Self-involved Are artists’ self-portraits the original selfies, and do they reflect the narcissism of the social media trend?
Selfies and self-portraits do have some things in common. The term selfie is a shortening of self-portrait and obviously, both are images of the self created by that same self.
It goes further that this, though. “Selfies obey the same rules as other portraits, in that they more often show more of the subject’s left side rather than right side, in keeping with the historical preference in portrait painting,” says experimental psychologist George Mather. The tendency to show more of the subject’s left cheek is thought to be due to this side producing more intense expressions of emotion, and therefore revealing more of one’s identity.
But the psychological functions of the selfie and self-portrait are very different, argues Dr Maria Walsh, theory leader at Chelsea College of Art & Design. She says that while the selfie “seems to be about an exchange of exhibitionist ‘here I am’s’,” the self-portrait helps the artist to probe and examine their own personality. “It’s a way to understand the fragility and resilience of the human condition, but also to question received ideas about identity,“says Dr Walsh.
George agrees with this analysis. “Portraits aim to reveal and document their subject in terms of appearance, temperament, mood and status,” he says. “Artists have used selfportraits at least partly as a form of selfanalysis, to penetrate and reveal their own character.” In other words, having complete self-awareness is essential to great art.
Take the legendary Frank Frazetta’s selfportrait, an oil-painting created in 1962. Sara Frazetta, the artist’s granddaughter and one of the founding members of the Frazetta Girls who promote his work today, explains why Frank created it.
“At this time in his life he was being turned away from jobs and heard critics saying, ‘Frazetta is washed up,’” she reveals. “He used that time of his life to create his selfportrait and prove the naysayers wrong. The brush strokes vividly show the array of emotions, while his eyes are piercing, intense and signify his perseverance to reveal his raw talent. This piece was personal.”
This wasn’t the only time Frank used his own image in his work, Sara adds. “I feel
Artists have used selfportraits at least partly as a form of self-analysis, to reveal their own character
that most of my grandfather’s men in his paintings were inspired by his own physique,” although she concedes that “some muscularity was embellished a bit”. She continues: “I mean, whose body do we know better than our own? He could photograph himself and use his own body as a reference.”
Sara believes there’s more to a selfportrait than mere narcissism, and not just in her grandfather’s case. “Every artist has a different reason for painting a self-portrait. It could be mere self-expression to being an introvert who’d rather use themselves as a reference, rather than a stranger.”
If self-portraits are about self-examination, some artists take it further than others. At one end of the spectrum is Bryan Saunders, best known for his self-portrait series DRUGS, which he created while intoxicated.
Bryan has made it his 20year long mission to create a new individual self-portrait every day – recording both pleasure and pain. His aim is to enrich his life experiences and expand his perception, elevating his life, art, creativity and consciousness.
In true artist style, Bryan makes himself the spectacle, “The way that I do selfportraits, spontaneously during physical and mental experiences, it’s as if I’m both the scientist and the lab rat,” he reveals. His doodles during extreme emotional states, physical turmoil and while inebriated on drugs all could be seen as masochistic, and each experiment is documented through his website ( www.bryanlewissaunders.org).
But, they are self-analytical. His portraits play out like a diary, taking the idea of selfreflection to the extreme. “Individually, I think of my self-portraits like cells; some die quickly while others regenerate and bond together, forming this new type of sensory organ that I have and it’s this organ that enables me to perceive myself from an entirely new and external point of view.” he says. “Quite often I use the self-portraits to turn unwanted feelings into ones that are more desirable or manageable.”
At the other end of the spectrum, veteran comic book artist Bryan Talbot, doesn’t feel there’s anything emotionally poignant about his selfportraits – although psychologists may argue this happens nonetheless on a subliminal level. Either way, Bryan has painted himself numerous times throughout his 40-year long career, and says he sees himself as just another character.
His introduction to self-portraits wasn’t a personal, reflective project at all. The first strip he did with himself as a character (the narrator) was for Heartbreak Hotel magazine, where each month an artist was asked to do a strip about themselves.
“It’s not particularly realistic,” Bryan explains, “It’s usually easier than drawing other characters. I only illustrate myself when there needs to be a narrator and I think it would be fitting if it was myself who’s talking directly to the reader.”
In the world of sequential art, the narrative behind the images isn’t about the artists’ identity and self-discovery, and neither is it about narcissism. “I already know how daft I look,” Bryan says. “I’m not actually drawing myself but a character, a stylised image if you like, representing me.”
I’m not drawing myself but a character, a stylised image representing me
Bryan Talbot’s self-portrait simply advertises a DVD
documentary about his work.
Judgmental to Humility is Bryan Saunders’ record of his emotional states during one of
his many DRUGS sessions.
Frazetta’s piercing eyes signify his perseverance and determination to show the world his raw talent Bryan Saunders painted Soma after taking the muscle relaxant Carisoprodol.
Bryan Saunders incorporated his own blood into this illustration, entitled Bit My Tongue Last Night.