When it comes to portraits, the portrait either looks like the person it was painted of, or it doesn’t. This is also true of portrait tattoos where someone gets the face of someone else tattooed on their body… to commemorate a memory or show admiration. Konstantin Vasilyev’s self portrait is pretty audacious by any standards.
Content-wise, this composition shows what appears to be a military bureaucrat of slender build staring (or glaring) out at the viewer with self assuredness, and if you were to attempt to imitate his face you might recognize the contracting of your facial muscles in concordance with the emotion of disdain. Hand on his hip, if this guy were your boss (in real life) you’d be having a bad day. We might suppose that the piece of paper he holds is the photograph of which he based his self portrait on, but in the context of the picture, it might as well be a weapon.
In one regard, we can suppose Konstantin views himself as a weapon. On the other hand, we might suppose that he views his “art” as the weapon.
Now, that we’ve talked about the Konstantin of the foreground, it’s probably about time to address the background. Konstantin’s “spirit/ghost” image of some granite warrior of epic proportion.
In terms of visuals, the granite (or perhaps iron) warrior is facing away from the viewer — but even as it faces away, there’s no divorcing the image of the warrior from the portrait of Konstantin. Part of the reason we may feel that is Konstantin Vasilyev’s tie is done in the exact same color as the warrior’s. The fact that the warrior is facing away also adds to Vasilyev’s disdainful mystique. Sure, Vasilyev’s-in-the-flesh will look at you, but deep down he isn’t even there.
Another content/compositional reason the warrior appears to be of Konstantin’s subconscious (in addition to it being behind Konstantin) is that it emerges out of darkness. The splash of red in the background appears to be pouring in from the upper left of the frame. While it looks like a curtain, it’s more relevant feature is that it appears kinetic — kinetic in the sense that it embodies motion splashing down from the upper left and drawing our eyes to the center of the picture. Same goes for the warriors weapon which angles down to center from the upper right.
Next time you’re thinking of getting a family portrait, maybe it would be cool to get everyone in the family painted with their “shadow natures” behind them; either how others seem them, or as they really are.