Keith Arnatt

Portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self


Not on display

Keith Arnatt 1930–2008
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 605 × 665 mm
Transferred from Tate Archive 2010


Portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self 1969–72 uses the cast shadow to question accepted limits of photographic veracity, while also offering a portrayal of the disappeared or absent artist and the trace that he might leave behind. Arnatt has commented: ‘I was beginning to become aware of the unreliability of photographic evidence and began to play with that feature. I felt that what a photograph could not tell or show might be just as significant as what it could.’ (Quoted in John Roberts, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966–1976, London 1997, p.47.) For this work, Arnatt stood on the pavement at the door to the Newport College Art department while a colleague drew a chalk line around the shadow he cast on the pavement and the wall behind. The silhouette was filled in with semi-transparent grey-brown paint and the scene was photographed. The resulting image depicts the fixed outline delineation of the artist’s shadow appearing as if a distorted figure is standing on the pavement. It is pictured as an image of a shadow among other, real shadows, revealing the trace of a now absent figure, fixing in time that which is ephemeral and fleeting. As he explained in a 1972 letter to the art critic Barbara Reise: ‘It is, of course, the title that interests me. How can one have a shadow of one’s former self? The date of the title explains this.’ (Keith Arnatt, letter to Barbara Reise, 1972, Tate Archive TGA 786.5.2.6.) The dating of the photograph indicates that the photograph was taken in 1969 and titled in 1972.

A number of different versions of the work exist, both in black and white (as here) or colour, printed to different sizes and with different crops. One such colour variant is Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969–72, printed 2000 (Tate T07647). Additionally, the work could have been shown as a sequence of four photographs – ‘one large … and three smaller indicating how it was carried out’, as he explained in the letter to Reise (Ibid.). This provides a characteristic example of his sometimes open-ended approach to the layout and presentation of individual work by different means and according to different contexts.

This is one of a number of existing materials that were proposed by Keith Arnatt at the time of his participation in Seven Exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972. Other works that were exhibited alongside it included Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist 1968 (Tate P13145), Art as an Act of Retraction 1971 (Tate P13140), Art as an Act of Omission 1971 (Tate P13144), I Have Decided to Go to the Tate Gallery next Friday 1971 (Tate P13142, exhibited with the title Tate Work), Rejected Proposal for the Peter Stuyvesant ‘City Sculpture Project’ (For Cardiff City) 1972 (Tate P13141), Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969 (Tate T01747, exhibited with the title The Disappearance of the Artist), 2448000–0000000 1969/1972 (described as ‘an “exhibition” of the duration of the exhibition by the following means: a digital count-down system will count down the duration of the exhibition in seconds’), Type-Token 1970, Art and Egocentricity – a perlocutionary act? 1971 and Tate Gallery Staff Exhibition 1972. The content of the exhibition changed during its run. Because of widespread power-cuts at the start of the exhibition, 2448000–0000000 was initially replaced by Tate Gallery Staff Exhibition, though this – a presentation of the staff cards of all employees of the gallery – was removed after three days and it is thought that 2448000–0000000 was activated on the seventh day of the exhibition. In their range, the works brought together as Arnatt’s presentation for Seven Exhibitions illustrate the move in his work from the making of situational sculptures to a documentation of actions that question – through a linking of philosophical text with image – the status of art and the role and identity of the artist, whom Arnatt shows to be in different states of disappearance. This work was transferred from the Tate Gallery Archive in 2010.

Further reading
Seven Exhibitions, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972.
The New Art, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1972.
I’m a Real Photographer: Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974–2002, exhibition catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London 2007.

Andrew Wilson
May 2010
Revised February and July 2019; November/December 2020

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