Selfies versus self portraits: Is there any difference?

May 16, 2015

With a ‘selfie’ saturated social media, do we live in a self involved society of ‘brand me’, where we offer the everyday and edited versions of our private selves for public consumption, or are we participating in what people have been doing for hundreds of years: capturing our likeness in a picture to portray us as we see ourselves, or as we wish to be seen?

Artists have been creating self-portraits in picture, paint and sculpture for eons. Early painters like Rembrandt produced 60 self portraits, serving as an autobiographical narrative of his life. Later painters like Frida Kahlo, made their lives and emotions the focus of their self-portraits. As a teenager, Kahlo was horribly injured in a traffic accident, rendering her unable to have children. She spent much of her life in pain, suffering from medical complications and recovering from procedures. She often painted her self portraits from the waist up, sometimes broken or injured, yet always determined, resilient and looking you square in the eye.

This wasn’t always the case with Van Gogh whose self portraits often show a shifted gaze. Although he painted heady yellow sunflowers, night skies of swirling blue and fields of yellow straw, all infused with a sunny yellow ambiance, his disposition was not so sunny. He was believed to be addicted to paint chemicals and absinthe, a drink known to produce yellow vision in addicts.

Whether it’s deliberate or unintentional, self portraits can reveal everything, or they can reveal absolutely nothing. Andy Warhol was an artist who’s self portraits baffled. Completed over several decades, every expression looked the same: blank and bored. Yet the colours, the hair or the props scream, ‘Look at me!’

Warhol himself said, ‘Just look at the surface of my films and my paintings and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it’. Either the self portraits portray a shallow man, or a man who did not want to be seen as anything more than that. Were they a mask to keep his privacy?

In more recent years, the post presidential self portraits of George W. Bush have left some perplexed. Both are bathroom based. In the first, Bush is bathing under the running water of a shower. In the second we see his legs under the running water of a slightly murky grey bath. The legs in the bath self portrait remind me a little of a Frida Kahlo painting, ‘What I saw in the water’. Painted in 1938, it shows her toes poking out of the bath water and also reflected back in the water, pointing back at the events of her life and the sadness of not experiencing motherhood.

The last time I drew or painted a self portrait was probably age 8. Siblings, sunshine and stick figures would have probably featured. But if I were to do a self portrait now, how would I represent myself?

What would yours look like? Are you peaceful or pensive? Surrounded by people or things you love or in an empty room? How would you capture your likeness?

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