What is the difference between a self-portrait and a selfie? The answer to that question lies in the quality of reflection. Some of the most famous self-portraits have been painted by the Dutch artist Rembrandt – Self-Portrait with Disheveled Hair, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, etc. Perhaps one of the most recognized is housed in the Rijksmuseum in Holland and dates back to 1628.
It is one the earliest self-portraits by Rembrandt, who is perhaps the most prolific self-portrait artist, painting about 90 self-portraits in his lifetime. Why do we love these paintings so much? Do they, as they seem, peer right into his soul?
“Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses,” Rembrandt observed. So, perhaps these paintings were a visual journal, a sentimental record of the time. Or perhaps investigative documentation of aging, an exploration of emotion or maturation.
Another memorable self-portrait is the dramatic painting ‘Le Désespéré, 1845, which depicts artist Gustave Courbet with wide eyes bulging as if in great shock or despair. It is still not clear to historians if this was authentic emotion or an exercise in expression. Painted in high contrast, the character seems to leap off the canvas.
Other well-known self-portrait examples include Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, by Leonardo da Vinci, and a plethora of Frida Kahlo paintings – all part of this rich history of self-portrait painting.
Upon the advent of the camera, circa the early 1800s, however, many artists felt superfluous, that their talents and skills were simply redundant. This accusation, and justification for ‘modern art’ by many, was that the camera could reproduce an image much quicker and more accurately than a human. And so began the devaluing of the artist’s true worth, and the value of vision, of seeing, and of reflection in general. The results were an abandonment of the skills and ability to see and to create from life. Such skills were viewed as obsolete. And now, with a camera in everyone’s hand, giving us instant images, sharing, transferring, and storing at the click of a button, we have an avalanche of a new self-portrait: the selfie.
With the convenience of instant “self-portraits” via our smartphones and digital cameras, what, if anything, do we lose when we replace the artist’s self-portrait with the ubiquitous selfie?
The verb, ‘to see’ comes from Old English seon ‘to see, behold, observe, perceive, understand, experience.’ The word was used in Middle English to mean “behold in the imagination, or in a dream.” And, traditionally, the ‘seer’ is one to whom divine revelations are made. So, seeing, from the very genesis of the word, implies a deeper inquiry, even prophetic in nature, as compared to the mechanical meaning we associate with sight today.
But artists are not mechanical, not an extension of technology, carrying out mere functions of mechanics. Our dedication is to offer ‘insight,’ not merely sight. Surely it is our ability to reflect that gives one insight. The artist imbues an image with his or her own sensibilities, allowing sparks and expressions of their ‘understanding’ of the subject to come forth, rather than the mere observation of the outer physical aspect offered by photography.
In an excerpt from an earlier publication, I explored this very quest: “My work fills the studio wall. There are pencil sketches, ink drawings, some composed on the pages of a discarded encyclopedia. Hypnotized, I stare at the deluge of self-portraits that resemble myself in varying degrees. Thoughts wander. The faces on the wall staring back at me. One peeks behind an easel, another figure strikes a confident pose, others take humble squatting positions. On so many occasions I have removed clothes and stood naked, hoping to uncover something; a truth, my essence, witnessing and recording like a topographer, endeavoring discovery. I wait like a true disciple, believing that a cryptic message like a biblical verse would be revealed, the meaning of my existence, my purpose, a sagacious aspect not yet seen. Cleaving to my reflection, as if peering into a placid lake, ready to dive and merge with the reflection, like an infant who experiences herself in a mirror for the first time. I am enticed, intrigued, but ultimately disappointed by the impenetrable unyielding surface – the canvas itself. How deep can I go, determined to invoke revelation? I am model and painter, victim, and voyeur, driven to express my own subjective existence through a preoccupation with ‘objective,’ calculating observation. The very act of refining the image is, perhaps, a refinement of the self.”
The revered Russian filmmaker André Tarkovsky said, “Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in the artistic consciousness, in the selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God? Is it not the act of creation God’s work?”
Painting or sculpting ourselves, or others, for that matter, offers a precious opportunity to express or convey this enigmatic divine essence.
New Master Academy instructor Kamille Corry shares these ruminations on her countless self-portraits painted over the years:
“The ‘why’ has many different answers. It usually starts out because I need a model, and for various reasons, myself as the model is the practical option in that particular moment. Usually, the process evolves from the necessity to one of introspection and narrative.
The experience of painting myself has definitely changed over the past 25 years, from simple exercises to develop my technique, to use myself as a figure in narrative or broader symbolic themes.
I am usually a little uncomfortable in the very beginning stages of looking at myself in the mirror. But that dissipates quickly as I am problem-solving the process of making a painting or drawing. I don’t work from photographs. It is usually once the piece is finished that I fully comprehend the meaning of it or the esoteric elements woven into the work.
I absolutely encourage any artist, especially beginning students, to do many self-portraits from life.
A lot of people make the statement that art captures a moment in time, but when working from life, it captures thousands of moments in time, and therefore has the ability to render a more integral representation of the person. I think self-portraits are a unique example of a very dualistic endeavor. It is quite difficult to look at oneself objectively, and at the same time there is always the presence of the subconscious that comes through and reveals aspects of our true nature.”
Kamille Cory’s insight into her working process explains a personal reflection on the subject matter that changes over time. Taking a selfie, conversely, does not require reflection, and thus, there is no real ‘reflection.’ Ultimately, we can say that the selfie is a vacuous activity, with little, if any, enrichment for the one taking it, or for the viewer. It can serve as a reference or record of a moment, and it is here the selfie may excel. Unfortunately, in a culture that demands immediate gratification, and that favors the outer realty over the inner, the hollow is often chosen over the hallowed.
That’s not to say that traditional artists have the moral high ground – this is far from the truth, because with sight, and insight, one also has to truly want to act and improve upon what is seen. The desired intention to make one’s painting or sculpture more beautiful should be matched by the intention to make one’s own character beautiful.
So, how does one go about reflecting on the self?
In self-reflection, one acknowledges and distills thoughts and feelings in order to consider and understand why one feels, reacts, or expresses in the way that one does. Understanding and control over these thoughts and feelings is one of the ways to change one’s feelings and one’s behavior.
The renowned American philosopher, psychologist, and scholar, John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
Art historian, Jos Hanou explains Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait As Zeuxis
Laughing: “But why is he laughing, looking directly at the viewer?
The image of an old woman in the shadows on the left of the painting gives the answer. The painting refers to a legend about the antique painter
Zeuxis, who laughed himself to death after painting an old hag who had ordered a portrait of herself depicted as Aphrodite, goddess of love.
No doubt this story appealed to Rembrandt at a time in his career when buyers abandoned him in favor of a new, idealizing classicist style. By portraying himself as Zeuxis, who also often felt misunderstood by the public, Rembrandt gets the last laugh. He ridicules a world that pretends to be better than it is.”
Rembrandt’s last laugh in this provocative painting is on the beholder: his ironic gaze challenges the old woman in all of us, “one who would just as soon have an Instagram full of selfies.”
As something to keep me sane during the confinement, I gave myself the challenge to do one self portrait a day. It was a great exercise for my eye, and I went from a messy sketch to a better understanding of faces (at least my face). One advantage was that I didn’t care if it wasn’t perfect, because (a) it was me, and (b) I knew I had another chance the next day to do better. I started drawing myself in front of a mirror, then taking pictures from different angles, then at one point I knew what the ‘signposts’ on my face were, and I could draw from memory. Bored with pencil drawing, I started using other medium, mixing up styles, letting fantasy free. I advise this exercise to any artist.