Mr. Nobody or Mr. Nonentity
Should we call it selfie, or ego portrait as the Canadians do?
I would rather use the word “ego-exposure”: the need and desire to appear in a portrait or in a picture, almost as if it were a way to assert one’s existence. Or “ego hyper exposure”: a way to be everywhere, ever-present in society, to be in the right place at the right time. To be seen, and therefore to exist.
I exist, because I appear in a selfie; I exist because I make my presence and personality felt by appearing in that place, at that time. It is an assertion of a condition which is not associated with belonging to a social class. It is an assertion of existence as such.
I exist, because I am in the picture.
Perhaps the greatest discovery of the Nineteenth century was not the telegraph or the telephone or such inventions, but photography which also revolutionized the world of painting. Before photography was discovered, only the powerful could afford to be “portrayed” by a painter, and to pay him. A portrait was therefore a manifestation of power, glory and wealth.
When the photograph was introduced, the possibility of being immortalized became accessible to everyone, something which represented a social vindication, an economic means of assuring a slice of immortality.
And what about today, after two centuries of photography? In a time when we cannot accept, or indeed reject, someone who is a “nobody”, when being a nobody seems to be the true original sin and the true social disgrace, it is an absolute must to appear and to be there. To be at the “right” place at the right time: this is what matters, and what makes a difference: in a mass society in which everyone has the same needs and the same opportunities, it becomes important to be “different”, not in a derogatory sense but in a positive one, in the sense of being something “more”. It becomes vitally important to rise above everyone else, and this can be achieved through visibility: a visibility, difference and superiority which is no longer cultural or based on merits, but which depends on appearance, on the way things and people look: on whether they are beautiful, on whether their bodies are in shape, on whether they are powerful and happily accompanied by someone powerful, even if that power only lasts another night. And what if there is nothing behind the selfie? Who cares!
And so let us return to the painted portrait: to the one painted on canvas, which cuts deeper into our personality, showing us for what we are without embellishing us or making us perfect. Let us go back to a portrait painting which slowly fixes an existence and a personality onto canvas; which studies in depth and which above all remains, resists, lasts in time and which cannot be cancelled with a click. There is no doubt that a portrait painted in this manner may be intimidating, even frightening: something that lays one bare for all time and that cannot be cancelled is hard to accept. But that is reality. And reality is not always pleasant.
And what about a portrait which seems to look back at the onlooker, which looks it straight in the eyes, almost as if it were saying “Here’s looking at you, kid!”
This exhibition does not only rediscover the old genre of the portrait, which seemed to have disappeared by now, replaced by photography. It is also a matter of a kind of portrait that seems to look back at the observer: it looks and it seems to say “take care, I am the one who does the looking, I am looking straight through you and laying you bare: you cannot hide from me because it is me who controls the play of the gazes”.
And so let us wish a true “nobody” welcome, and let us hope he or she will be a true nobody, not just an ordinary empty shell!