From Self Portrait to Selfie: The curious evolution of Self

from self portrait to selfie, history of self portraiture

Last Updated on June 8, 2023

What is a Self Portrait?

Self portraits and their place in art have been on my mind lately. I recently stumbled upon some old negatives from my archive, and amidst the buried treasure was a grainy black-and-white picture of myself in the desert from nearly twenty years ago. As a person most often behind the camera, the documentation of myself in that place and at that time was exceptionally rare.

Self Portrait, what is a self portrait, Self-portrait of myself in the desert in Azraq Jordan

Before the early 2000s, with digital photography still in its infancy, photographs taken with film were precious. Often, the only occasions where one felt the need to document oneself was while on vacation, and those images were rarely shared with anyone outside our immediate circles. In fact, I can surely count the images I have of myself from that year, 2003, on one hand.

The terms “selfie” and “self-portrait” are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same thing. A selfie is a type of self-portrait that is typically taken with a smartphone camera and is often intended to be shared on social media. Selfies are typically casual and spontaneous, and they often emphasize the subject’s appearance or immediate surroundings.

On the other hand, a self-portrait is more deliberate and considered to be a representation of the artist drawn, painted, photographed, or created through any other medium, that depicts the artist themselves. These representations could be created directly by the artist, or executed by another under the artist’s direction.

In the art world, self-portraits have been created by artists throughout history, and their popularity has varied over time. Self portraits can be simple or complex and can range from straightforward depictions of the artist’s face or figure to more symbolic, metaphorical representations. However, they have remained a significant form of self-expression and continue to be created and appreciated by artists and audiences alike.

What is the purpose of a self-portrait?

The origin of the term “selfie” is not clear, but it is believed to have been first used in Australia in 2002. However, the concept of taking self-portraits has been around for much longer, dating back to the early days of photography when people would take pictures of themselves with a camera mounted on a tripod or timer.

With the advent of smartphone technology and their built-in cameras, taking selfies has become much easier and more popular, leading to the widespread usage of the term “selfie.” Today, selfies are a common form of self-expression and communication on social media platforms and have become an integral part of popular culture.

Self-portraits serve several functions in the world of art and beyond. Some of the main functions of self-portraits are:

  1. Self-expression: Self-portraits allow artists to express themselves and their unique perspectives. By creating a self-portrait, an artist can showcase their individuality and explore their own identity.
  2. Record of appearance: Self-portraits can serve as a record of the artist’s appearance at a particular moment in time. They can provide a visual record of the artist’s physical appearance and the style of clothing they wore.
  3. Document of artistic development: Self-portraits can provide a record of an artist’s development over time. By creating multiple self-portraits throughout their career, artists can show how their style and techniques have evolved.
  4. Political or cultural statement: Self-portraits can also serve as political or cultural statements. For example, some self-portraits may address issues of gender, race, or sexuality, and can be used as a means of promoting social or political change.
  5. Psychological exploration: Self-portraits can serve as a means of exploring the artist’s own psychological state or emotions. By creating a self-portrait, artists can examine their own thoughts and feelings and can explore their own experiences and emotions.

The History of Self Portraits

The history of self-portraiture dates back to the early days of art and has evolved over time to reflect the changing attitudes and technologies of each era. Self portraits have been used as a form of self-expression and a way for artists to showcase their skills, and as such, they provide a unique window into the lives and personalities of the artists who created them.

The earliest known self-portrait in the history of art is believed to have been created by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from 1353 to 1336 BCE. This self-portrait was carved into a stone relief and depicts the Pharaoh in a highly stylized manner, showcasing the traditional symbols of power and authority associated with Egyptian royalty.

Relief of Akhenaten probably from Amarna Egypt c. 1345 BCE. Neues Museum
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it is possible that the relief depicting Pharaoh Akhenaten was created by an artist working under his direction, the stylized depiction of the Pharaoh, the historical context of self-portraiture in ancient Egypt, and the involvement of Pharaohs in the creation of their own self-portraits all suggest that this relief was created as a self-portrait.

In other words, the Pharoah was creating a stylized and idealized image of himself to project himself to the masses, and the way in which he wanted himself portrayed was highly curated.

