It's national selfie day – a total thing since as far back as 2014. Or so we think. As inhabitants of the social media world – living in a daily fog of hashtags, memes, and self-imagery – we have laid claim to the self-obsessed nature of picturing ourselves. But selfies, in essence, are not new. Some of the world's most arresting, most spell-binding selfies existed way before the internet did.
Earlier this year the Saatchi gallery held an exhibition showcasing the evolution of selfies from as early as the 16th century right up until today's total domination of selfie-culture. The show displayed images of some of the finest self-portraits ever created, by artists including Rembrandt, Picasso, Munch, Courbet, Schiele, Kahlo, Bacon and Emin. Nigel Hurst, the man behind the Saatchi selfie exhibition, said – “The selfie is the most expansionist form of visual self-expression, whether you like it or not… The art world cannot really afford to ignore it".
We also think selfies are a huge and important part of human analysis, both now and way back when it took hours, weeks, months, or maybe even years to create them. Here's a five important ones we think should be remembered today.
Cover: Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait, 1906
1. Oskar Kokoschka, Self-portrait, 1948
Kokoschka painted a series of self-portraits throughout his career, but this one is perhaps the most striking. The contrapposto pose, together with the steeliness of the artists' blue eyes comes across as guarded paranoia. It was painted at a time in Kokoshcka's life when he had been on the run, moving from one place to the other for many years.
He'd had to leave Austria in 1934 – his homeland – for Prague after being alienated by the Nazis. He then moved on to the United Kingdom in 1938, when the Czechs began to mobilize for the expected invasion of the Wehrmacht, and he remained there during the war. Kokoschka became a British citizen in 1946, just two years before he finished this self-portrait. It was around this same time that he settled in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life.
2. Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940
Aside from the surface-joy that the green and black juxtaposition provides in this self-portrait, its made its list for its unshakeable self-confidence. She painted this right after a double-break up, perhaps the emotional fuel that encouraged such a defiant pose.
She pictures herself surrounded in lush natural surroundings, but her presence transcends the elements that might otherwise drown her. Even a necklace of thorns can't distract her steadfast gaze. If selfies nowadays were imbued with half as much purpose and concrete stoicism they would be almost unsettling. But Kahlo's painting style - flat, decorative and with measured detail, alleviates the tension that builds between subject and viewer.
3. Marc Quinn, Self, 1991
In 1991 Marc Quinn redefined the genre of self-portraiture with his boundary-pushing Self – a three-dimensional sculpture of himself, made out of his own frozen blood. Ten pints to be exact.
Quinn describes the sculpture as having "both a symbolic and real function". He created it at a time when he was suffering from alcohol dependency and likens the work's dependency on an energy source to remain frozen and intact to his own substance dependency at the time. It was, again, Charles Saatchi who first acquired the sculpture and exhibited it in 1997. It now forms part of the UK's National Portrait Gallery collection. Quinn creates a new cast every five years to signify ageing and the passage of time. So, in more ways than one, this is a living selfie.
4. Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Eight, 1500
Anyone who paints themselves in nearly the exact image of God without even a hint of irony is pretty badass in our books. Doesn't hurt that this unforgettable self-portrait was produced by Albrecht Dürer – probably the greatest artist hailing from the North during the Renaissance.
His genius is spread over a fantastic collection of engravings, watercolours, woodcuts and more (check out his Apocalypse series if you want to get the real Dürer experience). But in the realm of self-portraiture, this painting is unique for breaking a whole bunch of moulds. Firstly – secular portraits were rarely ever depicted head-on, that was reserved for religious paintings. Secondly, the artist's pose hardly speaks the body language of a humble painter – hand on heart as though in blessed union with the divine. Also Dürer doesn't tie himself down to a specific time and place, his presence defies it. A dark background with floating inscriptions elevates the portrait to that commanding stature it still holds today as if to say – I'm here, and I'll never go away.
5. Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait at Seventeen Years Old, 2003
Gillian Wearing's series of masked self-portraits are some of the most evocative, provocative and compelling works from the early 00s. Her collection called Family Portrait is a remarkable chapter in her career-long exploration of identity and selfhood. Wearing created full masks of her mother, father, sister, grandmother and in this specific instance, her 17-year-old self. She then wore the masks and pictured herself while wearing them, creating the ultimate self-portrait series. Weird? Yes. Captivating? Completely. Her exploration into the nature of who we are and how we define our identity is as ingenious as it is eery.
As a bonus, here's what Wearing herself had to say about selfies:
"I think things like selfies and Instagram are just extensions of behaviour that was happening already. I used to do selfies on Polaroid films in the 80s and 90s, and I am sure I wasn’t alone. Instagram is like the old family albums – they show mostly the good things in life. [...] Everyone has become a little bit more self-obsessed because of the internet, with things like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ options, having followers, etc. It is hard not to be distracted by checking the internet constantly, and seeing any activity directed your way as getting results. It’s like being in a perpetual daydream state of waiting for nice things to happen whilst being inactive.” Gillian Wearing, AnOther, The Many Selves of Gillian Wearing, October 13, 2015.