Art & Culture - October 6th 2021

Intimacy and Autonomous Representation Through Portraiture

Written by
Emily Zhang

In 2016, an Amsterdam based advertising agency, along with assistance from Microsoft, created a piece they dubbed, “The Next Rembrandt.” Met with both amazement and volatile derision, the piece definitely does not have a shortage of discourse. It also, in this context, introduces a method for us to examine the perhaps overlooked inherent intimacy of not just portraiture, but the methodology of the self portrait.

Fig. 1. —  Cindy Sherman, Untitled #465, 2008; chromogenic color print; 63 3/4 x 57 1/4" (161.9 x 145.4 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman


Evidence of self recordization traces back to prehistoric times, from cave paintings to sculptural busts, one of the most consistent habits of the human experience seems to be our fascination and need to document our own personal existence. Portraiture, and self portraits specifically, takes up a unique space in that it is one of the few ways for people to hold complete autonomy over how they can present themselves to the world. While it briefly occupied a role of privilege, with the royalties of various cultures utilizing portraiture as a way of recording not just rulership but also power, beauty, class, and value, its since then become a more accessible and socially popular method of depicting what we place importance on when it comes to self expression. Portraits have also been intentional, planned, and structured around how and what we want to present to the world in terms of self identity and personhood. Even in the advance of photography, spontaneous captures are snapshots but intentional poses are portraits.

Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, (La Noyade), 1840,  Direct Positive Print, Hippolyte Bayard

There is an intimacy of self portraits, whether through painting or photography, the viewer is invited into the space of the sitter and shown a perspective that while curated, is also genuine through its message even if the image can be artificalized. If anything, one of the privileges afforded to self portraits, especially within photography is the ability to convey intimate nuance through artificial representation. In 1840, Hippolyte Bayard, who’s forced delay in announcing his photographic process cost him recognition as one of the founding inventors of photography, staged a self portrait of himself as a drowned corpse. This perhaps melodramatic take comments on the disregard he received from the government regarding his invention (they were much more taken with Daguerre’s prototype), and the general ignorance he felt from the public, all of which reduced him to an unidentified drowned corpse for no one to recognize or claim. We can view another example, taking place over a hundred years later with the staged self portrait photography of Cindy Sherman in the US during the 1970s and 80s. Sherman, who dresses herself in film based archetypes, creates portraits of fake film stills echoing various media tropes placed on women at the time, effectively both mimicking and confronting the male gaze within modern society.

Cindy Sherman - Untitled # 96, 1981. Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York

One can perhaps argue that self portraiture is also in a sense, creation of a self narrative. Whether you are staging an artificial scene or trying to convey some sense of vulnerable personhood through portraying all that is important and inherent to how you see yourself, we have autonomous control over the image we want to give off. We display how we view ourselves by controlling our own representation. What is intimacy if not allowing others to see the methods and layers of our own self perception.

Throughout his lifetime, Rembrandt completed over 80 different self portraits, utilizing deeply earthy colours and lighting, a striking series of oil on canvases. One of the last ones he made was “Self Portrait at the Age of 63”, made in 1669 a few months before his death. One of the everlasting tributes of Rembrant, and one that can be seen so vividly in this piece, is his ability to convey strong personal emotions through his portraits. He possesses an uncanny ability to capture both the difficulties and joys of the human experience, as seen through his eyes. The piece was made a few months before his death, and after outliving multiple wives and children. His brushstrokes capture the aged lines around his face and the heavy bags under his eyes, a life lived. “The Next Rembrandt” from 2016 uses mechanical algorithms to analyze his paintings' facial proportions, head tilts, angles, and even canvas thickness to create a reproduction of his style. There is a lot to be said on either side concerning the value of this piece, but perhaps most can agree that despite the near perfect technical reproduction, the machine is not able to capture the experience of a lived life. The portrait is not just representation (and there is a whole nother conversation to be had about the idea of realism vs postmodernism representation), but rather a curated presentation of one's personal values, beliefs, contexts, and experiences.

Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669 by Rembrandt, 1669 - National Gallery

During the 21st century, the concept of the selfie inserted itself into the mainstream, and since then it’s become the topic of ridicule and derision from those who do not necessarily see it having enough inherent value. Like all the predecessors before it, the selfie carries on the long standing tradition (a tradition that dates back to prehistoric times mind you) of curating how we want to present ourselves to the world, and perhaps more importantly, how we want the world to remember us. Rembrandt existed during the1600s and we have paintings and drawings to prove that existence, he was real, he lived. Royalties exist not just in the writings we have recorded but in the hundreds of portraits they commissioned for themselves and loved ones, even today the presidents of the United States have their portraits painted and hung up in the White House. If you visit the state capital building in Sacramento, California, you’ll see an entire hallway filled with the painted portraits of all the past state governors. After photography was invented and became accessible to the general public, people in Victorian England collected small photographs of their friends, families, and prominent social figures. The human experience is fleeting, more memories fade, our sense of identity shifts over time, and we are constantly questioning the space we take up and how it defines us. Through the history and evolution of portraiture, we have evidence of our existence and control over how we are seen and how we’re remembered. We were here, this is who we are, this is how we lived.