Friday, 19 September 2014




At what point do you distinguish a self portrait from a selfie? Do you think the two are so similar as to have barely any difference at all, or do you think they are utterly opposite forms of self-expression? (Or, perhaps more likely, does your opinion lie somewhere in between?)

On several occasions over the past few years, I’ve noticed certain museums running with this selfie/self-portrait comparison. In some cases, I find this to be a forced connection, awkwardly yoking together two very different forms of expression for the sake of appealing to a young, tech-savvy crowd. I even wonder if in some ways it does a disservice to both artwork and visitor, wrongfully implying that, for example, a 15th-century Renaissance painting and an Instagram photo have more similarities than differences. Though I think visitors are clever enough to recognize the key differences, at times I think it’s an easy (and sometimes inappropriate) grab for museum programming.

So many selfies. Source: 
Of course, in this post I’m going to go against what I’ve just expressed and discuss an exhibition that, in my opinion, artfully and appropriately compares the self portrait and the selfie. And since you already know that the Object of the Week is Strindberg’s image, you guessed it: I’m talking about August Strindberg’s 19th-century “selfie.”  

August Strindberg. Source: American Swedish Institute

The exhibition I refer to, The Image of Strindberg, is currently on display at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Instead of highlighting Strindberg’s most recognized contributions as a playwright, however, the exhibition focuses on a series of his self portraits. It distinguishes the images into the varied identities Strindberg attempted to create for himself; among them, “the Madman,” “the Jealous One,” and my personal favourite, “the Vain One.”
The Image of Strindberg at the American Swedish Institute. Source: @AmSwedInstitute

Among the many reasons why I think the exhibition appropriately draws the selfie connection is the emphasis on Strindberg’s careful creation (or, buzzword, “curation”) of his own brand -- and then the massive distribution of his brand and images. Through hundreds of self portrait postcards he distributed to quite literally his entire social network, Strindberg created a 19th-century equivalent of the Instagram, Facebook post or tweet. Further, self-portraiture wasn’t his primary occupation or art form (“Miss Julie,” anyone?) -- so, like social media, it was something he kept up on the side to fuel the aura of his personality.

August Strindberg. Source: Stockholm Our Way

And the ASI does not just make a clean comparison to the selfie and leave it at that. Importantly, it notes that Strindberg created a “visual calling card” in a way that was uncommon in his time. Unlike social media today, in which everyone participates and anyone can craft a half-decent selfie, Strindberg was a “master storyteller,” innovating and dominating in a medium that was as yet uncharted territory.

But what I think is most valuable in the ASI’s approach to Strindberg’s self portrait is its questioning of how we really can read Strindberg’s identity in his images. The exhibition asks, “Out of the hundreds of self-promoting images he produced, do any of them accurately capture the man himself?” And while the ASI has fun with the concept of the selfie (see the opportunity to take a "Strindberg Selfie" below), with this question it allows us to ask ourselves what kind of identities our selfies project, and whether they can ever really align with the identities outside of the pictures. And throwing the selfie in a critical light is something I can stand behind.

Karin Hannemann and the author taking a "Strindberg Selfie" at the ASI. Source: Alfred Hannemann

1 comment:

  1. Katherine, I am so glad that you are bringing a critical take to the selfie, and especially to the very artificial connection that museums make between the selfie and the self-portrait. I like your example here as I believe that in the case of the exhibition on Strindberg, there is much material to make some profound connections between contemporary practices of personal branding and social networking and historical trends which could be analyzed through the same lenses. What makes this exhibition successful, I think, is the invitation to reflection and critical thinking. I am equally bothered by the selfie/self-portrait campaigns that many museums have started - those are just superficial attempts to understand the very complex nature of today's younger audiences. By equating their identities to the making of a selfie in the museum is reductive and prevents more creative and reflective methods of engaging them with the art work.