VERA ICON / SELF-PORTRAIT 10
materials: gold 18 carats, linen
dimensions: Ø 9 cm / H 4 cm
In the year 1500 in Nuremburg, the artist Albrecht Dürer painted a portrait of himself, frontally. His starting point was a famous and frequently reproduced representation of Christ, the Sudarium (sweat-cloth), or Veil of Saint Veronica. According to legend, Veronica offered this piece of cloth to Christ to mop his brow as he carried the cross to Calvary, and miraculously it became imprinted with an image of his face: the vera icon or ‘true image’. It is a magical portrait, not created by human hand, which since the Middle Ages has been venerated as an important relic of the Church of Rome, and as the authentic likeness of Christ. The image has been copied by many painters, but Dürer went a step further. He created a new version of the face of Christ, but painted himself as alter Christus. Moreover, the Latin inscription proclaims that Dürer did so with propriis coloribus, meaning both with ‘eternal colours’ and the painter’s ‘own colours’. Dürer’s self-portrait is a milestone in the history of art. It was an act of great artistic pride, saying much about the German artist’s ambitions. At the same time it was also an indication of the emergence of the new, selfassured artist; no longer the medieval artisan but the pictor doctus, the scholarly, creative personality in search of immortality and everlasting fame.
Caspar Berger’s Vera icon is also a self-portrait. In the title he refers explicitly to the Veil of Veronica, and also implicitly to Dürer. Like the famous painter, the sculptor presents himself here as the image of God, creator and optimus artifex, the highest artist. As Christ did in the Veil of Veronica, Berger has recreated himself by making an imprint of his face. But there is more to this self-portrait. Through its title, its particular form, and its use of gold, a precious material rarely used in sculpture, it carries a range of associations: questions as to the verity of the image, the significance of an imprint versus its authenticity and, not least, the material value of an artwork compared to its artistic value.
Vera icon is a fragmented imprint of the artist’s face, cast in the form of a round medal. On the front is a nose, a closed eye, and in particular a large area of skin. On the rim, teeth grin at us, while the reverse shows an ear. The most important sensory organs are therefore present and refer to our elementary sensations of smell, hearing, taste and sight. The closed eye – an inevitable consequence of making a life cast – may allude here to introspection, to seeing internally, as with a dream or vision. In another of Berger’s self-portraits – Imago / Self-portrait 5 – internalization is also a theme. Ostensibly the sense of touch is absent, yet as with any imprint or cast, here too skin contact is implicit. Moreover, a hand-sized sculpture like Vera icon, with its intricate skin surface of wrinkles and pores, is certainly inviting to the touch. The artist has reduced himself to the essence. For him, this is the true image, the vera icon.
But how real and original is this fragmented and manipulated imprint of a face? By no means does it meet the demands of recognizability that we make of a traditional portrait, and it lacks the natural shape and coherence of a human face. Nevertheless, in portraiture, fragmentation has never stood in the way of the perception of authenticity and likeness. After all, any bust, sculpted or painted, is a fragment. Caspar Berger, however, seeks the boundaries of recognizability. He wonders how much you can leave out and manipulate without the self portrait losing the character of the individual it portrays. How much ‘self’ is needed to create a real, truthful likeness?
Vera icon also raises the question of authenticity: how real and original can an artwork be if it is an im print, and moreover is cast in an edition? Is there a difference in principle between the imprint of a piece of the human body from a mould and, for example, a fingerprint (as a legal proof of authenticity)? Are two identical, cast or minted coins equally original? Vera icon is a unique medal in 18-carat gold, from which a limited edition in silver and bronze is derived. Gold is a highly significant choice of material on the part of the artist, because the use of such a costly metal – traditionally the highest ranking of metals – maximizes the tension between the artistic value of the artwork and its material, monetary value. It is as if Berger, unhindered by the least modesty, is saying that his artwork – or in fact himself, after all it is a self-portrait – deserves nothing less than gold, and moreover that his artistic creation effortlessly exceeds the intrinsic value of the metal. Seen in this way, Caspar Berger’s gold construction of himself is also a show of artistic superiority, self-assurance and self-worship in the tradition begun by Dürer 500 years ago. But not without irony, as attested by the artist’s mocking grin on the rim of the medal.