When the Saatchi Gallery London set out to curate a show on self-imaging, they envisaged a compact display. By the time the exhibition opened, it extended across ten rooms and two floors, taking in cultural figures as diverse as Rembrandt van Rijn, Gustave Courbet, and Kim Kardashian.
The exhibition had its gaps and gimmicks, but amid endless diatribes on millennial narcissism, its juxtaposition of old and new work, of canvas and screen, of painterly process and filtered faces, served as a useful reminder that capturing and distributing pictures of oneself is hardly unique to “generation selfie”.
“For the last five centuries, humans have had this compulsion to create images of themselves,” said curator Nigel Hurst. “The only thing that has changed is the way we do it.”
With her book, The Self-Portrait, Natalie Rudd probes this same history, compiling a chronology of self-portraiture from the Renaissance to the present. With attention to under-represented artists and media, her collection challenges preconceptions of what a self-portrait should look like, and what kind of definitional work it might serve. Along the way, Rudd also reveals intrinsic motivations to self-portraiture that reach across centuries, media, and technological context.
Take Sofonisba Anguissola, the most prolific self-portraitist in western art between Dürer and Rembrandt. It’s unlikely many aspiring social media influencers consider her precedent when framing, snapping, and filtering themselves in requisite pose, place, or attire. But in her early years as an artist, Anguissola achieved considerable self-promotion – and lucrative success – through her own image.