Tracing the antecedents of selfie in the practice of self-portraits by artists and the motives behind them both.
‘Selfie’ is kind of a contradictory word. It’s hardly a self-portrait; it’s more often a photograph with one’s friends and family members. No event is considered complete these days without this newly acquired custom.
The fascination with taking one’s own pictures may be a recent phenomenon but the motives behind this can be traced back to centuries. It is not being self-obsessed but a means to make one known to others even for a few moments, till the next post is uploaded by someone else that is.
Go to a historic site or monument and you will see identities of ordinary human beings scrawled with a sharp tool on the walls; sometimes, people manage to write their names on the bark of trees.
The impulse to scrawl one’s name on an old building or in public spaces (one can even spot signatures, phone numbers and political preferences on the doors of public toilets!) is a way of gaining glory, even short-term recognition. But inscribing one’s name on a structure that has been there for centuries is also a way to attain a life longer than normal.
Others who do not put their names on public sites or monuments make art — since art too is a means to get recognition and ensures some sort of continuation of one’s life after death.
Reading a text, enjoying a piece of music, watching a film or a work of visual arts, one picks words, hears sound, sees characters moving and looks at the art material transformed by the maker even if the creator had died decades ago. Whenever I read a poem of Arthur Rimbaud written when he was 20, it’s a man of 20 who stays in my thoughts. He won’t perish. Listening to Ustad Bare Ghulam Ali Khan or watching a film of Smita Patel or passing by the sculpture of Zahoor ul Akhlaq every morning on my way to NCA remind me of the artistes who are still around.
All works of art, apart from their intended/inherent content, contain an imprint of personality — or personality cult — of the makers. The style of the creator may be there but not necessarily the authorship. In performing arts, one does encounter the performer. Likewise, a poem or a piece of prose usually includes name of the author. But when it comes to works of visual arts, the creator is not always visible. It is difficult to sign one’s name on a piece of sculpture, a photograph, a video installation. One does come across signatures of artists on paintings and drawings, but not always. Arguably, the earliest examples of an artist’s signature were the impressions of hands on the walls of Prehistoric painting.
That is perhaps why there has been a tradition of making self-portraits. Two most important examples of self-portrait in the history of art come from a single European country, Holland — Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh. Both painters produced self-portraits in different stages of their lives, but for different reasons. (Apparently, Van Gogh painted himself because he could not afford to pay for a model.) However, one sees canvases after canvases of artists painting themselves, especially in the modern era, like Matisse, Picasso, Lucien Freud and Chuck Close. In Pakistan, too, one can find a number of self-portraits by Zubeida Agha, Ali Imam, Saeed Akhtar, Iqbal Hussain, Kaleem Khan, Rahat Naveed Masud and several others.
Also, it is assumed that all works of an artist are self-portraits in a way. The figures in Sadequain’s drawings and paintings certainly recall the features of the artist. In fact, many artists have made one or two self-portraits. But, treating self as a medium to convey other messages has been a relatively marginal activity.
Artists such as Cindy Sherman used self to construct images which have multiple meanings about the change of personality in an age that is known for its enticement of images in public consciousness. She appears as different characters in her work. This can be observed in the works of Amber Hammad, who chooses to acquire multiple identities (Mona Lisa, Ophelia) in order to covey ideas about the present world, using metaphors from past. In a sense, her work is a critique on past imagery and an investigation into the relationship between art of painting and photography.
With the advent of photography, artists are no longer making their ‘pictures’ or don’t feel the need to do so, because camera can perform that task more quickly, correctly and economically (some are modelling for fashion shoots as well!) Thus in our art, one hardly knows of a painter who is employing self-portrait as a major mode of expression. The last exhibition of R. M. Naeem depicted the painter as diverse characters but those were not self-portraits in the strict sense of the word.
The demise of self-portrait in art is both a blessing as well as a point to ponder. Artists are no longer obsessed with themselves as ‘fabricators’ of objects, but present themselves as organisers who ‘produce’ (like in a factory) their art works (Carl Andre, Subodh Gupta). Their input or the touch of the artist in some instances is not evident or visible; the way the work is made, it is all about images, manufactured often using mechanical means.
Maybe, the popularity of a technical device like camera has decreased the practice of making self-portraits. Another practical aspect about self-portrait is its saleability. In the past, artists painted self-portraits knowing fully well that nobody was going to buy them. With art becoming a collectible entity, the artists are careful about not selecting an image or subject which is least appealing to a collector.
Alongside, there is a decline in the making of figure compositions; a subject that was favoured by many painters for formal, illustrative and sentimental reasons (such as Iqbal Hussain) is no more popular. With works of art becoming expensive, some collectors are not comfortable displaying canvases with unknown characters in their living rooms. Therefore, the art of making self-portraits or human figures is not a strong component of our art now, more so because of photography.
David Hockney, an artist who has always been interested in human form and diverse methods of representing it, on the occasion of his exhibition of portraits at the Royal Academy of Art, London talks about this distance between a photograph (a selfie) and a painting: “A portrait is a 20-hour exposure. Most photos are a fraction of a second….. That’s why I think photography has been making the world a bit too dull. The world isn’t dull — it’s marvellous.”
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