14.3.14

10 Great Selfies of the Past

"Selfie" was Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year 2013. Defined as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website", is used today by celebrities to promote themselves (or to promote products/warm bodies) and by ordinary people to satisfy the perverse sense of narcissism inherent in the human being. 
Some say the selfie is a revolution against the camera's tyranny, because it puts the person being photographed in control of the photograph, and in this sense it is an art of freedom. 
And speaking of art, in fact the self-portrait is an ancient art form and it has always been functional in some way to self-promotion and narcissism.
Let's see the best selfies of the past, when brushes and palettes were used in place of smartphones and social media was churches, courts or exhibitions.

Botticelli - "Adorazione dei Magi", 1475 (detail)
In the fifteenth century artists was rockstars in their society. They were often in competition with each other, always very worried to be replaced in the good graces of the client by new talents. The self-portrait, often added in a great work, is a small (or large) narcissistic revenge to remain in the memory of posterity.
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, aka Sandro Botticelli, made a wonderful selfie in the "Adorazione dei Magi".


(Probably) Leonardo - "Autoritratto di Acerenza",
second half of the XV century
The mysterious "Autoritratto di Acerenza" was found in late 2008 by the historian Nicola Barbatelli.
After 5 years, the scientific and technical studies, supplemented by historical-artistic ones, are now definitely orienting the scholars toward a convinced attribution of the work to the hand of another rockstar painter, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The painting shows the artist at the age of 50. Those who have already had the opportunity to see the painting up close claims it is very beautiful, with an almost magnetic charm. To corroborate the hypothesis of the selfie, would also be present on the back the term "PINXIT MEA" ('painted by me') written in reverse, one of the marks typical of Leonardo.


Rembrandt - "Self-Portrait", 1629
The dozens of self-portraits by Rembrandt were an important part of his oeuvre. This is one of the first, he was 23, and it really seems that his facial expression is ready to his twitter followers...
Rembrandt created nearly one hundred self-portraits during his lifetime including approximately fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and seven drawings. The self-portraits create a visual diary of the artist over a span of forty years.


Diego Velazquez - "Las Meninas", 1656
One of the greatest masterpieces of all time (and perhaps my favorite painting ever). Velasquez made a selfie at work.
Michel Foucault wrote an interpretation of this masterpiece in the introduction to his book "Les Mots et les choses", focusing on the aspect that exhibits the first signs of a new episteme in European art: in a fabulous game of mirrors, the audience becomes the main figure of the painting, while the real heart of the art of representation is barely represented. "The necessary disappearance of the person to whom it resembles and the person in whose eyes is only a resemblance."


Gustave Courbet - "Self-portrait (The Desperate Man)", c. 1843–1845
Another great mirror game by Courbet. In his own words: "imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in supposing this thing or create it." Nevertheless, perhaps because of the technical perfection of this selfie, the mad desperation does not seem an existing thing.


Arnold Böcklin - "Self-Portrait with
Death Playing the Fiddle", 1872
Böcklin was one of the most famous exponents of the Nordic symbolist painting that is rooted in the romantic tendencies of the early nineteenth century. To quote his own words: "A painting should tell us something, suggest the viewer like a poem, and let him feel like a piece of music."


Vincent Van Gogh - "Self-portrait", 1889
Van Gogh also created many self-portraits during his lifetime. Most probably, his self-portraits are depicting the face as it appeared in the mirror he used to reproduce his face, so his right side in the image is in reality the left side of his face. 
I love this selfie, painted in Saint-Rémy less than a year before his death, especially for its typical trademark background pattern, which always gives me a sense of anguish.


M. C. Escher - "Hand with Reflecting Sphere", 1935
Escher loved reflective spheres. Selfies in reflective, spherical surfaces are common in his work. Probably this one is the most prominent and famous example. In much of his selfies of this type, Escher is in the act of drawing the sphere, whereas in this image he is seated and gazing into it. On the walls there are several framed pictures, one of which appears to be of an Indonesian shadow puppet.


Francis Bacon - "Self-portrait 1971", 1971
"Francis Bacon's painting is of a very special violence. Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, crucifixions, prostheses and mutilations, monsters. But these are overly facile detours, detours that the artist himself judges severely and condemns in his work. What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with color and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression."


Andy Wharol - "Self-portrait 1964", 1964
And finally we approach the social (and aesthetic) sense of today selfies, with the inventor of Pop Art and '15 minutes of fame'. Warhol made selfies on many occasions throughout his entire life. They were part of his self promotional nature that made his deadpan face and trademark white wig as famous as many of the celebrities he painted.

The next time you will post a selfie, remember that you are epigones of a long social and artistic tradition.

Update by the Prof:

 Albrecht Dürer - "Self-Portrait", 1500

Artemisia Gentileschi - "Autoritratto come martire", 1615

Michelangelo - "Il Giudizio Universale", 1536-1541





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