Self-in­volved Are artists’ self-por­traits the orig­i­nal self­ies, and do they re­flect the nar­cis­sism of the so­cial me­dia trend?

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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.

Per­sonal per­cep­tion

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.bryan­lewis­saun­

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.

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