Rebirthing of the portrait

Because of the selfie?

Everyone knows the phenomenon of the selfie. This modern image is giving rise to a resurgence of portraiture. Are we living in the new era of the portrait? Never before in history have they been so popular. But is a selfie really a portrait?

It has never been so incredibly easy to create a self-image and show it to the world at the touch of a button. With the rise of the internet, social media and smartphones, the photographic portrait has grown unprecedented. Three hundred and fifty million photos are uploaded every day on Facebook alone. Today, one could say that everyone is an artist in an instant - the moment that they share a selfie with their followers.

Since 2002, the existence of the selfie has influenced how we take and interpret portraits. In my opinion, a selfie is not always a portrait. A portrait is certainly not an ordinary image, and a self-portrait is not an ordinary portrait. One portrait is not the other. A truly embodied portrait image - the focus of my research, as I experience in the work of Tom Callemin, David Wojnarowicz, Bas Jan Ader, Ana Torfs, Zanele Muholi, John Coplans and Elina Brotherus, is closely linked to a conscious vision, craft and embodiment - it is not just a quick snapshot with a colour filter over it. By returning to the studio of the visual artist, I want to leave the democratization of the portrait and reveal the craft behind making an image.

Image from the book Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, by Zanele Muholi. Aperture, 2019. The book features over ninety of Muholi's self-portraits, each image drafted from material props in Muholi's immediate environment.

Artists at work, by Elina Brotherus, part of her exposition This is the first day of the rest of your life.

There are many types of portrait, each with their own characteristics and applications. They are often closely associated with great personal meaning, or carry a significant social function. Since the Renaissance, portraiture as a genre has played an important part in social customs, rituals, and protocols. Much of our current academic approach to portraiture as an art form is linked to its stylistic aspects, alongside its role in social practices that refer back to the 15th and 16th century. A portrait at the time was a realistic representation of an existing person, with great emphasis on the symbolic representation of that person's social function - often depicted through clothing, accessories and specific postures/gestures. The portrait also took into account, in advance, where it would eventually be displayed; this gives it its purpose after all. As the precursor to the passport photo, the profile photo, the writer's portrait, the glamor photo, or the stationary portrait, the Renaissance tradition used portraits to attribute value and meaning to individuals within the community. Portraits were also always clearly, physically framed, with the intention of being hung on a wall. This increased the intensity of the image so that it could not escape the fleeting glances of passersby, and it could be deservedly acknowledged and appreciated.

A very big difference between classical portraiture and the artistic portrait of today, is that it is not made specifically to be viewed in a church, palace, or town hall, but predominantly in a museum space. The place of viewing plays a major role in how the Renaissance tradition relates to the 21st century - where the artistic portrait is more widely represented, democratized, and sometimes even mass-produced as merchandise in museum shops. At the beginning of the nineties, the internet and the world wide web unfolded. Digitization and globalization have since gone hand in hand. Suddenly, regardless of place and time, people can communicate and share data with people from other cities, countries, and continents. This also gives the original portrait its own autonomous artistic identity, far removed from portraiture which we are exposed to today. Namely, a portrait where rules were fixed, social representations were standardised, and parameters/guidelines of what a portrait should be were not as multi-layered, complex or paradoxical as today.

Yet every current portrait image can still, in one way or another, be linked or traced back to one of its original properties. In principle, a portrait is an image of a person as they are at the moment of depiction. Usually, the focus falls on the face, where the identity of the depicted body is supposedly most readable/explicit. Since my last work STRANGER, I have interpreted ‘identity’ as something people project on you when they look at you; an embodiment of who others think that you are. I believe that one can promote their own identity, but it is fundamentally determined by the other. Furthermore, how the other sees you can partly determine the malleability of your identity. As a person you can play with the image that other people have of you, in accordance with how fixed this image already is in their eyes. Identity is constituted of the play between others' pre-existing perceptions of you, and perceptions of yourself that you autonomously shape. It is a surface-level impression, unlike personality - that which cannot be read at first glance.

Poster image of STRANGER, made by Joery Erna.

Here lies an extremely interesting proposition, that has been widely discussed and written about in psychology and philosophy. That being; whether experiencing yourself as an individual is determined by the other, who defines you and to what you relate, or, whether you are defined and experience yourself as an individual because you can relate yourself to the other. Essentially; do you become someone because you are seen, or are you seen because you are someone?

The ambiguous notion of self identity has arguably become very important in contemporary portrait art. In this technological era, identity as a concept is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Communication takes place digitally across borders of country and time. This radically, and often negatively, implicates our sense of identity. In the virtual world, there are different forms of "me" walking around; avatars, digital bodies, all existing side by side. There is a growing fear of losing our identity through a multiplicity of self representations - which are so scattered and numerous that they don't represent us outside of the digital world. A fear of losing uniqueness. Local culture. Being human. Small stories that also shape the ‘I’. What or who am I concerning history, landscape and culture? Who is the other and to what extent do I differ from them? Does that difference with the other determine my identity or is it precisely when I coincide with another that I can truly identify myself?

At the same time, we also know the complexity of reading ‘identity’ from the perspective of ‘the other’ - the one that is not feeling you from the inside out. After all, there is no hard, unambiguous core in ourselves that shapes or makes visible the ‘I’. We are constantly subject to change. The fluid relationship between identity and image, ‘(re)presentation’, plays a crucial role in contemporary portraits and the current social discussions surrounding them. Reading and/or interpreting a person portrayed can inspire different definitions of their character; significantly, who they are in relation to/within a group, and what defines them as an individual. It is precisely this double layer that makes the portrait genre so interesting. Just as identity is no longer an unambiguous concept, a portrait no longer forms an unambiguous representation. The portrait can be made and/or read from an individual, cultural, social, historical, religious, ethnic, and/or gender-related dimension. In this context, it is all the more challenging for me to only look at the aspect of embodiment within contemporary portraiture, because the artistic and social significance of portraiture today often coincides with questions of the notion of identity itself.

It seems that artists are looking again, through portraiture, for a way to portray the "real” human being, meanwhile using the genre to define their artistry; the way they look at bodies and the world. Here, an interesting common ground is found with renaissance thinking. Perhaps the widespread existence of the instant selfie is at the root of our need, as artists, to return to a newly established concept of portraiture within art.


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© 2020 — Karel Tuytschaever