Author: Imogen Aldridge

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 the Instagram generation growing larger and the number of social media apps rapidly increasing, we take a look at where this selfie culture began.

Where did this modernised version of self portraiture begin? 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. The word ‘Selfie’ was declared by The Oxford Dictionary as the ‘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. But are selfies truly a form of art? American art critic Jerry Saltz seems to think so. Saltz says of the contemporary portrait: “It’s something like art. They have a certain intensity and they’re starting to record that people are the photographers of modern life.”

 

Selfies and the History of Self Portraiture | Image

Selfies and the History of Self Portraiture | Image

So, is the selfie the latest development in the long and fascinating history of self-portraiture? To answer that, we’ll go back to where it all began. 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.” Although its origins are still up for debate, it’s clear the selfie has been around for much longer than you may think.

As the 16th century approached, artists began emerging from behind the canvas and put 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. It was all about freedom of expression and celebrating the individual, providing an entirely new dimension to the art form of portraiture.

 

 

Long Distance Love by Haus of Lucy

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Things soon changed. “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.

With the 21st Century came the invasion of social media and Instagram. Now, people can share photos to their heart’s content, sharing images with family, friends and strangers alike. Sharing images of yourself is a new form of communication, allowing people an instant insight into your life. This fascination with the selfie has made itself a home in the art world too. But is the modern-day selfie more than an innocent photo? Sometimes, a selfie is not just an innocuous post to followers, but a status symbol disguised as an Instagram story. Take Yayoi Kusama’s sold out show at the Tate Modern for example. Instagram’s Tate Modern tag is littered with selfies taken in Kusama’s stunning mirrored Infinity Rooms. This social media spectacle raises the question: have exhibitions like Kusama’s been demoted to the sparkling background of visitors’ narcissistic selfies? Or is this just another form of artistic appreciation?

Here’s a quick run through our favourite self portrait artists. From Albrecht Durer to Cindy Sherman, these artworks are proof that “the pursuit of the elusive self, it seems, never ends.”  

 

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Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight - Albrecht Durer, via Wikiart.org

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, it can be argued that he was the first artist to return 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 his identity as an artist and controls his own perception.

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. 

 

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Self-Portrait with Straw Hat by Vincent Van Gogh, via Wikiart.org

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. 

The artist regularly opened up about his struggle with his identity and how that is reflected in portraiture. 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".

 

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FRIDA KAHLO 

Mexican artist 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. 

 

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Andy Warhol Interview Magazine (Molly Ringwald Cover), 1983 by Andy Warhol

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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. For Warhol, his photographic selfies are a form of disguise - a tool for him to reinvent himself.

Warhol says of the thin boundary between truth and lies in the world of self-photography: “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.”

 

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Untitled #97 by Cindy Sherman, via Wikiart.org

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.

Discover portraiture art for your home within our portraiture collection. Want to read more? Take a look at our blog on how social media has changed the art world.

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Rise no.1 Art Print by Lisa Lloyd
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Rise no.1

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42 x 59.4cm

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22 x 17 cm

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18.3 x 18.3 x 3.2cm

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You've Got the Love Art Print by Kid-B
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Ellipsis - Remix, 2020 Art Print by Dan Hillier
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