The Selfie and the Self-Portrait

Have we all seen the new iPhone X ads? Stunning selfies of people of different ages and backgrounds adorn the sides of skyscrapers and curved ad boards downtown Dallas, next to hip restaurants and scattered Limebikes. Or perhaps you've seen the commercial, with Muhammed Ali's voice in the background:  "I'm so modest, I can admit my own faults and my only fault is I don't realize how great I really am!"

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The selfie....like ordering dinner, or pretty much whatever you want, it's simply the touch of a button on a glass pane. I remember back in the day, when I took my own photograph (which was rare)... I had to find a tripod, or make-shift a shoddy one, and then borrow my mom's SLR with a self-timer. A Polaroid camera or a little 110-film camera held at arm's length and aimed at your face would most likely produce a portrait of the nose. (The "nosie" never took off.) Not only that, but I had to wait a week for the film to be developed, especially when we couldn't afford 1-hr film developing. The photographs, once excitedly picked up, or received in the mail, if disliked, had to be physically, frustratingly, torn up and thrown in the trash or---if truly angered---burned. (Actually, I've only burned paintings.) Today, however, our image is created and destroyed in an instant, minimal neurons (and emotions) fired. It's lightening fast image creation, a pose-snap-post-and-watch-the-likes-roll-in-(or not)-world. 

I understand it's rather late to enter the conversation. One of my favorite museums, The Getty, in Los Angeles, published an article defining the difference between the terms in 2015. Selfie was word of the year for Oxford English dictionary in 2013. Scientists, educators and sociologist are already waist-deep in assessing the implications of these changes, while less than a year ago, I skipped around rather oblivious in my flip phone world. Bear with me. I now peer through the window with guiding thoughts toward children creating art today. 

What does the readily accessible visual vocabulary of the selfie imply for these growing creators? I ruminate how the word 'awe' and 'awesome' once contained within it not just the viewpoint of a mountaintop, but the sights, sounds, fragrances, pains, sweats, and repeating footsteps of the long and strenuous climb to the peak. Yesterday the young man wearing a reflector vest in the Chick-fil-A take-out line used the word as a verbal cue that he heard my order correctly. 

Let's back up a few centuries. 


 Miyamoto Musashi,   Self-portrait ,   Samurai , writer and artist, c. 1640

Miyamoto Musashi, Self-portrait, Samurai, writer and artist, c. 1640

I wonder.... if it were possible to map the brain, the intuition, and the heart during portrait painting, how much would light up with activity during the creation of a self-portrait of, say, 15th century Japan. In the above painting, the artist is a Samurai, philosopher, author. What is involved in the creation of such a portrait? The life of the work began with the turning the ink stick  ( mò) round and round in the water on the inkstone---a meditative process, during which the artist empties the mind and envisions the work. He stands on two feet, with balanced weight; he breathes deeply; he has a reverence for his brush and the perfection with which it is held. 

 The inkstone: one of the 文房四宝 "Four Treasures of the Study."

The inkstone: one of the 文房四宝 "Four Treasures of the Study."

In Musashi's work above, the lines exude grace, confidence, and beauty of movement. His flow and mode of creation is one of harmony and wholeness.....no eraser, no tearing up, no deleting. 


Or shall we consider Flemish painter Caterina van Hemessen's self portrait? She began, most likely, with a careful drawing, possibly a measured grid, and after that, a preparation of the board, the preliminary sketch, the initial imprimatura (transparent stain of color painted on a ground), followed by the use of mortar and pestle, the mixing of the mediums and paint, and following that---the painstakingly careful slow-building of layer upon layer of paint. Imagine the time and space, the hours of calm and quiet! At such lengths of patient sustained activity, the reward is in the work itself.

 Caterina van Hemessen,  Self Portrait , 1548

Caterina van Hemessen, Self Portrait, 1548

Rembrandt, the Master, lived a career punctuated by a moving array of self-portraits. He created nearly one hundred self-portraits over his lifetime, in drawing, painting, and etching. Introspective, meditative work was his way of being. In the following work, the groves of his brow he formed with his own hand, just as love, sorrow and strain over time formed him.

He presents himself to us unfiltered. 

 Rembrandt,  Self Portrait , 1659

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659

These processes in mind, I share simple artworks created by my students, working over over several sessions, with pastel on newsprint. I compare their beautiful work to the self-portraits of great artists of our past. The famous portraits below were not shown to the children, nor did I have the masterworks in mind beforehand. The students were given: charcoal, pastels, a mirror,  guiding instructions, and the space and freedom to work at a steady, slow pace. I believe this is one place to bridge the gap between our rapid-fire world and slowing down to contemplate: to be oneself, seeing oneself. 

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 Edgar Degas , Degas in a Green Jacket , 1855 

Edgar Degas, Degas in a Green Jacket, 1855 

 Artwork by male student, age 12

Artwork by male student, age 12

 Frida Kahlo,  Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird , 1940

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

 Artwork by female student, age 10

Artwork by female student, age 10

 Paul Gaguin,  Self-Portrait-Dedicated-to-Carriere , 1889

Paul Gaguin, Self-Portrait-Dedicated-to-Carriere, 1889

 10-yr-old boy

10-yr-old boy

 Fayum Mummy Portrait (not a self-portrait)

Fayum Mummy Portrait (not a self-portrait)

 Male student, age 11

Male student, age 11

 Angelica Kauffmann,  Self-Portrait,  1780-1785

Angelica Kauffmann, Self-Portrait, 1780-1785

 Artwork by female student, age 14

Artwork by female student, age 14