21. Self Portrait – Doris Zinkeisen

The career of Doris Zinkeisen (1898–1991) ranged from designing one of the most controversial and sexy dresses of the 1930s to working as an official war artist in the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. She also worked as a society portrait painter and produced some striking paintings including this 1929 Self Portrait.

She was born on 31 July 1898 at Kilcreggan, a Victorian seaside resort on the Firth of Clyde; her family moved to England in 1909. She studied at Harrow School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools in London. Her younger sister Anna (1901-1976) was also an artist, and moved from high society decorative painting to work at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London, drawing war injuries.

Doris mixed painting with a career as a costume designer for theatre and film, several for the young actress Anna Neagle. Her see-through dress from The Little Damozel (1933), shown below, attracted scandal and criticism for what it revealed. Neagle played a nightclub singer forced into a marriage of convenience with a sailor; the pair unsurprisingly fall in love. In the 1920s Zinkeisen dated and was reportedly engaged to the film director James Whale, known for horror films such as Frankenstein as well as for his homosexuality (he was played on film by Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters [1998]). She also painted a 1925 portrait of the English actress Elsa Lanchester who later played the title role in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935).


With her sister, she painted murals for the Verandah Grill of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, which was launched in 1936 at Clydebank, not far from her birthplace. This 1936 photo shows her at work. She also produced a range of commercial art, including posters for London Transport in 1939.

During the war she helped by working as a nurse. She was an official war artist for the Red Cross after VE Day in occupied Germany; this included three days in Bergen-Belsen where she sketched the concentration camp survivors (ex-prisoners were often housed in the camps for many months, if there was nowhere else for them to go, and many were seriously ill or dying). Her most famous work from this period was Human Laundry (1945) showing emaciated ex-prisoners being washed by nurses on a line of tables at Belsen. The title is gruesome but apt.

After the war she went back to theatre and costume design, though she continued to paint portraits. She lived an exceptionally long life, and died 3 January 1991.

Although she married naval officer Edward Grahame Johnstone in 1927, she continued to work and earn a good income through a mixture of portraiture, commercial art, and design. The life of a woman artist in the early 20th century often meant a free mix of high and low culture, craft and fine arts, hard news and lifestyle. Lee Miller, the American photographer who worked with Man Ray in 1920s Paris, was a war photographer in Germany in 1945 and after the war took conventional photos for Vogue magazine. Sonia Delaunay, the Odessa-born pioneering abstract artist, ran her own fashion house as another outlet for her experiments with colour and form. This coincided a growing interest in decorative and traditionally female art forms by male artists such as Picasso (pottery) and Jean Arp (tapestry).

In self-portraiture, as can be seen by the many self-portraits in this collection, a key question is what image the artist seeks to project. One style promotes the artist’s status as artist, a master of the paintbrush and canvas; George Jamesone’s 1642 self-portrait is an obvious example. The other style shows the artist as sitter, as a beautiful person, as gorgeous as their wealthy customers, able to move in the highest society, and to portray themselves as part of high society. This latter style has also existed as long as artists have sought work painting the wealthy and successful: for instance Durer’s 1497 Self Portrait at 26.

This self-portrait clearly puts Zinkeisen in the latter category. She was at home with the rich and glamorous, from her work on ocean liners and the British film industry of the 1930s. The subject of a woman in oriental dress was common in the early twentieth century and Japonaiserie had been in vogue in design and art since the late Victorian era. The first impression is of glamour and sensuality. She shows herself with fashionable short hair, red lips and cheek, the ivory skin colour of her skin emphasised by the white sheet behind her.

This sheet isn’t a backdrop: its folds are imposing, like carved marble, or like the frozen waves of her hair; Zinkeisen uses the folds in the sheet to form concentric circles and direct the viewer’s gaze at her face. There is a sexuality, a seductiveness here, in the red on her face, her bare shoulder and hand held at breast. Her face is frozen in classic stillness, but is countered by the promise of motion elsewhere. The picture threatens revelation. The way she barely holds the kimono around her shoulder, the just-visible curve of her right breast, and the way her left hand reaches to pull the sheet back.

This is a picture of a beautiful woman, glamorous and fashionable. But it is also a picture of a woman who can manipulate her own image. She is no helpless starlet, but in control of her sexuality and of the costumes and scenery with which she surrounds herself. It is a performance worthy of any of the actors she clothed, and of the great artist she was.

Doris Zinkeisen, Self-portrait, 1929. Oil on canvas, 107 x 87 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image source: Wikipedia.


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