Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Portraiture and the #nomakeupselfie

I was alerted to the phenomenon of the no makeup selfie by my daughter, who has written an excellent blog post on the inappropriateness of aligning it with the fight against cancer. I have nothing to add to her post on that subject but wanted to look a little at the place of the phenomenon in the history of portraiture.

Disclaimer: I am emphatically not an art historian, so some of what follows may well be inaccurate. Ah well...

Although it seems a commonplace to state that portraiture has been around "since the dawn of time," or "for as long as people have made art," I am not entirely sure that that is the case in the sense that we understand portraiture today. Most of the Paleolithic art that we have today, if it depicts humans at all, depicts them in generic and non-individualised ways (like these), or records their presence rather than depicting their facial features (like the hand-prints for instance). There is a famous "portrait" in the grotto of Vilhonneur, thought to be 26,000 years old, but it seems to me at least questionable that this is a depiction of any real individual.

Ancient artists seem to me to have been more concerned with depicting archetypes and creating symbols than with recording the physical appearance of individuals. Perhaps art was for them too powerful a medium to direct it to depicting what some particular person looked like. It may also be that the power of art rendered portraiture problematic- that the act of capturing a likeness endangered the person whose likeness was captured. That would seem a plausible thought in a time when the spirit world, with which art was strongly associated, was always close at hand.

When portraiture first really boomed as an art form it was in forms with very different purposes to those we associate with it today. In ancient Egypt and elsewhere portraits started appearing in tombs. Whether or not these were painted or carved post-mortem it seems clear that the primary audience was not the living. These portraits seem almost an attempt to give the deceased an identity in the hereafter. It appears not to have been particularly important that the portrait resembled the sitter physically, since the name inscribed thereon would identify it. Instead the portrait depicted the person symbolically, sometimes with attributes of Gods or sacred animals. Art still seems to be seen as having a magical effect, though one that people now feel can be harnessed to their benefit.

The other forms of portrait in the ancient world have survived to this day, but we scarcely see them as portraits any more. These are depictions of rulers and other powerful people on coins and in public statuary. Here the magical power of art is clearly being used to enhance the temporal power of the sitters. Coins are immensely potent symbols of the power of an emperor or other ruler. The point about coinage is that it is the symbols impressed on the coins that in a sense invest them with monetary value, and it is perhaps unsurprising that rulers chose to associate that symbolic power with their own faces. However there is a clear coding of the use of portraiture on coins: always in profile, apparently decapitated and without any physical context. Realistic and individualised as many of them appear to be these portrayals are clearly different in intention to what we regard as portraits today.

Public statuary (and other public portraits) equally use the magic of art to enhance status and reputation. The focus seems much more on the sitter's role than on their character or personality, with fighting rulers portrayed on horseback, striking heroic poses. Roman statues of emperors, whilst apparently much more realistic than the Greek statues whose style they emulated, were manufactured with generic bodies and replaceable heads. This was handy in the case of a sudden overthrow of an emperor and replacement with another (no need to start a new statue, just chuck away the old head and make a new one) but also tells us something about the statues' purposes and how they were to be read: these were not an attempt to capture the unique character of a sitter at a particular moment in time but a public statement of their power. Such public portraiture is not as popular as it once was, being uncomfortably associated nowadays with repressive dictatorships, but the tradition has lived on in Hollywood posters.

Domestic portraiture in the sense that we would understand it does seem to have existed in Ancient Rome, as evidenced by some of the wonderful frescoes discovered in Pompeii. However what actually struck me when I visited there was how few there are. Many of the apparent portraits are actually depictions of gods or other mythological beings, and given the enormous profusion of art on every wall, ceiling and floor in the city there seem to be precious few straightforward portraits of the owners or their ancestors. Perhaps in a world where the Lares and Penates were physically present in every household it was seen as something like hubris to use the magic of art to associate one's own image with that of the heroes, gods and emperors.

However domestic portraiture survived, though for centuries being associated almost exclusively with the rich and powerful. And even domestic portraits seem often to have been concerned at least as much with a symbolic as a realistic portrayal of the sitter. Renaissance portraits for instance, whilst often beautiful and highly individualised are also frequently packed with symbolic images that lift the portrayal beyond a mere snapshot. Sitters are clearly aware of the power of having their portrait "taken" (the word is an interesting one) and this awareness survives into the beginning of the era of photography.

However the transformation of our concept of domestic portraiture began with the availability of cheap portable cameras. Suddenly portraiture not only became available to everyone but was stripped overnight of its intimidating power. We all took hundreds of pictures of each other, hardly regarding them as portraits, and kept them as mementos of holidays and weddings, early childhood and significant events. These portraits were domestic and personal in an entirely new way, not being intended for viewing beyond the immediate circle of close family (except perhaps in those ghastly slideshow evenings following foreign holidays).

So while public portraiture was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it had once been (outside countries such as Turkmenistan at least) domestic portraiture was booming. And domestic portraiture meant something much more private and informal than it had ever meant before. And so it seemed that the nature of portraiture itself had changed forever and perhaps the process of disassociating it from the  magical power of art was complete.

It was social media that began to change things round again, and to reinvest domestic portraiture with some of that magic and erode some of the distinctions between public and domestic portraiture. At first social media seemed to provide nothing more than an electronic version of those slideshow evenings. Facebook was just a way to share (endless) images of people in social situations of various sorts primarily with others who had been there at the time. However the selfie was an interesting development, and the #nomakeupselfie even more so.

Whilst "traditional" Facebook or Instagram uploads are all about images of the user in social contexts, selfies are the precise opposite. A true selfie (unlike the notorious one taken at Mandela's funeral) has only the sitter/photographer, often in a highly domestic setting, such as a bedroom. Its purpose, which has its logical extension in the no makeup selfie, seems to be to present to the world an image of one's essential individuality and uniqueness (which makes the whole notion of the #nomakeupselfie craze even more paradoxical). The only explanation I can find for people doing this goes back to the earliest days of portraiture: it is as if people are aware of the magical power that can be harnessed by creating an image of the human face. In taking and publishing a selfie they want to make a public record: this is me. I exist.

The no makeup selfie is the same but even more so, and seems to me even more an existential act, which again makes it even weirder that many seem to have been moved to create and publish one by an internet craze and the social pressure to conform. If that isn't mauvaise foi then I don't know what is...

Oddly, written analogues for self-portraiture seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Twitter, which for a time seemed doomed to be no more than an interminable sequence of self-indulgent verbal selfies ("Got up early today and brushed my teeth. May go out for a walk later.") has mutated into a medium for social debate and the sharing of memes of various degrees of sophistication and/or humour. No tweet now is complete without at least one hashtag, and these take the attention away from the individual essence of the tweeter in a way that is diagrammatically opposed to the impulse that creates the no makeup selfie. Although the concept of the self-portrait diary got a bit of a boost recently with the broadcasting of Tony Benn's diaries after his sad death that form of diary has begun to sound rather old-fashioned. In writing, it seems, we are to be defined by the size of our audience of followers, or by our humour and our skill and persistence in unearthing gems from the vastness of the internet.

So is the no makeup selfie just a temporary aberration- a craze that will soon die a death? Who knows. However I do suspect that its sudden ubiquitousness as a phenomenon has revealed a yearning to harness the magic power of portraiture that humans have been aware of for so long.

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