The new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Facing the World, looks at the rudimentary role of self-portraits and the presentation of the self. From the cutting gaze of Rembrandt, who painted more self-portraits than any other artist of his time, to Ai Weiwei’s Instagram images, which range from bright orange bicycle-shaped glasses to underwear selfies captured through a toilet flush. With around 140 works on display, the exhibition brings together paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, time-based media, sculpture and interactive installations – it shows artists we know in a gleaming new light alongside artists we may be less familiar with. Imogen Gibbon, chief curator and deputy director for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Michael Clarke, director of the Scottish National Gallery, spoke to us about selfies as a means of communication, the common themes of the self-portraits on show and which 17th century artist they think would be a #nofilter kind of guy
The selection of artists featured in the exhibition is incredibly diverse. With the mix between classic and contemporary, do you think this will draw in an equally diverse audience?
We really hope the mix of classic, modern and contemporary artworks will appeal to audiences of all backgrounds and ages. There will be faces in the mix that visitors will be intrigued and surprised by. It’s not just the artists that are diverse, but the media too. We have everything from painting to drawing, photography, etching, sculpture and performance-for-video.
There’s obviously a huge selection of self-portraits that you could’ve featured. In terms of the curation process, what were you looking for in an image to make it worthy of a place in the exhibition?
As Facing the World is an European collaborative project, we wanted to showcase some of the big names from the collections of all three partners (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsuhe): Rembrandt, Gustave Courbet, Edvard Munch and Andy Warhol. We also wanted to present artists who are very well known at home but perhaps not so elsewhere, and to launch these artists onto a wider European stage. There are around 50 works from the National Galleries of Scotland collection in the show, but we have about five times that number of self-portraits in the collection, so hopefully that shows you how each work in the exhibition has earned its place – selection was very competitive!
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Henri Matisse, La Leçon de peinture or La Séance de peinture (The Painting Lesson or The Painting Session), 1919
How is the exhibition sectioned and why did you do it this way?
The exhibition is sectioned in three very different ways depending on how and where you experience it. In the exhibition catalogue the entries are presented chronologically. When the exhibition was shown at Karlsruhe the show was organised by linking those artworks with visual associations. In Lyon earlier this year, the exhibition was arranged in thematic sections. In Edinburgh we have also organised the exhibition into section: Up Close and Personal, The Artist at Work, Friends and Family, Role Play and Body of the Artist. Sometimes it can help to break larger exhibitions, such as this, into sections to help the visitor get a feel for the what they can expect as they move round the show and provide natural pause points before moving on to a new part of the story. However, within these generalised themes there is a still a vast range of work – in Role Play, for example, you have Jean Carriès’s plaster self-portrait bust depicting himself as a warrior, clad in armour evocative of seventeenth-century Spain contrasted with the likes of Andy Warhol’s more vulnerable polaroid of himself in a platinum bouffant wig and lipstick.
Can you tell us about the interactive installations and how the idea for these came about?
We have three in the exhibition – one is called Flick_EU, where visitors sit in a photobooth and take their portrait. The passport sized image is enlarged and displayed on standing screens within the exhibition – visitors can therefore see their own self-portrait in the exhibition and can also take away a set of passport photos from the photo booth. All the images are also published online. The other is called Flick_EU Mirror, where visitors see a live video image of themselves displayed on a screen. After a short time the pixels in the image start to grow and you see that your image is actually made up of hundreds of Flick_EU visitor images – you may even spot your own if you have had your photo taken in the Flick_EU photo booth. These two installations are on loan from Zentrum for Kunst and Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsuhe and were the ideas and creations of Peter Weibel, Matthais Gommell, Berndt Lintermann and Joachim Tesch. Our third interactive installation is far more old school and gives visitors pencils, paper and a mirror in order to draw their own self-portrait and then hang it up for others to see!
“Whilst a painting may take days to complete and a selfie only takes a second to capture, selfies are not necessarily less creative.”
In your opinion, has the ease of the photographic process and taking a selfie eliminated the creativity behind modern day self-portraiture?
