Self Portrait: Ecce Homo
Chapter III from Mind Work

Full frontal nudity. It’s still not quite drawing-room respectable, perhaps. I bring it up because...well, it’s a story.

Before I start, I need to introduce you to my wife, Ellie Blankfort, with whom I have shared my life these past forty years. Ellie is a former art gallery dealer and art consultant who for much of her career was highly successful in advising private and corporate collectors on acquisitions; for some years now she has worked instead as a mentor to studio artists. Together she and I host what we call “Artists’ Matters,” a monthly gathering of artists where we address the issues confronting many creative people in this mercilessly mercenary and celebrity-worshipping world.

It started, then, at one of these gatherings, when one of the participants was speaking about the need for an artist to take risks. Her real source of anxiety, we soon discovered, was the judgment that her own work was deficient in this quality. We talked a bit about what might constitute a risk, and I eventually offered her this challenge: to do a nude self-portrait, full-length, and full-frontal. Well, of course, following the practice that I often preach, she turned the challenge right back on me, and in so doing brought me face-to-face with all the ego investment I have in “looking good” in the eyes of others, along with the memory of the fears I nursed, for much of my younger life, about being seen naked and exposed to the scrutiny of the world. I was confronted uncomfortably with the attachment I have to this physical body I inhabit.

Well, I can’t draw for toffee and more’s the pity, since I tell myself that this might be the easier way to make a true self-portrait. A photograph might be a risk too far! But I can write. So here it is: unable to resist the challenge, I posed stark naked in front of a full-length mirror for a good half-hour this morning, examining what I saw before me and taking the notes that I will transcribe here. It’s a risk. But it will also be a good Buddhist exercise if I manage to use the process to wean myself a bit more from the delusion that my body is “who I am,” and more importantly from ego-based attachment, by reminding myself that what I see will continue to age, quite possibly sicken, and most certainly die. (This body is not me, I reiterate, it is not mine, it is not who I am.)

So bear with me or should that read “bare” with me?

To start at the bottom and work up: the toes are nicely formed and evenly spaced. Today, as is often not the case, the nails are reasonably well trimmed. Nice feet, I think. There’s just a slight tendency for the right one to turn in, nothing serious, not enough to describe myself as pigeon-toed. I note that the veins protrude a little more than they used to. The ankles are narrow but not delicate, well-shaped, not too knobby. The muscles of the calves are better defined than most others elsewhere in the body. The same goes for the thighs, where the quads are firm and nicely rounded. Knees, again, not too knobby, though there’s some wrinkling of the skin just above the kneecaps, a sure sign of age. All in all, though, examining them, I flatter myself that the legs are one of my better physical features. I attribute their muscularity to nearly a decade of long-distance running as a teenager and a good deal of jogging in later life. They are not hairy-hairy, but they boast a respectable fuzz which is masculine enough, in my (deluded!) judgment, but avoids regression to the ape.

(I note the value judgments: what I like, and what I don’t. This is where attachment shows itself! This is not me, this is not mine.)

Now, ahem, the genitals. If you’ll excuse me. I did say this was a risk and it is supposed to be a nude portrait. But this is the hard part. We all know that these critters shape-shift according to the circumstance, shrinking ignominiously after that cold dip in the ocean and swelling to the nobler and infinitely more impressive appearance when aroused. Seen here in the mirror this morning, let’s resort to the word “modest.” That feels honest. Circumcised. I’m not sure why. I never asked my parents while they were still alive. It never, frankly, seemed like a topic for family discussion in the rectory. (My father was an English country minister.) The assault on the foreskin may simply have been in fashion in the year that I was born. I don’t object, as I know some other men do. They feel deprived. I feel comfortable with the appearance. I note that the testicle on the right (let’s be clinical here) hangs slightly lower than the one on the left. The groin hair is abundant enough, without being thick. As with the legs, I am not, like the hirsute Esau, “an hairy man,” but neither is the hair unduly sparse. Kind of a middle path. (This is not me, I remind myself: this is not mine, this is not who I am.)

The pelvic area recedes concavely, these days, from the lower belly undoubtedly because the latter has expanded in the opposite direction. The lower part forms a kind of boomerang shape, its top right corner punctuated by a mole. The lower belly itself and I blame my mother for this, for she had it too as she grew older has grown big and, not to put too fine a point on it, a wee bit flabby. It’s the conventional spare tire, which comprises those love handles around the waist. There’s another mole, I see, on the left side, where the lower belly rises to meet the even more protruding mound of the upper. This is what’s called indelicately a pot. I’m not proud of it. I carry my weight there, and I cannot blame anyone for the excess weight but myself. It reaches from the sternum to the navel (oh, an innie, by the way, since we’re baring all,) and balloons out, if I relax the muscles, to dwarf everything below. Not an elegant presentation, in my own judgment. The belly also has a diagonal, almost foot-long scar extending downward from the center to right side, where surgeons opened me up and removed a couple of polyps from the duodenum and, for good measure, while they were at it and without asking permission from their anesthetized patient the gallbladder too. Ah, well. They tell me that I did not need it, and it’s too late to ask to have it back.

