From the sixteenth century to the present day, visual self-expression has remained a ubiquitous part of social culture. Artists amongst the likes of Velazquez and Rembrandt have propagated their own images but with new and advancing forms of technology, the smart phone has subsequently democratised the self-portrait. The Saatchi Gallery’s “From Selfie to Self-Expression” exhibition explores and celebrates the creative potential that the medium of the selfie has by tracing the trajectory of the esteemed self-portraits of say, Frida Kahlo, to the more spontaneous selfies of Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama, to name a few.
It is clear therefore that self-portraiture is nothing new. Yet, scrutiny of the exhibitions inanity has saturated the media and public discourse. Indeed, the exhibition brings forth the question of whether the selfie is a legitimate form of photographic art but more importantly, it asks whether anyone can now become an artist simply by taking out their smart phones and taking a photograph of themselves? One notable exhibit in the collection displays an individual who had taken a photograph of himself every day for a year and it is subsequently hard to argue that this is any different from say Rembrandt, who painted over one hundred self-portraits over the course of his life.
To have these selfies, for the first time, displayed on the same walls and in the same way that old masters are, consequently demands that selfies should be treated as credible and viable forms of art. It captures what is such a prevalent cultural zeitgeist and it is incredibly interesting how accessible this art can relate to popular culture. Gallery Chief Executive, Nigel Hurst, even goes as far to say that “the selfie is by far the most expansionist form of visual self-expression, whether you like it or not […] The art world cannot really afford to ignore it.” And it is also impossible to ignore the current abundance of discussion centred around identity which comes hand in hand with selfie culture, merely a product of a generation encouraged to express. This innate tendency to express, however, is nothing new (as made clear by the wealth of self-portraits on display dating pre-twenty-first century). Technology has therefore not changed who we are inherently but rather exposed who we are already and any medium that inspires a surge in self-reflection is arguably a greater force for good.
Although many of the selfies on display at the Saatchi Gallery, such as the instance of the man who had wrapped his face in sellotape, can, understandably, be seen as something ephemeral, it must be remembered that Gogh’s self-portraits were once severely underappreciated. It was not until the twentieth century that his work was considered genius. Perhaps the same will happen with the selfie when future generations discover new ways and means of presenting the self.