In the Western art tradition, the earliest known self-portrait is thought to have been created by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in the early 15th century. This self-portrait, which is believed to have been painted around 1433, is a small panel painting that is now housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

512px Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

During this time, self-portraits were often painted as a way for artists to demonstrate their technical abilities, as well as to convey their status and wealth. Like their Egyptian ancestors, many self-portraits made at this time were typically highly stylized and idealized, often showing the artist in a pose of power or nobility.

Rembrandt: King of the Selfie

In the Baroque era, self-portraits became more individualistic and introspective, reflecting the greater emphasis on personal expression. Artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Frans Hals created self-portraits that were more personal and expressive, often showing the artists in a more natural, relaxed pose and with a greater emphasis on the individual’s character and emotions.

Screenshot 2023 02 13 at 17.46.51
Screenshot of Google Search: Rembrandt Self Portrait.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the Dutch master painter, made over 60 self-portraits throughout his lifetime! So obviously there must have been a number of reasons for this preoccupation, besides simply his looks?

His extensive body of self-portraits laid the blueprints for how we understand self-portraiture in art, as they demonstrate both function and form in action. In other words, Rembrandt’s self portraits serve as:

  1. A Study of Self-Expression: Rembrandt’s self-portraits were a means of self-expression and allowed him to showcase his individuality and explore his own identity. By creating self-portraits, he could depict himself as he saw himself and present his own unique perspective.
  2. A Study of Aging: Many of Rembrandt’s self-portraits show him at different stages of his life and document the aging process. By creating these self-portraits, Rembrandt was able to study the effects of aging on his own appearance and to reflect on his own mortality.
  3. A Study of Light and Shadow: Rembrandt was known for his masterful use of light and shadow, and his self-portraits provided him with an opportunity to explore these techniques in a personal and intimate way.
  4. A Marketing Tool: Rembrandt’s self-portraits were also used as a marketing tool, allowing him to promote his own skills as an artist and showcase his mastery of portraiture. By creating self-portraits, he could demonstrate his ability to paint himself and to depict the human face and form in a highly realistic manner.
  5. A Record of Artistic Development: Rembrandt’s self-portraits also provide a record of his artistic development over time, showing how his style and techniques evolved.

Overall, Rembrandt’s extensive use of self-portraiture was motivated by a combination of artistic, personal, and professional reasons. By creating these works, he was able to explore his own identity, document the aging process, showcase his artistic skills, and reflect on the passage of time.

Frida Kahlo: Leaving her Mark

With the advent of photography in the 19th century, self-portraits became more accessible and widespread. Photographic self-portraits, also known as selfies, allowed artists to capture a moment in time, rather than creating a painted representation. This was especially true for artists who worked in other media, such as writers and musicians, who could now capture a likeness of themselves for posterity.

As a result, in the 20th century, self-portraits became even more personal and introspective, as artists explored new forms of self-expression and used their self-portraits as a means of exploring their own identities. Artists such as Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso created self-portraits that were highly personal and reflective, often exploring themes such as illness, trauma, and sexuality.

But Kahlo’s portraits in particular are etched into many a brain and unique for several reasons. Firstly, she had a distinctive appearance, with her bold eyebrows, unibrow, and traditional Mexican clothing, which is often featured in her self-portraits.

Mostra di Frida Kahlo al Mudec di Milano 3 maggio 2018 12
Frida Kahlo, Self portrait with necklace of thorns, 1940, Mudec Milano, 3 maggio 2018.

Secondly, Kahlo’s self-portraits often reflect her personal life, her physical pain, and her cultural heritage, and often depict her surrounded by vibrant, symbolic elements that are drawn from Mexican folk art and indigenous iconography.

Another reason why Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits are easily recognizable is because she had a unique artistic style that combined elements of Realism and Surrealism. While her self-portraits are often highly detailed depictions of her own face, they also incorporate elements of fantasy and dream-like imagery.

Frida Kahlo’s health had a significant impact on her painting, particularly in her self-portraits. Kahlo suffered from numerous physical and emotional challenges throughout her life, including a severe injury in a bus accident, multiple surgeries, and chronic pain. These experiences shaped her worldview and informed much of her artistic expression, particularly in her self-portraits. In fact, it is also thought that being bedridden for a considerable time forced her to focus on herself as her own subject.

