Jun 19, 2008

"great scott!"

© Gustave Courbet: 'Self Portrait (The Desperate Man)'

I guess I missed out on the big photographic SP movement that was 20 years ago. Apparently "For the better part of the last few decades, self-portraits haven't been a part of contemporary artistic production".

A couple of weeks ago I signed up for Facebook and Twitter. One of the first thing both sites asked me to do was to upload a picture of myself. Well, that seemed a little overly familiar, so I supplied both with a fantastic 1906 Matisse self-portrait from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. A week later I became Pierre Bonnard.

Once upon a time self-portraiture was an artistic staple. Self-portraits are some of the most famous, recognizable work by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Courbet, Picasso, Beckmann, Warhol and hundreds of other artists. For the better part of the last few decades, self-portraits haven't been a part of contemporary artistic production. There's Chuck Close, there's Cathy Opie and after that the field thins. (The most common contemporary self-portraits are the distanced, filtered, Cindy Sherman/Nikki S. Lee/Matthew Barney type.)

Enter Facebook and Twitter, which have been where self-portraits go to live. While artists are increasingly disinterested in self-portraits, the rest of us are in love with them. At right is part of my Facebook friends lineup. It's got it all: Straightforward head shots, quirkiness, a picture of a tech geek with a satellite telescope in the background, legs, and look-how-casual-I-am. My Facebook pals are using their self-portraits to tell us something about them... which is not so different from what artists have done for hundreds of years. Picasso was reminding us that he's an artist and a worker. Courbet's self-portrait is image-as-marketing. Opie shares her journey from 1994's leathergirl to today's mom (and by so doing reminds us of changes in GLBT America).

At some point self-portraits will come back. Art history as a way of pulling artists back in, if only as a way of allowing themselves to measure themselves against the past. Gerhard Richter's 1996 self-portrait 1632 vs. 1669). There's this Las Meninas-referencing 2005 David Hockney too. Richter and Hockney waited until they were old enough to compare themselves -- if Richter made a self-portrait before 1996, when he was 64, I can't think of it. When 23-year-old David Hockney made a self-portrait, he hid any obvious reference to self. ('48' = David Hockney. 'D' is the fourth letter of the alphabet, 'H' is the eighth. Hockney pictured himself with '23 23,' Walt Whitman.)

I'm not suggesting that Caryn Coleman-on-her-couch-reading is destined for MoMA. But when artists are surrounded with self-portraits at every digital turn, it's easy to understand why they don't bother to compete with their cousin's camera phone-as-self-promotion. Thanks to technology, we're all Courbet.

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