The Peculiar Power of the Selfie
Self-portraits have a long and storied history in art. (Attention: Art Nerd alert)
Artists sometimes used self-portraits to show their status and their political connections, such as this self-portrait by the Spanish painter Diego Velasquez.
This portrait is part of a larger masterwork, Las Meninas, which shows him painting the Infanta.
Sometimes the artist is also an actor, dressed in costumes, to appear a particular way or reference artists who have come before. Rembrandt was famous for this in his youth.
Later on, he was far more interested in recording his authentic self, even when it was less flattering.
There are no real rules for self-portraits and those that did exist were spoofed centuries ago by artists defying those who came before and expressing themselves as they liked. Generally, the artist engages with the viewer, making eye contact.
The above self-portrait by Gustave Courbet is a little more playful, depicting the artist as a desperate creative in his smock.
Artists will also use symbolism, often with encoded meanings that are personal to themselves, such as most of Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits.
Sometimes an artist does many self-portraits in their career and you can see their faces and moods evolve. This is especially true of the self-portraits of Van Gogh.
As photography evolved, it became a way to set up self-portraits in a far more elaborate setting, such as the work of Cindy Sherman. In much of her work, the line between artist and actor disappears and she creates a persona that deliberate challenges our notions of identity.
And, of course, today the self-portrait has evolved into digital selfies. Through Instagram, we can all be artists and select the kind of face we want to show the world. While selfies get a bad rap as the refuge of the egotistical and self-absorbed, I really enjoyed looking back through my self-portraits. When I was very little, my father used to hold me up so we could make faces in the bathroom mirror – now I can capture them!
As an actress, it’s fascinating to me because my face is one aspect of my instrument and controlling your face and your image is part of the talent. For me, it’s not so much to show off a haircut or an outfit as it is to capture a moment, a fleeting face of yourself. Many times it’s not even a particularly flattering face, but I remember how I felt and so it’s like a postcard mailed to yourself from the past.
In order to share two years worth of selfies in a short space, I created a Flipagram, which is a free app that allows you to set a slideshow to music. It’s only 30 seconds so I encourage you to watch it and enjoy.
When do you take selfies? And why? Do you see them as a way to express yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!