Just lately the subject of self-portraiture is rather in the air. I seem to be overcoming my aversion to showing photos of myself somewhat. Admittedly the last one was back view only, but that was partly to show the shape of the jacket better, I don't mind this one either:
And these aren't even selfies; I suppose one of the things about taking one's own photo, consciously, with all the redundancy digital technology allows, is the control over one's features one has, with the option of deleting all but the ones we like. Unlike those snaps that other people take when you aren't aware of it, talking or laughing, the angle just catching the double chin at its most horribly evident, the mouth slack or distorted, or even worse the ones you know they're taking, but without the benefit of seeing ourselves as others see us, so you start holding your face in a certain kind of unnatural fixed pout or grimace. Or I do anyway, I've seen other people whose faces relax into beautiful repose in front of the camera but I'm not one of them; Tom always laughs when he sees me approach a reflective surface or be approached by a pointing lens, and imitates my pursed lips and widened eyes.
I don't particularly mind the neologism 'selfie', it doesn't seem to me necessarily to carry a negative value judgement. We've long been ambivalent, it seems to me, about 'self-' as a prefix: selfishness, self-centredness, self-indulgence, self-regard, self-satisfaction, self-seeking = bad, but self-preservation, self-esteem, self-reliance, self-knowledge = good. (Self-love and self-consciousness are more opaque). The self-taken photograph is simply something we can now easily do, so we do it. Younger people maybe do it rather more because they're more concerned, for better or worse, with how they appear, more attached to their toys, and youth is pretty of course (no, I know, not more beautiful, nor more interesting, nor superior in any way to age, but undeniably pretty), but none of that's anything new. The camera phone or webcam or whatever now enables us to see how we will appear in the image we make, whereas previously we couldn't see through the camera when we turned it on ourselves, or had to take our reflected image in a mirror, where the camera often got in the way. Though I still can't quite get used to my image in the webcam not moving symmetrically with me as it does in the mirror, but seeming to go the other way, and my newish silvery pre-molar crown which glints when I stretch my mouth, to smile or pretend to, apparently on the other side.
Self-portraiture also seems to be something of a theme because of the Rembrandt Late Works exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which has been mentioned quite a bit around the place. We won't get to see it, but we very much enjoyed Simon Schama's TV preview of it (the link is to a review of the programme, it's been on BBC I-Player but you can't get that outside of the UK and it runs out tonight anyway), and it was also the central topic of today's Start the Week on Radio 4 (that link available indefinitely), which I happened to switch on this morning. An excellent presenter (Tom Sutcliffe, who I don't remember hearing before but he was quite as good as his predecessors), and four very impressive guests from different disciplines, including Betsy Wieseman, the curator of the exhibition, all of whom have clearly prepared their own contributions carefully and speak eloquently but come across as spontaneous and - dare I say it - unself-conscious, and who have also clearly studied and the other guests' work and show one another great respect. It's a joy to listen to for that reason alone.
It was posited that making the self-portraits the central element of the exhibition's presentation was perhaps a sign of the times, that at one time it might have been a big group portrait or a historical or biblical scene or whatever that might have caught people's interest. Self-portraits however, have always been of valued, most artists of the time and before and since did them and their patrons wanted them. Rembrandt's, it was agreed, were more candid, more frank, more ugly and self-exposing, all the things everyone says about them; his gaze at himself is steady, concentrated, solitary, as opposed to that in Vandyck's self-portraits, where his 'quicksilver glances' seem to be always flitting over his shoulder, anxious as to who else is looking at him and how. But Rembrandt's apparent candour may be deceptive; he was frequently dressed up oddly, and trying out moods and attitudes and expressions - what does melancholy look like, or anger, or despair? Rather perhaps as the self-snapping smartphoners might?
The programme explores the tension between the negative and positive ways in which self-regard has been viewed culturally and historically; Narcissus, it seems, was not always considered a vain and preening wuss: Voltaire's view of him was as a hero of interiority, the examined life, retreat from worldliness in order to know oneself, even Ovid's original version of the story hinges much more on his unawareness that it is himself he is seeing; it was largely Freud, who seems to have done a lot of unhelpful and unnecessary pathologising of things to a dubious agenda, who identified narcissism as an arrested and unhealthy state.
And there are many other gems and insights: the received idea that self-regard and hence self-portraiture took off in the 15th century when the Venetians started making flat glass mirrors is probably false, these were very expensive and uselessly small, people were doing it long before that by other means - convex mirrors, polished metal, water. (So we aren't always led by the nose by the material technology...); that people like Montaigne started the trend in ideas which the visual artists took up; Montaigne himself was inspired and encouraged in his own quest for an examined life by seeing an early self-portrait painting by a contemporary royal artist. And then there was this quote from Martin Buber:
We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves
So, take a selfie today in the right spirit, and don't feel bad about it. And if you've any time left after reading this self-indulgent ramble, listen to the programme.