old-fashioned style, they said, he is not modernist, he is provocative, he is reactionary. But what I did was what culture was doing, diversifying. It wasn't provocative for me, it wasn't reactionary, I was just doing what our culture has been doing since the Middle Ages, stating my individual point of view. It wasn't modernist, that's true. But you could say that I am somehow relating to Conceptual Art, like for instance On Kawara. He is painting his life with his date paintings. He does it in a different way than I do it, he does it in a modernist way.
JvA: So one might conclude that there is at least a suggestion of some sort of relation between certain Conceptual artists. But on the other hand.
PA: In the Baroque period, there wouldn't have been a painter just doing self portraits. It's only possible today, after Conceptual Art. I do it in an old-fashioned way, just normal paintings. But painting just self-portraits the way I do it in these series, that has only possible since Conceptual Art.
JvA: Now there is one thing that is always the same in your self-portraits. You always look at the beholder. And the beholder in the first instance is you yourself. But later on it becomes your audience. Is that on purpose, is that a thing that goes by itself because of the fact that you paint according to a mirror-image?
PA: Yes, that's the nature of a self-portrait, painted in a mirror. You can also paint a self-portrait from imagination, then it hasn't got this quality, but if you paint a self-portrait in a mirror, you always have this special look in your eyes, focussing right straight out of the painting. And if you hang one hundred portraits on a row, one of them is a self-portrait, every little child will easily point at the self-portrait, because it looks angry and people say to me, you are such an angry man, you always look so sad and so angry, but I am not sad, I am not angry. It is because I look concentrated. I am at work. A self-portrait is a painting of someone at work, in the middle of a struggle to paint the painting. So it always looks concentrated, and you could say angry, because it is concentrated and always looks straight out of the painting into the viewers eyes, and you can play with that. If you have an exhibition with 30 self-portraits, you can hang them in a cabinet, in a square cabinet, hang them all around, all the eyes at eye-level. The viewer who walks into it, who is in the middle, is really caught between all these eyes. That's a very nice thing to play with.
JvA: So, if we discuss the psychology of your paintings, there is a moment when you paint them, then you structure the material in such a way that the image results in a self-portrait of more or less stylized, more or less realist nature. Then there is a moment when you have to contemplate the measure of success in painting. And then how do you select? Do you select?
PA: In the beginning, I did select, when I didn't use Old Masters technique, but let's say the Van-Gogh-technique, which is just painting everything at once, then I did select. I threw paintings away. But later on, my philosophical thing developed. I said, I am not painting a painting, I am painting an idea, so it's a conceptual thing, as a matter of fact. I am painting an idea; the materialistic result doesn't really matter. So I am working on it in my daily life, I am working on the technical things. When a painting is finished, when all the complete surface is filled up with paint, there is no white spot visible any more, it's finished. I put it aside. I don't care about good and bad, because what is good or bad?
(Vienna, May 1993)
Conversation with Philip Akkerman
Jan van Adrichem: Philip, can you tell us when you started painting self-portraits?