Joannes Gump, Self Portrait and the Problem of Infinite Regression


Awareness of the self, the reflective audience, is the fundamental focus of the contemporary installation art of today. However, it is recognisable that since around the 1600s, arguably paintings started to become aware of themselves and of their own existence.

JOHANN-ANTON-GUMP-autoritratto-1646-Firenze-Galleria-deg Johannes Gump, Self Portrait, 1646


There is a painting of a painting, which is a sophisticated conceptual development within Western art. There is evidence of the process of its own production within itself.  There are a complex set of interrelationships that are compiled to create one image of itself.  It also implies that you are looking at him, looking at himself, looking at you. The viewer becomes ‘someone’ that is watching him ‘over his shoulder’ and catching him in the act of painting. He is painting him while he is painting. This someone is the fictitious author of the whole painting. ‘Fictitious’, because he is presenting himself as another; ‘author’, because he has left us a painting which is none other than Gumpp himself. It is Gumpp who claims to be an ‘other’: the one who is looking ‘over his shoulder’, the Gumpp painting the image of himself (Louvel, L., 2013, pg.139). If you are observing your own existence (‘seeing yourself seeing’), there must be something observing this to collect the information inside it. However, this turns into a never-ending cycle – therefore, consciousness is ‘distributed in time and space. Micro consciousness, is an integration is a multistage process’ (Zeki, S., 2001).

Dennett’s theory proposes the problem of infinite regression. Is it actually possible to have a self think of the self? There are certainly logical problems with having a self-conscious mind. If a hammer cannot hammer itself; if a camera cannot take a photo of itself, can a mind think of itself? Can an object (like the mind) explain itself? We are limited to our own form of consciousness, so that any theory the understanding of which required us to transcend these constraints would be inaccessible to us (McGinn,1989, pg.356).

Dennett presents the idea of a self-observer. He states that:

‘We persist in the habit of positing a separate process of observation (now of inner observation) intervening between the circumstances about which we can report and the report we issue – overlooking the fact that at some point this regress of interior observers must be stopped by a process that unites contents with their verbal expression without any intermediary content- appreciator’ (Dennett, D., 1993).

This references something separate from our minds – resulting in a paradox, is can also manifest itself as infinite regression, a potentially generative process. This often results in a logical brick wall, where many scientists have given up on their research, simply because they cannot understand what happens at this point. However, if we use this point as a truth rather than a problem, it may generate more truth as to how the mind works.

The mind inside the mind (and so on to infinity), is a physical regression which always seems to come to some sort of complex conclusion. A good example of this phenomena is if you were to point a camera at a monitor at the correct angle, it results in video feedback that is established and generates internal patterns. The feedback gives rise to complex behaviour and the patterns that reflect fundamental matter in which they appear within nature. Is this reflective of the fact that self-consciousness is not one part of the mind, but the result of different parts of the mind reflecting on each other? Acting like a feedback loop, consciousness is achieved through the complex generative process of this infinite regression that is caused by the brain reflecting on itself. Hofstadter explains the generative process:

‘[Consciousness] is a kind of perception of internal symbol-patterns, rather than the perception of outside events. Someone seems to be looking at configurations of activated symbols and perceiving their essence, thereby triggering the retrieval of other dormant symbols…and round and round it all goes, giving rise to a lively cycle of symbolic activity – a smooth but completely improvised symbolic dance’ (Hofstadter, 2007, pg.279).


This indicates that the mind could be generated by the awareness of itself. There is not a fixed being that creates such a thing, but something that happens to occur when it is thinking about itself. Sekida agrees:

‘It is the reflecting action of consciousness that comes immediately after the thought that makes him aware of his own thinking. […] By this reflecting action of consciousness, man comes to know what is going on in his mind, and that he has a mind; and he recognises his own being’ (Sekida, 1985).


This also demonstrates a significant reminder to that reflective process, which is present in the painting by Gumpp. (Figure 4). Through exploring these theories, this illustrates a more stable understanding of the phenomena of our minds in which the following artists explore thoroughly. Some even put forward a strong argument that this new form could be the explanation to consciousness itself undeniably present, not only within present day phenomenological installation art, but within significant artworks that date back to 1646.


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