Dr. Anna Tahinci Speaks: On “Seeing Ourselves:” The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie

August 16, 2018

Rembrant, self portrait, 1660

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “selfie” was their word of the year and defined it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” As an art historian, I immediately started thinking about the kinds of self-portraits art’s greatest masters may have created if they had access to smartphones. In 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston acquired a photograph titled “Monkey Selfie,” a selfie taken by a crested macaque in Indonesia using equipment belonging to British photographer David Slater, raising complex legal questions about art and copyright. I immediately started working on a series of lectures that I titled “Seeing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie,” offering a panoramic overview of drawn, painted, sculpted and photographed self-portraits in Art History from Dürer and Rembrandt to the Post-Modern and Contemporary period. What do artists see when they are looking at themselves in the mirror? Self-portraits are not innocent depictions of reflections or distortions in the mirror. They are a complex visual language that involves a series of choices, from the simple “this is what I look like” to the multi-layered “this is who I am, or who I am not.” The artist’s ego as his or her own model raises a series of fascinating questions on self-representation and self-image, likeness, status, identity, role, story-telling and narcissism. As with any exercise in art appreciation, it becomes even more complex when self-portraits are examined from the viewpoint of both the artist and the viewer. Self-portrayal by artists may reflect their desire to record individualized features and appearance, to become self-important and famous, to stage likeness with self-esteem and self-confidence, alone or in company, for the present moment and for posterity. It is a very relevant and meaningful topic to explore in light of our 21st century’s obsession with selfies and the self. Dr. Anna Tahinci’s class, “Seeing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie”, begins September 11th, 2018, at 10:00 a.m.