Saatchi Gallery: Is a Rembrandt self-portrait in a digital screen really a selfie?

New Huawei sponsored selfie exhibition opens at London’s Saatchi gallery

It is a moment of pure comedy that sees young Glaswegian photographer, Finnegan Croy, posing for a selfie with his competition-winning selfie at the press opening of the Saatchi Gallery’s From Selfie to Self Expression earlier today. But I would hate to be someone who casts aspersions on the notion that the selfie can be art. What I would like to cast aspersions on, though, is the idea that self-portraits by great artists are actually selfies.

From Selfie to Self Expression opens to the London public tomorrow, is sponsored by Huawei and covers three distinct areas. Firstly, it features a lot of iconic self-portraits, in digital screens, with a Huawei phone next to them explaining what they are. These include the likes of Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh and attempt to show that selfies are part of the established art world.

This does seem like a nice cheap way to showcase great masters – and who can knock that – but seeing them on the screen, albeit in a large size, is not the same as getting up close to the original oils. And these are not selfies because if a normal person were to knock one up quickly it would be unrecognisable. While the selfie seems to be more about placing yourself in the picture easily and obviously even if it is Photoshopped within an inch of its life.

Secondly, it curates some of the famous and iconic selfies of recent years, such as the picture of Barack Obama and Danish Prime Minister at Nelson Mandela’s funeral and actor Benedict Cumberbatch jumping behind U2 at the 86th Academy Awards. These serve as a reminder of why selfies are so bang on trend and been such a big part of our vocab since 2013.

Thirdly it showcases a variety of new art inspired by the selfie. This portion of the exhibition features the work of selected young British photographers (using Huawei’s new flagship P10 device), winners of a #SaatchiSelfie competition along with other statement pieces that fit the space. One of these is a room given over to a three wall display comprising of thousands of tiny moving selfies.

For the Saatchi Gallery all this makes perfect sense. In recent years there has been a clear move towards consumer technology in art exhibitions. This saw both Serpentine Galleries in London’s Hyde Park tackle the subject simultaneously in 2015. While, as an integral part of the Saatchi empire, this space has always straddled the interesting balance between advertising and art.

For Huawei, on the other hand, it feels like pure advertising. The Huawei signs outside are very prominent and on the first floor, between the competition winners and the work of the young British photographers, is a bank of P10 devices on sales showroom podiums. The message is loud and clear. Selfies aren’t just displays of tacky exhibition performed by stick wielding irritants in the street. They can be iconic, beautiful… and even Rembrandts.



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