Lovis Corinth (Courtesy of Staaliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe)

The Art of the Selfie

We live in the age of the selfie. The word has come to define a generation permanently hooked to social media by way of their smartphones. It has become a global phenomenon. No celebrity, politician or sports star can now expect to go anywhere without being called upon to grin for a selfie with a fan. No landmark can now truly have been seen, no date enjoyed, no holiday taken or dog walked without the proof conferred by the selfie taken and then uploaded to the internet for all to admire.

The selfie has come to define the public persona of millions of people across the globe. Filters and editing apps allow users to control their appearance, mask blemishes and cast flattering tones upon their faces. The selfie has even spawned a new pose, the duck-face pout that can be seen on Instagram profile pictures from Shanghai to Shettleston. Never before have so many people had the opportunity to record, manipulate and broadcast their appearance. Never before have so many wanted to do so.

The urge to create an illusion of personal perfection is nothing new however. Two thousand years ago, the philosopher Plotinus urged followers to study themselves. “If you do not find yourself beautiful yet,” he wrote, “Act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful, he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” He could almost have been describing an Airbrush app.

It has been estimated that over a million selfies are taken every day. Thousands will be snapped and uploaded during the Festival in Edinburgh this summer where, in addition to abundant selfie-friendly encounters with castles and comedians, a number of selfie-related shows are on offer. ‘Selfie With Eggs’, a Fringe performance by the ‘world renowned hand balancer’ Natalie Reckert, no less, comes under the bracket of Dance, Physical Theatre and Circus. Selfie enthusiasts can also join the American High School Theatre Festival for ‘That Selfies Show’, which promises to be ‘a hilarious romp through selfie nation’. Shows for our time, no doubt.

But those who experience the cold sweat of Fringe-fear at the thought of battling through ranks of flyer-thrusting students, lunatic jugglers and human statues only to find themselves shut in a dark room with three other embarrassed audience members for an excruciating hour of staged self(ie) indulgence, need not despair. A superior selfie experience is at hand.

The cool, spacious halls of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery offer a welcome refuge from the throngs of the Fringe and this summer they are hosting ‘Facing the World’, an exhibition dedicated entirely to the art of the self-portrait. Covering a period of five hundred years, the exhibition does not promise a comprehensive history of the approach but rather gathers together a selection of work that explains the evolution of self-portraits from the classic Renaissance, chalk three-quarter profile drawing of Palma Vecchio to the contemporary selfies of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei is represented by a series of photos taken with his smartphone during and after his arrest by the Chinese authorities in 2009. As a prominent dissident, he operates under persistent threat of retribution but has adopted modern technology both to record his position and to use the resultant images as a kind of insurance policy.

By posting on Twitter a striking image of his arrest, snapped in a mirrored elevator with a martyr’s halo of smartphone flashlight above his head, the artist made a real-time statement to the world about his situation. The exposure ensured the authorities were obliged to handle him with more caution than might otherwise have been the case. As a million teenagers can confirm, the selfie makes you visible.

Ai Weiwei did however sustain critical injuries during the arrest and the other images in the series show him in a hospital bed recovering from brain surgery. He is a truly modern, global artist, and perhaps no other has yet made greater use of the selfie phenomenon. Nevertheless, his work is merely the latest incarnation of a continuum that stretches back to the earliest marks created by mankind.

Forty thousand years ago, people began leaving imprints of their hands on the walls of caves; stencils and prints that could be considered the first self-portraits. The hand symbol has been used to indicate self ever since and can be seen in this exhibition in Joseph Beuys’ double handprint piece from 1961. More explicit and personal versions of self-image can be glimpsed throughout antiquity and in the manuscript illuminations and church decorations of the middle ages.

By the time of the Renaissance, it was common for artists to use their own image in the faces of characters in religious scenes, sometimes even positioning themselves centre stage in the guise of St. Luke, the artist disciple, or other important figures. It was practical for an artist to use himself as a model but their presence in the work also indicated both their religious devotion and their status as significant members of society.

The chalk drawing in the exhibition by the Venetian painter Palma Vecchio from around 1510 marks a gradual shift towards self-portraiture as a subject in itself. This progression was one of artistic curiosity fed by the increasing availability of modern glass mirrors. Prior to this, mirrors were made from polished metal or very small pieces of dark glass that gave a poor reflection. Although there was as yet no market demand for self-portraits, the opportunity mirrors gave for self-exploration plus the attractions of a free and available model were powerful driving forces.

Palma Vecchio was renowned for his portraits of beautiful women, many of them fantasy portraits of voluptuous nudes, but here we see him studying the reality of his own face instead. He draws in black chalk, which was common at the time, but employs an unusually loose and sketchy style that suggests he was teasing out the image from direct observation.

His marks are exploratory, building in intensity around the features with the greatest care given to the intense, scrutinizing eye in the centre of the drawing. The head is angled towards the viewer in the natural pose of someone shifting gaze between a mirror and a drawing surface. This became the standard self-portrait pose and remained so for the next three hundred years, despite the impact of full frontal pieces by Albrect Durer, in particular, which explicitly referenced sacred relics such as the Turin Shroud that supposedly bore the transferred image of Christ.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)

A self-portrait exhibition without Rembrandt van Rijn, the great genius of 17th Century Dutch painting, would be unthinkable. As well as his famous group portraits, he made at least ninety studies of himself in oil, drawing and print, a remarkable output for what was still a marginal genre. Some of these pieces were probably intended as ‘tronies’, studies of faces made to express particular symbolic qualities, rather than true self-portraits, yet they remain individual enough to qualify.

