Strike a Pose: Joanne Kesten Shares The Art Behind Selfies


Blame it on smart phones, social media, or simply an increased obsession with vanity, no matter where you look, there’s no escaping the “selfie”. From Kim Kardashian to President Obama, it seems like everyone has turned to their mobile phone as a means of self representation. But what exactly is the difference between a “selfie” and the traditional self-portrait? We asked art historian and appraiser Joanne Kesten to shed some light on the art of the selfie:

In a world of selfies, what is to be discovered by an artist’s self portrait? I just spent the past month pondering this question, immersing myself in images of Durer, van der Weyden, Bacon, Courbet, Close, Kahlo, van Eyck, Schiele, Sherman, van Gogh, Emin–while preparing for my course, Self Portrait: Revelation or Concealment.

The coincidental publication of Jason Feifer’s Loose Ends column “The Essence of a Selfie” (NYT, July 22, 2015) which started with the statement “All selfies are photos. Not all photos are selfies,” and continued with a line of formatted questions,

“I held a camera and took a photo of myself.
That is a selfie.
I took a photo of myself and two friends.
That is a selfie. Also called a groupie.
I set the self-timer on a camera, stepped back five feet, and it took my photo.
That’s in the selfie family, but isn’t a pure selfie. Consider it a self-portrait.”

gives me pause. Even within his comical, surface sociological musings, Feifer called attention to the particular notion of a self-portrait. There is an implied degree of ‘remove’ based on time or distance or reflection. A self-portrait is rarely a spontaneous rendering. Perhaps the most insistent question is identifying the artist’s intent, as self-portraits are not documentary evidence; they are first-person narratives, with the painter and the painting interwoven. Even in the early, large scale, photo-dependent self-portrait of Chuck Close, Big Self Portrait, 1967-68 (Walker Art Center), there is posturing and deception. (Although the work is figurative in appearance, its intention is theoretical, working under the strict parameters of the grid and the monochrome palette.) The variables–pose, expression, clothes, scale–are all choices the artists make in terms of depicting themselves. Frida Kahlo, an artist whose contemporary reputation rests on iconic, immediate recognizability, offers a multitude of stark range of self-presentation, with an integrated biographical narrative essential to their understanding, as seen in an early Self-Portrait, 1926 and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940 (Museum of Modern Art, NY). Almost without exception, artists are connecting our world to theirs on their terms, with varying aims: to inform, to inspire, to disturb, to display ego, to expose vulnerabilities, to impress, to mask, to reveal one’s soul.

photo1 Image (Left to Right): Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, Museum of Modern Art, NY; Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait, 1967-1968, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1926


While mirrors are the most-oft used devices to capture their reflections and gather information, they are often unreliable. Their surfaces only become visibile because of–and when–they are making other objects visible. There is an inherent instability in a mirror’s reflection. As Laura Cumming notes in A Face to the World, the mirror is the site of oft-repeated standoffs between hope and disappointment. So, we note a change in self-portraits by the early 20th century. The photograph becomes the tool. The sketch. The reliable, frozen-in-time, unshifting source material. The triple self-portrait format of the artist sitting at an easel painting their image on a canvas while also depicting their reflected image in a mirror, a standard form since the 15th century, is now parodied as the modern variation on the theme reveals that artists are relying on static photographs of themselves rather than mirrored reflections.

photo2 Images (Left to Right): Johannes Gumpp, Self-portrait, 1646, Source: Artstor; Illustration from Giovanni Bocaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, 15th century, Source: Artstor; Chuck Close in his studio working on Self-Portrait (2004-2005), Photo: Michael Marfione, Source: Walker Art Center


Francis Bacon’s obsessive interest, during the late 1950s, in van Gogh’s self portraits reveal a shared notion that van Gogh often discussed in his letter to his brother, Theo, that the “road to the heart does not pass through intellect.” Although Bacon relied on external source material such as Muybridge’s animal locomotion photographic studies, K.C. Clark’s Positioning in Radiography, photo booth candids, and Einstein’s 1925 The Battleship Potemkin, he often turned to himself as subject matter. Francis Bacon, in one of the most honest, disarming statements uttered by an artist admits that, “No matter how much you may believe that you’re in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself.”

Joanne Kesten, Principal of the fine art advisory and appraisal firm Joanne Kesten + Associates, is an art historian, researcher and appraiser based in New York. She lectures at NYU and is the author of “The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation With 27 of His Subjects”, and “Joan Miro: Two Early Works”.

Featured Image (Left to Right): Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1889, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London (Source: Wikipedia); Chuck Close, Self-Portrait I, 2010, courtesy The Pace Gallery (Source: Blum and Poe); Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), 1433, National Gallery, London (Source: Wikipedia))

bacon Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1979-80 (Source: Artstor)