Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see? asks Lawrence Farago in the opening paragraph of an essay in the New York Times about self-portraits and Albrecht Dürer.
Selfies are everywhere. The Google arts and Culture page estimates that about 93 million selfies are taken and uploaded onto social media every day. Social platforms like Instagram were specifically designed for the iPhone in 2010. Selfies are the major means of self-expression in our times. Few realise that selfies have art royalty in its bloodlines in the form of Albrecht Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528.
Dürer was a genius, one of the most remarkable artists of all times. He is regarded as the father of self-portraits. Prior to Dürer, self-portraits were rare. Dürer changed that. He was obsessed with his image and painted numerous self-portraits. For artists like Dürer, self-portraits were a means of self- expression. Think of self-portraits by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to mention but a few. Today, with the advent of the selfie, self-portraits are everywhere. They are the major means of self-expression.
Farago’s questions about portraits are similar to those asked by the foremost cultural critic of our times, the late John Berger. In his book Portraits, Berger writes pithy essays about 74 artists. Berger, looking at the same self-portraits of Dürer as Farago had, asks why people seek images that depict them? His first response is that any person who has a portrait painted about them, seeks to produce evidence that they lived. It is a voluntary existential act with a particular look that is unique to the subject of the portrait.
As always, Berger digs deeper and suggests that the appearance and look of the subject has a duality. First, it is an image of a particular person. Secondly the image interrogates the looker of the portrait, and asks what the looker thinks about the image. Any journalist will tell you that any story is about the “w’s”, “what, when, who and why”. The person who created the image (selfie included) asks the same question and seeks to answer the question by means of how the subject is presented in an image.
Selfies say a lot of things. They tell stories or can poke fun at us. I once saw a selfie where the maker of the image stands in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The caption of the image says one of these faces are worth $860 million dollars.
Farago who is no media hack, studied art history at Yale and won the acclaimed Rabkin Prize in 2018 for art criticism, is rather cynical about selfies. He writes “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands”.
Farago argues that Dürer is the principal perpetrator of the myth upon which selfies stands. In this respect he looks at Dürer’s self-portrait painted in Munich in 1500. It is a magnificent painting. More so because flat mirrors did not exist at the time. Farago writes that the detail in the portrait evokes divine inspiration. Just look at Dürer’s hair in the image. Dark and light intertwined, displaying immense skill. Study the eyes and ask whether you see a window in them. Dürer’s gaze is intense, so much so that it troubles lookers. One person even damaged those eyes by poking needles into them. Farago also writes that the myth about self-portraits, is not innate but manufactured. He sees arrogance in the portrait but also believes that it is the best portrait ever.
Berger in turn regarded Dürer as the first one man, avant-garde. Dürer did his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was 13 years old. His talent, even at that age, was remarkable. Like Farago, Berger sees the divine in Dürer’s self-portrait of Munich 1500.
Berger wrote that Dürer’s self-portraits were theatrical in the sense that they conveyed something more than what he actually was. In the Munich portrait, Berger suggests that Dürer presented himself as deity. It is not blasphemous because the artist was a devout and practicing Christian. Berger’s suggests that the divine is an awareness of the artist and of his creativity. At the very same time Dürer was aware that he was living in a world of suffering and that his magnificent creativity was impotent to do anything about human suffering.
Both critics conclude that self-portraits are designed to represent the ego in a flattering manner. In that sense the artist, whether it is the hand holding a telephone for a selfie, or a brush loaded with paint, is misrepresenting the self. Upon looking at the Dürer self-portrait two things stand out. One is that Dürer was truly a magnificent artist. His ability to do detail is genius. He was concerned with portraying himself exactly as he was. The missing part is, despite the self-portraits, we do not know who and what Dürer was like. That question hangs in the air, just like with most selfies.
Written by Luisa Blignaut.