Portraits confront us on the most fundamental level of the self. Self-portraits, even more so.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the current obsession with social media self-portraits via the selfie. Is this a trend of collective narcissicism peaking in our increasingly mediated, digitized and posted lives? Or, is the selfie merely the result of the awesome technology literally in the palm of any smartphone wielding global citizen? Through visual and digital anthropology, aesthetic and media theory, citing art and photographic history, I will explore the digital aura and its significance in culture, art and media.
“Selfie” was a top 10 buzz word in American culture by 2012, though in use before then. “Gaze” has been in use much longer.
The “Renaissance Gaze Shift” is a concept used to describe the evolution from profile to a direct gaze in Renaissance portraiture, paralleled by a socio-economic shift in European wealth from the nobility to the merchant class. One of the Renaissance Gaze Shift’s novel effects, in addition to achieving a hallmark aesthetic, was to celebrate the “individual” which, I contend, is also the hallmark of contemporary selfies.
The term “gaze” was popularized by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who was influential in the 1960’s and 70’s, to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. Judging from any Facebook page, or celebrity Instagram account, this self-conscious, and even anxious state of being viewed, has obviously gone by the wayside in American culture. So too, has our autonomy from being viewed so regularly.
As facial recognition—that most primal and vital of functions—enters the technological realm, the digital aura, is taking on even greater significance, in my opinion. “Our brains are specialized to deal with faces. Indeed, face perception has evolved to occupy more space in our brain than any other figural representation”. [Kandel] As we eerily head toward cyborg life, is the ascent and dominance of a digital platform named Facebook to record our lives or of “app” games like Flinch, a popular online staring contest, any wonder?
Hence my nexus of the superficial selfie to the idealized faces of the Renaissance Gaze, which I show an evolution toward in The Digital Aura video above.
Returning to portraits and self-portraits, such self-images are controlled either by the artist toward the image he/she is rendering or by the sitter controlling the image he/she is putting forth. In other words, the aura. When artist and sitter work in concert, there is often a formidable image and aura created and conveyed. Such image and aura are the main characteristic of portraiture in its most exalted forms: the “royal portrait” and the “society portrait”.
The first photographic self-portrait in the “new medium” of photography (a medium that would come to rival portraits executed in paint) is attributed to Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia, PA, in 1839. The image he successfully captured of himself radiates a certain self-possession, striking both an image and an aura.
But do all self-portraits and their derivative selfies possess unique auras? If not, why not?
I think there’s a clue to addressing the above in the concept of the aura in works of art, as put forth by Walter Benjamin in his prescient and radical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which I’ve studied, examined and cited for many years.
But first, we must turn our gaze (all pun) back to the idealized faces of the Renaissance, before the development of photography, to the head-on confrontation of subject to viewer which developed alongside artistic innovations and socio-economic changes: the aforementioned Renaissance Gaze Shift.
The Renaissance Gaze was “third space” thinking and innovation. This preferred direct gaze aesthetic broke the bonds and confines from the revered profiles of the revived classical past. “While the profile portrait was de rigueur in Florence for most of the fifteenth century, artists in Flanders had been painting portraits of sitters turned in three-quarter view” [Virtue & Beauty] by the 1430’s, as well as inventing new media, techniques and a “radical new choice of subject matter: the ‘common’ individual. Northern Renaissance art was the first since antiquity to depict non royal subjects with regularity.” [Brad Finger]
The Flemish trends eventually found their way to Florence and the High Renaissance, so that those portrayed, noble or not, turn to face the viewer in three-quarter view. The Renaissance Gaze engaged the viewer, dramatically shifting the dynamic between subject, artist and viewer, hinting at an inner life thereby newly empowering the subject, art work and aura.
Apexing in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona La Giocanda aka the Mona Lisa, and Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, widely regarded as the prototype Renaissance Man in painting and in life. Enter the humanistic concept of “self-fashioning” [Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare as cited in Portraiture Oxford History of Art] a new notion complete with “how to” manifest Il Cortigiano/The Book of the Courtier penned by Castiglione himself. No longer did enculturation come only through aristocratic birthright and inherited fortune–it could be learned, a seed toward the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and ultimately Robert Cornelius. (I contend that the self-help, self-discovery and self-actualization movements which routinely become simplistically packaged in to fads, cults, and ceaseless “fountain-of-youth” products also have their roots in Renaissance Humanism, but I don’t want to diminish great minds or digress).
In my opinion, this shift in gaze challenged the concept of self in the way the selfie currently challenges our post-millennial concepts of self, identity, space and time. Therefore, every selfie has its roots in the Renaissance Gaze. Hence, my theory.
Selfie images are indeed portraits, no less contrived than a “society portrait” and increasingly “enhanced” through the use of “app” filter technology. But they are ephemeral, fleeting and of-the-moment, controlled and directed by the circumstance, whim and ego of the shooter (the self). It would take an entire iphone camera roll of selfies to grasp an authentic “portrait” of an individual.
Therefore, I find the selfie to be a micro-portrait and the Renaissance Gaze as the great ancestor of everything in our very visual culture from magazine covers, to the clichéd “Sears portrait”, and now also, the selfie.
End Part I.
To read more on my theory, please visit: The Digital Aura
Excerpt from The Digital Aura: Selfie & Renaissance Gaze Shift February 2015 – April 10, 2015 conceived and written by Carolyn A. McDonough with multimedia content video conceptualized and produced by Carolyn A. McDonough ©2015, 2019 and in perpetuity.
Benjamin, Walter “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Media & Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 48-70.
Finger, Brad, 50 Portraits You Should Know. Prestel, 2014.
Kandel, Eric R., “Face to Face with Portraiture.” Eye to I 3000 Years of Portraiture. Katonah Museum of Art. 2013.
“Virtue & Beauty.” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. nga.gov. Sept. 2001-Dec. 2002. <https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2001/virtuebeauty/view.shtm>. p. 5.
West, Shearer, Portraiture Oxford History of Art. Oxford University Press, 2004.
IMAGES COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C. ©2015 NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Pisanello, Italian, c. 1395-1455 Cecilia Gonzaga, 1426-1451, daughter of Gianfrancesco I [obverse], 1447, lead, overall (diameter): 8.66 cm (3 7/16 in.) gross weight: 215.56 gr (0.475 lb.) axis: 12:00, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.609.a
Ercole de’ Roberti, Italian, c. 1455/1456-1496 Ginevra Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477 tempera on panel overall: 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.) framed: 80 x 66 x 7.6 cm (31 1/2 x 26 x 3 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.220
Girolamo di Benvenuto, Italian, 1470-1524 Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1508 oil on panel painted surface: 58.1 x 43.2 cm (22 7/8 x 17 in.) overall: 60 x 45 cm (23 5/8 x 17 11/16 in.) framed: 75.6 x 59.7 x 8.3 cm (29 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 3 1/4 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.353
Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519 Ginevra de’ Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478 oil on panel overall (original panel only): 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of original panel): 1.1 cm (7/16 in.) overall (with addition at bottom edge): 42.7 x 37 cm (16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of addition at bottom edge): 1.9 cm (3/4 in.) framed: 59.7 x 57.8 x 3.8 cm (23 1/2 x 22 3/4 x 1 1/2 in.) Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1967.6.1.a
WikimediaCommons, Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, “the first light Picture ever taken”, 1839
CultureArtMedia.com, selfie, Carolyn A. McDonough
©2015 Carolyn A. McDonough