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500 Self Portaits, Phaidon
Ulay, "s'He" (1972)Courtesy of the artist and Phaidon

This book proves that artists take better selfies than you

The curator behind a collection of self-portraits that date from 2350 BC to 2017 explains our self-obsession with self-documentation

The self is the culmination of everything that’s happened to us; it’s the prism through which all experiences are filtered and the lens through which we look out at and make sense of the world. But, at some point in their lives, most artists feel compelled to rotate their gaze from without to within, and turn their attention back to their primary object of fascination; themselves. According to Phaidon, each of these images is “both a work of art and a study in psychology and self-perception”.

80 years and a World War have passed since Phaidon first published 500 Hundred Self-Portraits in 1937. Since then the world has changed irrevocably, but the desire to record and capture our own likeness is stronger than ever. The selfie has made the self-portrait a ubiquitous preoccupation, not just the pursuit of artists.

The newly revised edition of 500 Hundred Self-Portraits features work by celebrated artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Marina Abramović, David Hockney, and Cindy Sherman, but has also been expanded to include the work of marginal figures, feminist artworks and the self-portraits of artists with diverse ethnic and geographical backgrounds.

The book is accompanied by essays by Julien Bell, grandson of Vanessa Bell and the great-nephew of Virginia Woolf, and Liz Rideal, academic, curator and photographer. Below, we chat with Rideal about curating this comprehensive history of self-portraits and the self-obsession that’s so pervasive in modern life.

“Not all who create selfies are artists” – Liz Rideal

Why do you think it’s a good time for this book to be published?

Liz Rideal: It’s a classic and republishing is a way of bringing the original up to date. Any time would be good for this rich and fascinating subject. People today focus increasingly on themselves so here is a book that reflects self-obsession.

How have you seen the art of the self-portrait changed in the 80 years ago since the last edition of 500 Hundred Self-Portraits was published?

Liz Rideal: The book tracks the innovation in style and media in two-dimensional self-portrait work over that time, consolidating the presence and importance of photography as a medium. However, the artworks included also illustrate artistic manifestations from Ancient Egypt and familiar Renaissance models of the genre.

Do the two volumes differ in terms of who is represented? That said, how is the canon changing?

Liz Rideal: The core of the book is relatively unchanged but the time frame has expanded. More women and other under-represented groups are included. The canon doesn’t change so much as broaden to become more inclusive. This is partly why I was invited to give a fresh perspective.

Which new artists featured do you predict will one day be considered canonical?

Liz Rideal: How long is a piece of string? Today’s artists require the oxygen of publicity even more than those of the past. Who knows who will surface and remain; the art market is fickle, plus it is difficult to equate Leonardo with Koons. At a guess, I would suggest that Gerhard Richter and Cindy Sherman will stand the test of time yet these two have already been famous for over twenty years, but of the very recent additions, who knows?

Tell us about your own self-portrait, “Self-Portrait Right Thumb”?

Liz Rideal: My self-portrait (1990) is already a historical piece as it is constructed from analogue photobooth photographs made without negatives. These individual abstract photo-strips jigsaw together to form a two-metre high collage based on my thumbprint – the pre-DNA method of criminal and personal identification. This unique piece is therefore locked in its own time warp.

The idea of ‘the self’ is a concept that’s been discussed and debated in so many disciplines across the sciences and the arts. How do you think the self-portrait, as a form, can contribute to this conversation?

Liz Rideal: Self-portraits can sometimes unwittingly provide a window into the unconscious working of the artistic mind. The focus is directly on the nature of innate raw creativity because the work is designed to be a lasting record of the artists’ identity and their own way of making art whatever the medium.

In the modern world, we’re all creating self-portraits all the time, to the extent we’ve even abbreviated the term to save ourselves time. How has the phenomenon of the ‘selfie’ informed and changed the way you’ve curated this book?

Liz Rideal: The selfie is a contemporary phenomenon whereby individuals document themselves in specifically orchestrated poses and expressions specifically to share online with their own communities. This method of self-portraiture creates a new backdrop to the genre opening up discussion around the subject.

The book features an image by Amalia Ulman, whose hoax Instagram account followed the progress of a fictitious LA it-girl. By Ulman’s definition, aren’t most of us fraudulent as we carefully construct the images of ourselves we present to the world?

Liz Rideal: Ulman is a good example of how the ‘selfie practice’ has crossed into the formal artistic discipline. Artists are always on the lookout for new ways to express themselves. This is a sophisticated example of such alternative media appropriation. Not all who create selfies are artists. The selfie is not so much ‘constructed’ as following a well-recognised, traditional form of portraiture. This is not a fraudulent patterning but an ongoing social documentary record. The artistry occurs when these established formats are challenged by original and subversive contributions that possess the creative magical ingredients of artistic originality.

500 Self-Portraits is available now from Phaidon