Behold the Man: Self-Portraits of Albrecht Dürer & Adamo Macri
by Kenneth Radu

After long perusal of Adamo Macri’s fascinating self-portrait entitled Pinus Attis, I have become aware of having seen something similar before. To be sure, this is merely my own casual and arguably eccentric response to the multi-layered meanings of a Macri picture. The artist has produced many images of his face which arouse distinct and varied reactions. Mine is also that of a generally interested viewer and not an art critic. 

In the Pinus Attis portrait, Macri evokes the mythological story of Attis, a god of vegetation associated with the mother goddess Cybele, not only through the descriptive title, but also through the sprigs of pine needles and cones arranged in a wheel, almost like a verdant halo or fascinator attached to the side of his head. As in so many of his self-portraits, Macri’s eyes are closed. The palette is one of sombre hues of browns and deep green with highlighted flesh tones of beige, subdued rose and dull gold, colours, if you will, of the forest through which now and then streams of sunlight slip among the trees. 

His expression is serene. The face with moustache and signs of a beard betrays nothing in its composure. It may nonetheless be a mask over powerful yet controlled emotions, something viewers may intuit or project into the portrait. I like to think of the expression as containing all I wish to see in it, for that is the particular gift of Macri in his portraits. He allows us to complete the image, as it were, with our own emotions, fantasies and cultural histories, so that his portrait like all great self-portraits also becomes an aspect of our own autobiography.

I keep returning to this particular picture, wondering why it attracts and rivets my attention. I read Catullus’s gripping poem of the story (#63), and even went back to the indispensable Ovid to check out the brief mention of Attis in Book X of The Metamorphoses: 

… and the pine which tucks its boughs
up high to form its shaggy crown – the tree
dear to the mother of the gods, Cybele,
if it be true that Attis, for her sake,
shed his own human form, that he might take
the stiff trunk of that pine as his new shape (tr. Mandelbaum). 

The salient and harrowing fact of this narrative is the self-emasculation of Attis after which he is associated with or changed into the aromatic pine, having become a sacrificial youth common to pagan and Christian lore. It’s a story of gender transmogrification, of male-female melding and merging into nature and divinity, of blood fertilizing the earth, of erotic complications, of Dionysian revelry. Macri’s portrait with its head decoration and luxurious curls suggests a sexual ambiguity, the facial hair giving the self-portrait its masculine allure even as it subtly incorporates the feminine.

Studying the portrait, I see iconic significance, not only pagan, but also Christian, a facet mentioned by other viewers who sense something more going on besides the picture of a handsome man with a symbolic hat. A startling comparison occurs to me: startling because it comes unbidden, and may either be stretching a point or egregious chutzpah, but clearly the reason for the portrait’s apparent familiarity. The more I study this recent manifestation of a Macri face, the more I recall another distinct image rendered centuries ago and techniques apart. Out of the treasure chest of cultural memories, from the warehouse of images we all carry with us, one other self-portrait presents itself and asks to be looked at again. 

Given Macri’s own deep knowledge of art and his predilection to recast elements of the great tradition of portraiture, as well as the mythological Greek stories, into modern relevance, the similarity may not surprise. Whether Macri intends such a comparison is neither here nor there, and we have to be wary of falling into the trap of intentional fallacy. As an innovative multi-media artist, he’d be the first to say that his specific intentions are guides, not absolute definitions, and his titles do not determine the only or final meaning of any work of art. His portraits on Facebook present a fluid oeuvre, ever-changing, and presupposes the participation and explication of viewers, many of whom offer intriguing interpretations and insights of their own, some of which about this particular portrait have stimulated my own thinking. They complete what the artist offers on the basis of what they know or wish or seek. 

And so I speak of Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years, painted in 1500, the one wherein he is wearing a fur-collared coat and a hand held in front of his chest like a blessing. It doesn’t matter to me if Macri had Dürer’s painting on wood in mind when he created his Pinus Attis portrait taken. Offering directions and a large field of interpretation, this artist of rich and varied imagination provokes, engages and presents himself in a multiplicity of views which modern technology enables him to do. 

Albrecht Dürer Self Portrait Twenty Eight Years

The religious iconography or conventions of Dürer’s portrait are the stuff of art criticism and history, and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that most commentators speak of the portrait’s affinities with traditional images of Christ and various aspects of religious art of the early Renaissance. Indeed, given the spray of pine springs on the head in Macri’s portrait, one may be forgiven for thinking of a crown of thorns symbolic of suffering, or a wreath of laurel rewarded for victory. His shut eyes are reminiscent of paintings on the theme of Ecco Homo, Caravaggio’s for example, with his close-eyed Christ. My point is simply that Macri’s portrait like Dürer’s, given the adroit handling of pose, colour, light, style, accoutrements and associations, conveys a complex narrative that blends pagan and Christian lore, even as it may arouse humour and point to carnival and play.  

In a sense, Macri’s face like Dürer’s is also the picture of calm after great passion or turbulence presented as outward peace, the quiescence that comes with exalted experience or recognition of inexorable truth, the slumber after sensual excess or the inwardness of spiritual meditation. Both portraits present an impassive visage, Dürer’s eyes open but revealing as little and containing as much as Macri’s closed eyes. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s superb verse, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” 

Dürer’s curled hair is similar to Macri’s, and the central cone in the spray of pine sprigs is similar in colour and texture to Dürer’s locks. Brown hues are predominant in both portraits, the background dark. The Christ-like associations are evident in the utter stillness and quasi-mystical aura in both works as well. To be sure, Macri deliberately draws our attention to pagan or pre-Christian motifs in the sexual pun of the title, but adding another dimension to a work does not invalidate the other elements. Unlike Dürer, Macri does not present his hands in any kind of symbolic motion. He appears to be naked, in counter distinction to Dürer’s enfolding robes, and therefore stepping out of his previous self  and exposing a new identity, the nakedness, aside from erotic intimations, a possible metaphor of birth and change. 

Pinus Attis

Despite these few parallels, my comparison, however, is not based upon a point-by-point analysis, but on general colour, pose, atmosphere, and mythological suggestiveness. In any case, these observations arise out of admiration for the portrait and not expertise in the art. Given its time, Dürer’s profound portrait also exemplifies the great shift in the early Renaissance to human psychology whereby portraits more and more represent an individual person rather than a generic type. 

In our contemporary electronic age, Macri presents many personae in his series of fascinating self-portraits. Set off from the dark with the warmth of complex renderings, the face in both portraits are loaded with narrative and symbolic meaning, whether Christian or pagan or a mingling of both. The emphasis in Macri’s Pinus Attis may be more pagan than Christian, and the reverse may be true in Dürer’s. Each portrait, however, attracts and keeps our gaze because of this multiplicity of significance. Dürer gazes outward, Macri inward; both artists see more than they depict, and through the means of our own gazing, both portraits offer revelations.

Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, and Earthbound (DC Books Canada).

Behold the Man: Self-Portraits of Albrecht Dürer & Adamo Macri
Essay by Kenneth RaduAugust 2013
YouTube audio link