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In the Frame for May 2014: Nick El Fry’s ‘Self Portrait as Saint Paul’

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Nick El Fry, Self Portrait as Saint Paul

Saint Paul has been depicted by artists throughout history, from Michelangelo and Caravaggio to William Blake. Most of them have focused on his dramatic conversion. Initially a zealous persecutor of the early Christians, Paul was said to have been called by God whilst on the road to Damascus. The effect of the summons was so powerful that Paul was blinded for three days after the event. Today, the phrase ‘road to Damascus’ has become synonymous with a significant change of mind.

Unlike many other artists, Nick El Fry does not show Saint Paul’s ‘Damascus moment’; neither does he show the saint as a theologian or a great teacher. In fact, this is a self-portrait ‘as’ Saint Paul, and its subject appears quite a workaday figure. He is in graduated pencil, unlike earlier representations of the saint in fresco or oil, and the close cropping focuses the viewer’s attention on his face, lined with experience. In fact, the composition, its proportions, and the treatment of the light and shadow might be intended to make us think of a photograph.

Here, the eyes that Saint Paul temporarily lost the use of are placed just off centre. They seem to be focused on something out of shot – ‘shot’ feels like the right word here – but whether the figure is looking at something or gazing intently into the middle-distance is left uncertain. It is certainly a ‘snapshot’, in that the figure seems to be caught in the act of moving away, and looking back, or perhaps turning back to look again. Looking and seeing is, of course, an issue particularly interesting for Saint Paul. His post-Damascus blindness has been interpreted as a literal reiteration of the spiritual ‘blindness’ he lived in before his conversion. But this idea of seeing is also relevant to an evangelist such as Saint Paul, who considered himself to see and understand things that others did not, and conceived his Christian duty to be bringing those people ‘enlightenment’ through evangelising.

Considering this work as a self-portrait adds an extra layer to it. Aristotle famously thought that creativity went hand in hand with melancholia, and since the Romantic period the idea of the ‘mad genuis’ has been stock-in-trade for art and literary critics. Perhaps by depicting himself ‘as’ Saint Paul Nick El Fry is linking Paul’s sense of lonely but single-purposed enlightenment to his own experience with mental ill health. Paul spoke of his experiences with anti-Christian persecution as being worse than those of his fellow missionaries. Fry may have identified with this; the rugged face in the drawing certainly seems to testify to weary experience and anxiety. But the all-important eyes keep focusing on the horizon.