Selfies can be an immediate way for people to communicate with friends, family and –especially for celebrities– their followers. But whilst a painting may take hours or days to complete and a selfie only takes a split second to capture, selfies are not necessarily less creative. Whilst some selfies will be taken in a fleeting moment, other people may take two, twenty or more selfies and then decide which to post – so in these there is very much a level of active curation when people are deliberately choosing which images of themselves to put forward on social media for all to see. Celebrities do this too – deciding to post images of themselves in their pyjamas to connect with their followers and show that they are down to earth or without makeup to show solidarity.
For some, selfies have become a brand and product marketing tool and to keep their followers engaged they are by nature going to have to get creative. But photographic self-portraiture has been around for a long time and the exhibition features some early photographic self-portraits by Isobel Cunningham, John Muir Wood and David Octavius Hill. Edvard Munch was also heavily interested in photography and photographic self-portraiture and used it as a basis for many of his paintings. We have in the exhibition a lithograph by him called Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle that shows him slightly melancholy sitting in a café with a bottle of wine, but it has been argued that this is actually based on a photographic self-portrait of himself in a hotel room. So, for Munch, the photographic self-portrait wasn’t the end work but the starting point to get creative and imaginative. 
What role do you think social media has played in the current-day fascination with oneself?
If you think about starting off as an artist, you might not have the money or resources to pay a professional model to sit for you, so the artist’s first model is more than likely going to be him or herself. These artists would have looked at themselves in reflections and mirrors to create their paintings or drawings. It’s the same with the current trend for selfies. People have phones that have cameras on so, of course, they are going to take pictures of themselves, showing where they are and what they are doing. Social media simply allows these modern images to travel, be seen and shared much more quickly than one painting hanging on a wall in an artist’s studio or gallery.
There will always be a discussion on what is an image with value and what is just vanity, but sometimes the latter is also interesting because of that. You only need to look at Ai Weiwei’s use of social media such as Twitter and Instagram to see how he uses it effectively as an artist with images that can be playful, provocative or political. Social media gives everyone the opportunity to connect through self-portraits so the power lies with the individual as to how they choose to use it.
If Rembrandt lived in the present, which Instagram filter do you think he’d use?
If he was around, I’m sure today he’d be all for taking advantage of technology and fashion to present himself in many different ways and would embrace Instagram and Twitter. It’s certainly true that filters such as Sutro and Hefe lend themselves well to Rembrandt’s style of painterly self-portrait but in the end, I think he’s more concerned with documenting his truth so it’s perhaps more likely he’d be a #nofilter kind of guy.
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Ai Weiwei
Is there any particular trait that you think the selected artists have in common that explains their desire to focus on the self?
There’s no one thing that binds them all together as to be an interesting artist you have to be distinctive. However, there are common themes and feelings that everyone experiences as they go through life –love, loss, loneliness, joy, death– and it’s these similarities that artists may attempt to explore or express in unique ways. If you’re an artist a self-portrait is also an opportunity for you to present yourself to the world in the way you want to be perceived, rather than relying on someone else to take your photograph or paint your portrait. Self-portraiture gives them complete control to create their own vision of themselves.
What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?
We hope that people might discover artists that they haven’t heard of before or see artists that they know in a different light. Each of these artworks has a feeling, an emotion or a story behind it. Each one is saying something. So we hope that audiences will spend time with these artworks and artists and be able to identify something in at least one of the artworks that they can relate to. The show offers up glimpse into the minds and lives of these artists. It’s a bit like reading someone’s personal diary or watching a documentary or good reality TV. Everyone’s a little nosey from time to time, so come and have a peek and see what you can find.
Facing the World will be on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until October 16th.
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Palma Vecchio Self-Portrait, 1510
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Gustave Courbet The Lovers in the Countryside, Feelings of Youth (The Happy Lovers), 1844
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Alison Watt 1986 - 1987
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Robert Mapplethorpe
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Sarah Lucas Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996
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Andy Warhol