So I see that a Museum of Selfies (themuseumofselfies.com) has just opened in Los Angeles. I haven’t had a chance to see it, so I can’t pass judgement on what is inside, but the news reminded me that this is by no means the first of its kind.
That title must surely go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence which owns an extraordinary collection of more than 1,600 self portraits collected, over centuries, largely by the Medici family. Many of the best of these were first put on public display in 1866 in the Vasari corridor - a long 16th-century passageway which led from the main galleries, over the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river.
Of course, before the advent of photography, you had to be an artist to make a recognisable selfie and this line-up includes examples by some of the most celebrated from the 15th to the 20th century: there are selfies by Filippino Lippi, Raphael, Holbein, Bernini and Rembrandt.
The makers of these early images certainly had mixed motives. But very often - like today’s selfie-makers posting on Instagram or Facebook - they were dominated by the painters’ concern with status. This might be social (some portrayed themselves in aristocratic dress), or artistic (striking a pose used by a famous artist of the past) or they might pose against an exotic background - a Dutch painter standing in front of a Roman column for example.
There were even those who would photobomb their own pictures. Sometimes this was out of anguish or black humour: Caravaggio, for example, painted a self-portrait on the decapitated head of Goliath (now in the Borghese Villa in Rome), while in the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo painted himself as the flayed skin of St Bartholomew. But sometimes it was more mischievous or ego-centric. Next door to the chapel, in the Pope’s former apartments, Raphael himself peers out of the crowd in his painting of great artists and thinkers of the ancient and renaissance world, The School of Athens. And most famously of all, Velasquez painted himself with the Spanish royal family in Las Meninas (now in the Prado). Just as today’s selfie-makers pose with celebrities.
Unfortunately the Vasari Corridor - which was only ever accessible occasionally or by special arrangement - is currently closed for restoration. The museum says it will re-open in two years and warns of current scam websites claiming to offer tours which don’t exist (the official website is uffizi.it). But while the vast majority of the Uffizi’s self portraits are closed to public view, there are plenty more excellent examples among the collections of the world’s great museums.
There, of course, you will also find the most prolific new breed of contemporary selfie-makers - tourists and travellers armed with selfie-sticks and smart phones. In fact, I wonder whether the current fashion for photographic selfies doesn’t have its roots as much in travel and tourism as in art history. I was brought up in a culture where the aim was to take photographs of sights and buildings as free from people as possible. Stonehenge with crowds around it? No, thanks - let’s find an angle which makes it look like a monument in the wilderness.
But then I remember when I first travelled in south-east Asia in the 1980s being amazed by what seemed to be the cultural priorities of local tourists there - those from Hong Kong or Singapore, for example. For them, it seemed to be key to have a photograph of themselves in front of every site they were visiting. Of course, this wasn’t technically a selfie - a friend had to take the photo. But the effect was the same - a visual record of their visit, proof that they had actually been there.
This strikes me as exactly the same kind of validation craved by selfie-posters on social media 30 years later. Here I am, in this cool place, looking cool on my own or with my cool friends and this photograph proves it - this is the obvious subtext of many posts. That’s the point of many modern selfies. But the exotic background, the high-status clothes, nonchalant poses and the famous friends ultimately go back to what the Old Masters were doing 400 or 500 years ago.