Kahlo’s self-portraits often reflect her physical pain and her struggles with her health. For example, in her self-portraits, she frequently depicted herself with casts, crutches, or other medical equipment, and often portrayed herself as fragmented, disjointed, or suspended in the air, as if suspended in time and space. Through her self-portraits, Kahlo aimed to explore her own experiences of pain and suffering, and to create a visual representation of what it felt like to be in her body.

In addition to her physical struggles, Kahlo also drew from Mexican folk art and indigenous iconography in her self-portraits, using symbols and motifs from these cultural traditions to express her emotions and experiences. For example, she often depicted herself surrounded by animals and plants, which are symbols of fertility, sexuality, and death in Mexican culture.

By incorporating these elements into her self-portraits, Kahlo was able to give voice to her own experiences of pain, desire, and resilience, and to create a body of work that is deeply personal and culturally rooted.

The Self Deconstructed

In contemporary art and fine art photography circles, no conversation about self portraiture is complete without the mention of Cindy Sherman. Sherman is an American conceptual artist and photographer who rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She is best known for her series of photographic self-portraits in which she portrays a wide range of characters and personas, often using elaborate costumes and props.

Her images are often highly staged and deliberately artificial, and challenge traditional notions of representation and the female body. It was her Film Stills, that put Sherman on the map and turned the world of Self Portraits on its head.

Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills” are a series of black and white photographs that she created between 1977 and 1980. The “Film Stills” consist of seventy-seven images, in which Sherman posed as various characters, ranging from the starlet to the housewife, from the vamp to the victim, drawing on the stereotypes and archetypes of Hollywood’s golden age.

In each photograph, Sherman appears as a different character, complete with costume, makeup, and accessories, and the images are shot in such a way that they resemble movie stills from a bygone era. However, unlike movie stills, Sherman’s “Film Stills” are not taken from a specific film, but rather they are imagined scenarios that draw on a range of film genres, including melodramas, horror films, and noir thrillers.

Later in her career, she expanded her exploration of gender and identity to include a wider range of characters, including clowns, old women, and fictional as well as historical figures.

Below, for example, is a fictional band and album cover with both characters, Teddy and Jenni, represented by Sherman herself. Adding another layer of irony, the two fictional characters perform works in a tribute album dedicated to two other fictional characters.

So as we see through her photographs, Cindy Sherman creates a wide range of characters and personas, often using elaborate costumes, props, prosthetics, and make-up to transform her appearance. Her work also challenges the idea of the self-portrait as an inherently honest and truthful representation of the artist and instead suggests that self-portraits are inherently constructed and performative.

Lately, in an embrace of digital enhancements and new technologies of generated imagery, Sherman continues to push the boundaries of Self. Check out her Instagram if you want to blur the lines between self, self portrait, and selfies!

Selfies Today

Today, self-portraits continue to be an important form of self-expression, with the rise of social media leading to a new wave of self-portraiture. With the ease of taking and sharing selfies, self-portraits have become more democratic and accessible, allowing people from all walks of life to showcase their individual perspectives and experiences.

Whether selfies taken with cell phones can be considered art is a matter of debate and subjective interpretation. Some argue that selfies taken with cell phones are not art because they lack the technical skill and craftsmanship required of traditional forms of art. Others argue that the rise of smartphone technology and the democratization of photography has allowed for a more inclusive and diverse range of self-expression, making selfies taken with cell phones a valid form of art.

From a contemporary art perspective, selfies can be considered a form of self-portraiture and can be evaluated based on the intention and creativity of the person taking the selfie. If a selfie is used to explore personal identity, emotions, and experiences in a thoughtful and innovative way, it can be considered a form of artistic expression.

Ultimately, whether selfies taken with cell phones are considered art depends on the individual’s perspective and understanding of what constitutes art. Some may view them as a valid form of self-expression and creative endeavor, while others may dismiss them as a byproduct of modern narcissism or a mere form of self-promotion.

In conclusion, the history of the self-portrait is a rich and diverse one, reflecting the changing attitudes and technologies of each era. From the idealized depictions of the Renaissance to the introspective expressions of the 20th century, self-portraits have provided a unique window into the lives and personalities of the artists who created them and continue to be an important form of self-expression today.

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