Selfies and the History of Self Portraiture

We live in an age of addictive self-portraiture, increasingly known as the ‘age of the selfie’. With our new discount on hundreds of portraits, many of which are self-portraits, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the changing genre of self-portraiture. Here’s our pick of our favourite selfies from art history...

The selfie is a smartphone produced version of a self-portrait, which has been a staple of art history. It was in 2010 that the iPhone 4 launched with a front-facing camera and the golden age of the selfie was born. Now ‘Selfie’ has been declared by Oxford Dictionaries as their ‘2013 Word of the Year’ and we’ve seen the likes of David Cameron, Barack Obama and even the pope participating in the photographic craze. American art critic Jerry Saltz has written of the selfie, “It’s something like art. They have a certain intensity and they’re starting to record that people are the photographers of modern life.”

So is the selfie the latest development in the long and fascinating history of self portraiture? Portraiture was pioneered by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, but James Hall, author of ‘The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History’, argues that a coherent starting point for self-portraiture is the middle ages, “because it was an age preoccupied with personal salvation and self-scrutiny.”

As the 16th century approached, artists began putting themselves more in the picture, physically, socially and stylistically. By this time portraiture had become more naturalistic and more concerned with the individual. During the Renaissance the genre benefitted from the ‘heroism’ of the artist and became truly popular with the increased wealth and interest in individuality. 

“In the 20th Century, the act of self-portraiture turns nasty and neurotic, a form of self-abuse,” writes Peter Conrad in his review of ‘The Self Portrait: A Cultural History’. The ‘heroism’ of the artist gave way to a self-conscious scrutiny of the artist’s odd individuality. Now self portraiture, including selfies, has arguably become the defining visual genre of our confessional age.

Here’s a quick run through our favourite self portraitists (we’ve refrained from including Kim Kardashian and her infamous ‘belfie’). From Albrecht Durer to Cindy Sherman, these artworks are proof that “the pursuit of the elusive self, it seems, never ends.” 

Albrecht Durer

German artist Albrecht Durer was arguably the first master of the self-portrait. Although he wasn’t the first artist to produce a self-portrait, he can be arguably claimed to be the first artist that returned to this subject matter throughout his career. In the first half of his life, Durer created a series of exquisite self-portraits. The earliest was drawn in silverpoint in 1484, when he was just 13 years old. In these images Durer constructs or ‘fashions’ his identity as an artist. 

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrant van Rijn did the same a century and a half later. He created nearly 100 self-portraits during his lifetime including approximately 50 paintings, 32 etchings and 7 drawings over a span of forty years. Many of the paintings show him posing in quasi-historical fancy dress, or pulling faces at himself. Interestingly, the portraits reflect something of Rembrant’s changing fortunes (personal and financial difficulties) and confirm his remarkable creative energy even amidst personal crisis. 

Vincent van Gogh 

Vincent van Gogh painted over 30 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889. His collection places him among the most prolific self-portraits of all time. Like the old masters, van Gogh observed himself critically in a mirror. With fierce expressiveness he created self portraits with intensity an immediacy that revealed something inner to the outside world in the most vivid possible way. 

Van Gogh wrote to his sister: "I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer." And later to his brother: "People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation". 

Egon Schiele

One of the leading figures of Austrian Expressionism, Egon Schiele, created self portraits that were searing explorations of his psyche and sexuality. Schiele’s self-portraits helped to re-establish the vitality to the genre with their unprecedented level of emotional and sexual directness. He used figural distortion in place of conventional notions of beauty and even removed the picture’s background to annul any distraction that could compete with the ‘permanent me’.

Frida Kahlo 

Mexican artists Frida Kahlo is best known for her self-portraits. Following a terrible accident, Kahlo spent many years bedridden with only herself for a model. Self portraits such as ‘The Broken Column’, which represents her spine as a shattered stone column, were metaphors for Kahlo’s pain. Her self portraits not only dealt with her physical and psychological suffering but also chronicled her turbulent relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera. Her iconic self-portraits poignantly depict both her isolation and indomitable spirit and sense of self. 

Andy Warhol

Throughout Andy Warhol’s career his own self-image was perhaps the most pervasive, both his self-portraits and those photographers snapped. His photo-booth style self portraits of the 1960’s gave way to other explorations of the self in the 70’s and 80’s.

“Like I always wanted Tab Hunter to play me in a story of my life--people would be much happier imagining that I was as handsome as Allen [Midgette] and Tab were. I mean, the real Bonnie and Clyde sure didn’t look like Faye [Dunaway] and Warren [Beatty]. Who wants the truth? That’s what show business is for--to prove that it’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are.” (Andy Warhol, ‘Popism’)

Jean-Michel Basquiat 

Self-taught artist Jean-Michel Basquiat created brutal self-portraits which were quintessential examples of his ferocious style. Brimming with life and immediacy, they record an almost crippling self-consciousness. Basquiat’s self portraits are allegories of his troubled status caught between communities in a web of expectations. 

“Basquiat’s canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself.” (Kellie Jones, ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix’)

Cindy Sherman

Starting in the late 70’s, American art photographer Cindy Sherman began using herself as her primary subject. Masquerading as a myriad of characters she invents personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity. By creating images of herself she explores social role-playing and sexual stereotypes.

Credits & Image credits:

Jerry Saltz, ‘Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie’ www.vulture.com

Frances Spalding, ‘The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History [by James Hall] – review’ www.theguardian.com

Wendy Rodewald-Sulz ‘A History of the Selfie’ www.beautyblitz.com

Peter Conrad, ‘The Self Portrait: A Cultural History review – ‘enthralling’’ www.theguardian.com 

‘The Artist in the Mirror’ www.theartwolf.com 

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