‘Re-Enacting Icons: Self-Portraiture and Selfies’: Prof. Gabriella Giannachi on her current research at the University of Exeter

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Breitmore, 1974-1978. External Transformations: Roberta’s Construction Chart, No. 1, Dye transfer print, 40″ x 30″, 1975. Courtesy of the artist.

How has the rendering of the concept of the ‘self’ in art changed from the early 1400s to the digital present? To explore self-representation in self-portraiture, a number of paintings, photographs, performances, and selfies are taken together as case studies, in which artists have variously attempted to represent themselves, often in relation to each other.  

The technologies and communication strategies deployed include mirrors and cameras as well as debates and hashtags, which are often rendered visible within the work precisely so as to frame the works as self-portraits. While the concept of a ‘self’ did not even exist when Marcia was painted painting herself painting in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus in 1402, in more recent times artists have tended to refer to the notion of a ‘self’ in the plural. Despite the historical variety of technologies, strategies, and perspectives, these works share some distinctive characteristics to do with the act of making present, or presencing. The act of presencing is often directed at the creation of images. These images have tended to become iconic through subsequent re-enactments, re-performances, re-stagings, and re-mediations, which have in turn built on each other so that, over time, they produced what could be described as a lineage, canon or genre.

If artists are re-presenting their presence, and in the performative act of self-imaging re-purposing their present, what happens when these images are repeated over time to become a self-conscious tradition? Could rethinking the doubling or multiplying of the figure of the artist in the image point towards a new history of art?

The works of three women painters stand out: Sofonisba Anguissola, who explicitly used mirrors in the Italian Renaissance; Artemisia Gentileschi, who introduced action in the baroque self-portraiture; and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s famous acts of self-imaging. In the 20th and 21st century, notable women artists who effectively embodied different identities and roles by representing themselves through photography, video, and performance, include Claude Cahun’s roleplay and explicit use of frames; Lynn Hershman Leeson’s impersonation of the fictional character Roberta Breitmore; Cindy Sherman’s use of cinematic images; Gillian Wearing’s self-portraits in the image of other people’s portraits; Amalia Ullman’s fake Instagram persona; and the surgical interventions of Orlan, alias Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, who remodels her body to become an accretion of traits of female beauty canonized in the history of art. 

All these case studies share the fact that in their work they have radically reinvented what we mean by ‘self’ through the production of a number of images which have the capacity to become iconic at the same time as themselves responding to the assumed presence of an iconic tradition, or canon. It is these sets of relations or tensions, in constant co-production, that my work aims to explore.

Prof. Giannachi, Director of the Centre for Intermedia and Creative Technologies at the University of Exeter, was due to discuss these ideas at the Re- Network at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, Nov 13th 2019 as part of the Michaelmas term series ‘Canons Versus Icons’ – now postponed to 2020.

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