My children are posing in front of me, lips flared, bottoms sticking out – with dramatic obscenity and two fingers held up in front of their faces.
This, they tell me, is the new style for ‘selfies’.
Selfies, in case you somehow missed it, is a self portrait (photograph) posted online. And the point of the selfies, to my cynically bemused eye, is to remind the world, if not yourself, how fabulous you look! Or an opportunity for self flagellation or bullying, when the image does not fit the narrow confines of the current ‘hot’ look.
Digital cameras have unleashed the concept of self portrait to the masses. Traditionally self portraits have a long history. Frida Khalo, Lucien Freud, Picasso, Egon Schiele,Van Gogh, and Courbet all have painted striking, revealing self portraits. Frida Khalo’s art was effectively a series of self portraits where she intimately shared her deepest fears and feelings.
Mary Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun Frida Khalo
Self Portrait 1790 Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
Van Gogh – Self Portrait – Lucien Freud – Reflection (self Portrait) Sarah Lucas Self Portrait with Fried Eggs 1996
A self portrait is a reflection of deeper questions that are ever present in the constant dilemma of being human. Who am I? How do I fit in this reality? What is the purpose of my existence?
This inquiry needs self analysis, tenacity and honesty. It requires a curiosity to explore self beyond the superficial physical.
Self portraits are fascinating. What has the artist chosen to reveal or say – is it true or a lie, is it embellished or diminished? Can I, the viewer relate? What else is there, that is ineffable?
My daughter commented once, in the disparaging way that only a teenage daughter can, “you always do self portraits with new students”.
I am not sure why she did not approve, but yes, I always start with self portraits for new art students. It’s a fast way for me to learn about them, what they are interested in, and therefore, art projects they may enjoy. But more than that, it introduces the concept of self analysis, and how to portray feelings, thoughts, ideas, likes and dislikes without words.
It demands a pause. Rather than drawing a plant or painting the beach. A self portrait demands a deeper exploration into the nature of the subject – self. It allows secrets and nuance. It is subtle and bold.
It is also transformational.
Crimson Room was my first solo show—all self portraits. Each one peeled back another layer of who I was, and what I was feeling. There were paintings and photographs. Each with the intention of understanding who I was in that vulnerable and empty moment. This was no bottom sticking out, two fingered, duck lips! The photographs were in actuality a documentation of a process—the intention of the process was to move from pain, to understanding, after the sudden departure of my husband.
I think the most surprising example was a series of photographs I did with Erik Russell. Although these are technically self portraits, I needed another photographer to document the event and Erik agreed. I warned him beforehand that the shoot may be very difficult and emotional for me. And no matter how upset I got, he was not to be scared, but just to continue in a professional manner! Still stammering through the rupture of separation, I wanted to face, head on, the powerful image of ‘the wedding dress’. Every woman knows the significance of the dress, whether she agrees with it or not.
We arranged to meet at night, on an empty lot. I had gathered a huge supply of wood, which we lit in preparation for the dramatic moment when I would put my wedding dress on. It was a symbolic act, an antithesis of when I had previously worn it, optimistically, on my wedding day. I was incredibly nervous – anxious about how I would react.
The fire was blazing, sending up plumes of smoke and embers into the black night sky. And crackling wildly. I stepped slowly into the beautiful ivory dress. It still fitted my body effortlessly. I looked down and touched the silky fabric and I felt ….….. pretty!
It was such an unexpected emotion!
I spun, and skipped, as delighted that this was the emotion that had decided to emerge from the wasteland of my inner landscape, as with the pretty feeling! Meanwhile, Erik worked diligently behind the camera. I then removed the dress to stand naked behind the flames, and to dance once again, this time free from the shackles of the image the wedding dress symbolises as ‘wife’ or ‘wedding’ or ‘family’.
When Erik showed me his masterful photography of that moment, naked around the fire, I felt like I was watching my transformation, a phoenix rising. And when I saw the pictures of my utter enjoyment—feeling pretty—I felt that I had reclaimed marriage, now I was wed and committed to myself: to my happiness, joy, pleasure and with a renewed personal integrity to honestly express my feelings. And in those pictures the flames rising and fierce behind me, there is an incredible sense of power, not an aggressive power, but a genuine flowing strength that seems to be a part of me, and yet also an external source feeding me.
I faced other issues with different photographers, and felt it had been such an important part of my growth, that I felt motivated to share this tool with people who maybe struggling to discover themselves, or understand something happening in their life. I am grateful, humbled, and honoured to have shared this process with other willing souls. This time I was the photographer, the documenter, and the facilitator. And they were incredibly brave to stand on an emotional edge and allow the experience to move them and alter them.
Now those are selfies!
Profound and beautiful expressions of self, reflecting a moment in time when change was captured. They reveal the movement from pain to understanding by following the energy of feeling. Pulling the inner reality into this physical world and interacting with it to learn more about self and life.
They are meaningful.
I love that the desire to express self is so alive in contemporary culture, however If I Were Queen of The World, I would offer this new generation of selfie takers a fresh paradigm to express themselves—one that is unique and honest and inquiring. Genuine is so much more interesting and inspiring than emulating the clones of cyber life.
And the benefits are … transformational.