Rembrandt had a difficult and complicated personal life. His first wife, Saskia, followed three children to the grave, leaving him alone with their one surviving child. He then found himself caught in a bitter legal dispute between two other women, before eventually settling with his beloved Hendrikje who would, like Saskia before her, appear in numerous paintings.

Throughout his troubles, Rembrandt drew and painted his own changing image with a dedication unmatched by any contemporaries. The oil self-portrait of around 1655 on show in Edinburgh is a masterful piece of work. It presents the artist in late middle age, his face well worn by life. The handling of the paint is denser than in some other portraits of this period, lending a heavy realism to the roughly textured face as it looms out of the darkness.

Rembrandt was the most famous artist of his time but was careless with money and left vulnerable when a great economic depression hit. Unable to service his debts, he was declared bankrupt. During this time he began producing more and more self-portraits but while it is tempting to read the furrowed brows and tired eyes as introspective studies of anxiety, it may be that these pieces were made with the chief intention of securing a good sale. Despite the crash, Rembrandt’s work remained in demand and his self-portraits were popular. There’s no doubt he was endlessly fascinated by his own image but the idea of the self-portrait as introspective window to the soul came later and the term itself did not even enter the English language until the early 19th Century.

‘Facing the World’ is an exhibition drawn from the collections of three galleries, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the Portrait Gallery. This welcome collaboration allows us to appreciate some unfamiliar continental artists as well as our native masters. Notable among the outstanding Scottish paintings are four self-portraits that trace the direct artistic inheritance between our greatest painters from the Enlightenment period.

Allan Ramsay, son of the poet of the same name, was the first Scottish portraitist of great renown. An intellectual as well as painter, he declared that truth was ‘the leading and inseparable principle in all works of art’ and while he sometimes betrayed this belief when flattering his noble subjects, his self-portraits are honest. He stares from a pastel and watercolour study from around 1755 with uncompromising gaze, his heavy jaw coloured by stubble, his hair a little messy, his clothes simple and unrefined.

A more Romantic dash can be detected in the self-portrait of Ramsay’s pupil and former assistant, David Martin. He looks to his left, avoiding confrontation with the viewer, and presents himself as a handsome young man with gleaming red hair and, if not quite a duck-face pout, at least distinctly sensitive red lips. One imagines he was not displeased with his appearance. Himself indebted to the support of Ramsay, Martin went on to foster the talents of the man who would become Scotland’s greatest painter of all, Sir Henry Raeburn.

Raeburn was one of the few Scottish painters who could bear comparison with the best continental artists. Here we see him in middle age, stroking his chin and gazing imperiously from the canvas with all the self-possession of an established master. He worked in a wonderfully deft style that was characterised by its almost casual brushwork and contained palette. His self-portrait here is a fine example, offering an understated but vivid glimpse of solid character.

Sir David Wilkie (Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)

Raeburn’s legacy can be seen in the work of Sir David Wilkie whose self-portrait from 1804 demonstrates the same simplified brushwork and flat plains of colour. It is a tender, soulful but unadorned self-portrait that displayed the artist’s skill as a direct and observant painter. Wilkie’s work was about technique more than character, and like many artists of his time, painting his own image was served as both an advertisement for his skills and a good subject to practice with. The artists that followed him would push the genre further, offering a manipulated self-image more akin to the selfie of today.

Two remarkable paintings by Louis Janmot and Anselm Feuerbach show the early development of this individualistic tendency. Each presents the artist as a young man, attacking the canvas face-on with astonishing intensity. Compared to the work of Wilkie from just a few decades earlier, these pieces look strikingly modern and share something of the dramatic self-awareness of today’s selfie. Feuerbach was as a boy described by his stepmother as ‘vain beyond anything I have hitherto seen’, and that vanity is evident in this theatrical, glowering image. His arrogance seeps from the canvas like a teenage fantasy of troubled genius.

The truly troubled geniuses came later still, especially in the generation wracked and wrecked by the horrors of the First World War. Inheritors of the emotional introspection made fashionable by Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, a generation of Germanic artists played out their torment in ink and paint, reflecting the bewildered, battered psyche of post war Europe. Dark and jagged works by Max Beckmann, Ludvig Kirchner, Lovis Corinth and Paul Klee are among the highlights of this exhibition.

Photography, so dominant now, took a surprisingly long time to seize control of the self-portrait. In obliterating the challenge that lay in capturing likeness, the camera eventually opened the door to ever-increasing conceptual creativity. Andy Warhol, who made thousands of Polaroid proto-selfies, and Robert Mapplethorpe present themselves in multiple disguises, playing with gender and identity, simultaneously expanding the definition of self-portraiture and harking back to the Renaissance artist-as-character.

Andy Warhol (Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)

Marina Abramović’s videos of excruciating, masochistic performance pieces, meanwhile, make even the post-war Germans seem sanguine souls. These modern works, which challenge the viewer, undermine the status quo and contradict assumptions, helped set the tone for both Sarah Lucas’ self-portrait photo with fried egg breasts and John Coplan’s imposing, hairy nude close-ups, each also on show in Edinburgh.

Today’s self-portrait is a symbolic affair, with artists revealing themselves through disguise, abstraction and manipulation. Ultimately though, the urge to record the self, whether through painting, performance or from the end of a selfie-stick, is something that has endured unchanged since mankind first made marks upon a wall. I am here, it says, and this is me.

This article first appeared in The Scottish Daily Mail, Saturday 13th, August 2016.