Anyone who has walked through a renowned art gallery will have witnessed multiple spectacles unfolding simultaneously. Crowds swarm and queues form for the best possible glimpse of prized works, all whilst a muted kerfuffle conveys collective excitement in a space designated as respectfully quiet.
And, of course, there are plenty of photos being taken. Interestingly, visitors are now not only capturing memories of the artworks, but, more increasingly, images of themselves gazing upon or standing beside these pieces. Perhaps a selfie in front of Van Gogh’s likeness, or a ‘couple pic’ amongst one of Warhol’s iconic prints. Juxtaposing modern self-portraiture against that of the past is an intriguing sight, but more interestingly, it is a reminder that this supposedly ‘modern’ fascination with capturing ourselves is not actually particularly modern. With the transition from canvas to smartphone, all that’s really altered is the medium for this work.
Selfies are typically demarcated as a distinctly millennial phenomenon, and cultural commentary often pathologizes the practice. Framing this mode of self-portraiture amongst terms such as ‘narcissism’, ‘low self-esteem’, ‘mental health’, ‘obsession’ and ‘disorder’ implies that young people are abnormally obsessed with curating their personal image.
Despite this, the desire to present a carefully controlled, self-styled image can be observed throughout history. Looking upon the trajectory of visual art, humans have seemingly always yearned to express themselves in particular, stylised ways. Regardless of whether individuals have created the image themselves or required someone else to construct their idealised self-portrait, there has been a persistent desire for individuals to display themselves visually in a carefully crafted manner. More importantly, there persists the desire for others to perceive and recognise this constructed image as who we actually are.
The practice of deliberate, visual construction was well-established in Ancient Egypt, where those in positions of immense wealth and power commissioned art for the purposes of public glorification. Think of Thutmose’s famed bust of Queen Nefertiti. This work, crafted by the designated court sculptor, deliberately presents Nefertiti as a paradigm of feminine beauty. Currently housed in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the delicate curvature of the Queen’s features notably differentiates this artwork from the more blockish style of earlier Egyptian art. The long, slender neck, symmetrical features and luxurious crown intentionally imbue the statue with a sense regal authority; the Queen was rendered a sight to behold for both her elegance and power, and later on, became an artefact of immense cultural significance.
Consequentially, by capturing themselves amidst these culturally significant artefacts, selfie-snappers attempt to imbue their own image with a similar sense of cultural capital. By portraying oneself as interested and appreciative of highbrow art, one seemingly conveys an aura of sophistication and worldliness. We weave the cultural associations of these particular works into our own deliberately projected identity, with a picture of someone admiring Nefertiti saying more about the admirer than the artwork itself.
What’s particularly interesting about Nefertiti’s bust is that it was actually discovered in Thutmose’s workshop. This indicates that it was likely a model on which future works were to be based, rather than an artwork to be exhibited itself. Upon this discovery, archaeologists also uncovered several other masks, busts and faces – all of which were modelled in a style even more naturalistic than Nefertiti. Thutmose’s work, dotted with wrinkles, folds and other sorts of idiosyncratic imperfections, highlighted many human ‘flaws’ typically smoothed over in art. Indeed, when researchers later scanned Nefertiti’s bust, they found the original sculpture’s cheekbones were less sharply defined, her cheeks were more wrinkled and her nose even possessed a slight bump. Seemingly, Thutmose initially captured Nefertiti in flawed accuracy, before eradicating these imperfections to project an image of divine, feminine beauty. Glossing over her physical flaws with the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Photoshop or FaceTune, Thutmose thus curated a specific image of the Queen designed to inspire awe in its perfection.
This desire to present a highly crafted image of oneself persisted as new artistic genres emerged. Portraiture become a particularly salient genre throughout Europe in the 16th century, which European monarchs capitalised on to project intensely calculated, often propagandistic portrayals of themselves.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of Henry VIII from 1536-37 (since destroyed, but copied by many artists whose work still exist today), is a fantastic example of how court painters were commissioned to present an image the monarch wanted their people to see, rather than a truthfully realistic image of the declining king.
The portrait was intended to be included as part of larger mural of the Tudor dynasty and is considered one of the most iconic portrayals of Henry VIII. Despite the fact that no swords, crowns or sceptres are present, Holbein still effectively imbues this image with a sense of royal majesty. Henry’s posture is aggressive; he stands erect, gazing directly towards the viewer with his limbs framed in a warrior’s pose. Additionally, Henry’s finery is incredibly ornate, his detailed clothing emanating luxury, his bejewelled person exuding opulence. Furthermore, the notably large codpiece and extravagantly padded shoulders exaggerate his masculinity. Henry is thus envisioned as a thriving, robust monarch. Holbein’s picture of gleaming vitality and aggression intentionally portrays the king as a regal force to be reckoned with.
However, when Henry’s actual situation is considered, it’s evident that Holbein’s constructed image presents a significant distortion of reality. Henry was markedly shorter and less imposing in stature than the image suggests. Moreover, despite this portrait’s depiction of Henry as radiating health and virility, he would have been in his mid- forties and plagued by various health issues and ten years from his death. Painted at a time of political turmoil, Holbein’s piece is often considered a masterstroke of political propaganda. Going a stretch further than merely airbrushing away a few blemishes or slimming out one’s waistline, Holbein’s skill was used to visually represent a certain image that bolstered broader confidence in the struggling monarch.
A modern parallel can be observed when we consider the idea of the ‘propaganda selfie’ in relation to smartphone selfies. When scrolling through social media now, it’s common to encounter an ‘influencer’ posing in trendy clothing amidst exotic scenery which was all paid for, of course, by the brand or product they’re implicitly promoting. But beyond promoting external brands, influencers carefully curate ‘selfies’ and other sorts of visual content to promote themselves as a brand. In fact, this has contributed to the development of an entirely new genre of celebrity: the ‘internet personality’.
There are, of course, thousands of examples of such internet personalities, and equally thousands of people who use visual media to propagate an image that reflects what they want the world to see and believe of them. In the same way that portraiture in the past was used to convey a certain image of heightened respectability and power, selfies are similarly used to distort reality, granting us the ability to control our public identity and thus project a highly calculated image into the world.
Hence it seems that the desire to present constructed self-portraits is by no means a millennial phenomenon. Humans have always yearned for control over their image and, more significantly, for the ability to control public perception. Indeed, one could argue that the advent of modern technology has led to the democratisation of self-presentation; it’s now easier than ever to project an image of ourselves that we want others to see – one that omits flaws and implies qualities we may not necessarily possess in ‘real life’. Selfies are a more frequent occurrence today than commissioned portraits were in the 16th century but this does not necessarily mean that people have become more narcissistic or vain. We have always been like this – it is simply easier now to engage in self-stylisation than it was in the past. You certainly don’t need to be royalty to fine-tune your image, and when avenues like Instagram are so widely accessible, you don’t need to be exhibited in a gallery for others to observe your work – though it does make for a great backdrop.
Beth Seychell is currently studying for her undergraduate degree, majoring in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. In her spare time, she loves watching films and working on her book blog, @bethsbibliotheque. A few of her favourite things include peacocks, laksa and anything floral-printed.