True to One's Selfie: The Art of the Self Portrait

True to One's Selfie
A man examines "Self-Portrait" by Andy Warhol during a media preview at Christie's auction house in New York, October 31, 2014. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

At its most banal, a self portrait is a simple proof or assertion of existence. "I'm (still) here" the refrain of Rory Bremner's impersonation of former British Prime Minister John Major might be the motto of the majority of selfies. One step beyond assertion of existence is self-dramatization: "Here I am, playing this character."

This slightly more sophisticated move is in evidence when you see someone artfully posing for a selfie, with, say, a soulful expression, draped around a willow tree, staring at a brook. This could be self-portrait as incipient Ophelia, a rebuking reminder. Beyond that, of course, there is the self-portrait as self-scrutiny and self revelation, the gaze that invites the viewer in, past veils and layers of defence, as in the greatest series of self-portraits ever painted, nearly 400 years ago in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt is represented in the splendidly thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition Reflections on the Self at Christie's Mayfair (until 5 September) curated by Cristian Albu and Jacob Uecker though rather quirkily by five small prints, two showing the artist pulling faces. This isn't quite the Rembrandt we expect. But then nothing in the show is quite what we expect.

The history of the self-portrait as we know it begins with Albrecht Drer, and his portrait of himself resembling Christ has never been surpassed for sheer boldness and electricity. It appears here at one remove, mediated through the enigmatic photograph Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait Munich (2000) by Thomas Struth, in which the artist appears as an anonymous fi gure in a blue jacket, with his back turned to us and hands in his pockets, looking at the Drer, though with what expression we can only imagine. He could be anybody, a tourist, a curator, a gallery assistant.

Albu and Uecker's focus is the late 20th- and early 21st-century self-portrait and its dialogue with the great tradition of the past. The second room is full of recent masterpieces four fine Freuds, a dense Kossoff with some of the thickest impasto I have seen and, above all, a magnificent large Frank Auerbach drawing, in which a monumental effect is achieved through the most minimal of marks. All of these are in a relatively uncomplicated relationship with the old masters. As you proceed through the show, however, the challenge and disruption increase. The multiple personae of Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman disturb the idea of a single identity. Other remarkable works question the notion of the face as the primary locus of self portraiture and self-revelation.

True to one's selfie
Rembrandt's Self-Portrait in a Cap (1630) Vincent Steenberg/

Kippenberger's Untitled shows the artist's writhing, bloody-looking hands thrust towards the viewer, perhaps in accusation or self-loathing: the effect is both histrionically Shakespearean a mixture of the murderous Macbeths and Hamlet's disillusioned view of hands as "pickers and stealers" and startlingly modern; at the same time in the context of the show the painting gestures back towards the utterly different, serene, guilt-free drawing of the artist's hands by Henry Moore.

Some of the women artists in the show also reject the relatively controlled and authoritative face in favour of the unclothed, sometimes abandoned-looking body. For me one of the most beautiful and haunting images is Francesca Woodman's portrait of herself naked, in a semi-fetal position, half-encircling an eel in a bucket, as elusive, enigmatic and economical as a hexagram from the I Ching (though much more erotic). Jenny Saville's huge self-portrait is disturbing in its sheer overwhelming fleshiness, but also suggests an oceanic intra-uterine state, as far removed as you could possibly get from the wry, humorous, utterly assured self-image by the 18th-century Swiss-French artist Jean Etienne Liotard.

One of the joys of this show is unexpected trouvailles such as the Liotard, two remarkable, glum self-portrait prints by Edvard Munch, a startlingly assured early Hockney and a vulnerable Lowry self-portrait with wide-open eyes.

But there is also a thesis here. Have we definitively passed the age of the heroic, Rembrandtian self, predicated on depth and singularity, and entered into a new, more ironic, more unstable era? Certainly the mischievous and self-mocking self-portrait sculptures by Maurizio Cattelan suggest that view. Or have we finally recognised the sheer unrecognisable strangeness of the self the truth of Rimbaud's troubling assertion "je est un autre"?