We proceed in a northerly direction to the area of the chest. If I raise my arms above my head and expand with the breath, the contour of the ribcage shows. Otherwise, forget it. Too much flesh. The pecs are in fact quite muscular, and can be made, with express tension and intention, to look pretty “manly,” in the Schwarzenegger mode. Relaxed ... well, less impressive. Small, tight brown nipples, surrounded by slightly thicker hairs than those that fuzz the rest of the chest. (I have noticed that they have increased recently in number and density. Is this, too, one of the effects of age?) Gently outward sloping shoulders, with fairly prominent collarbones on either side. A few more moles, scattered here and there. They too seem to grow in number as I age.

The triangle at the top of the chest the part most often exposed to the Southern California sun is reddish-brown in hue, contrasting with the relative pallor of the rest of the torso.

(This is not me, this is not mine.)

Arms. I have always been self-conscious about my arms. They seem to me skinny, un-muscular no matter that I have been working out in my latter years, and have succeeded in strengthening them. The biceps share something of the pallor of the torso, but the lower arms are brown from the sun. Here, too, there are light hairs, evenly spread, from the elbows on down to the wrists, which are narrow, even delicate; the hands are unusually small, the lines in the palms indeterminate, a bit scattered, divergent not unlike the path my life has followed. The effects of age are noticeable here, too, in the veined backs of the hands and the creases that encircle the wrists. The skin is blotchy, and noticeably less resilient than it used to be.

I flatter myself that my neck has a certain elegance. The Adam’s apple is visible, but not prominent as my father’s was, always bobbing angularly north and south. There are many lines here, many creases. And when the skin is plucked between the fingers, it no longer snaps back into shape quite so easily as it once did. A light shadow of shaved beard, today, leading to the (mostly salt now) salt-and-pepper goatee that disguises a very slightly receding chin another family trait and surrounds the mouth, covering the upper lip and the full area of the nether chin. The lips are less prominent in this undergrowth, and not so full as I would like, since I have tended to associate full lips with the kind of uninhibited sensuality I have always aspired to, though never quite achieved. They turn down slightly, naturally, at the corners but the mustache does much to disguise this feature, too.

My cheeks, this morning, show a little silver stubble. They are brown, and creased with deepening lines that follow the natural contour of my face. I think it’s a nice face. (This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.) The nose is well-shaped, neither too long nor too short, not turned up, nor heavily broken in the middle like the “family nose.” Eyes blue, and though small, soft and kind. Again, my judgment. I know that people respond to them when they feel me looking at them. (It would be nice to think that one could actually bless people with one’s eyes.) Forehead, lined horizontally, with crows’ feet protruding from the corners of the eyes, and vertical slashes where the brows meet. Ears ... well, Ellie complains that they stick out, making me look “nerdy” when my hair is cut too short, but usually I manage to grow enough of the silver stuff around them that they lose their prominence. Oh, and there’s no shortage of that silver these days. Once dark, my hair is still plentiful, but the color “distinguished,” some call it, kindly matches my age.

Does that do it? Have I met the challenge? I notice that the “self-portrait” in words is pulled almost inevitably into the area of judgment, of what I like about myself, and what I don’t. And I wonder if this is also true about a drawn or painted image of the self? Would it be easier to remain detached, if I were painting or drawing? Or making a photograph? Of course there’s also an element of judgment in those other media, but the verbal, narrative version does seem to me, by its nature, less open to the objective gaze, more unavoidably judgmental. I can’t just “photograph” in words.

I also sit here wondering whether I can publish what I have written, whether exposure of this kind was appropriate even in The Buddha Diaries, where it first appeared. And yet as I say it’s a very Buddhist exercise, just gazing into the mirror and acknowledging what I see there, in the knowledge that this physical body will further age, and sicken, and die. It has to do with being real about myself, and realizing how many and varied are those attachments from which I seek to free myself. No matter what I choose to believe, my mind keeps stubbornly insisting, “This IS me, this is MINE, this IS who I am.” I realize, too, that what I’ve written reveals a bundle of contradictions. But in some ways, perhaps, it’s just as valuable to apply the unblinking gaze to examine the outer “self ” as the one I aspire to when looking within.

And is this self-portrait, I wonder, anything analogous to the experience of those artists who made them, from Rembrandt who did many of them to Van Gogh? It’s perhaps no more than a way of gazing at the flesh to find the reality beneath its surfaces, or penetrating substance in the search for spirit. Or perhaps in other words, I like to think, a way of transcending the personal to touch the humanity we all share.

Peter Clothier is an internationally-known writer who specializes in writing about art and artists. He believes in avoiding the jargon that obscures much current writing about art, and in writing simply, clearly, in language that the lay person can readily understand. He seeks to achieve a harmony of mind, heart, and body in his work, and looks for this quality in the artists he writes about. A reformed academic, now fifteen years in recovery, he has returned in recent years to teaching, in mostly non-traditional ways: in workshops, continuing groups, and individual coaching and mentoring for artists and writers. To learn more about Peter, click the links below. You can buy his new book, Mind Work, here.     •     The Buddha Diaries