A small thing people tend to overlook when charting Rihanna’s shift from pop singer to billionaire beauty mogul was that phase when she just took selfies – a lot of selfies. After launching her @badgalriri Instagram account in 2012, the Barbadian star posted some 230 self-portraits in a single year. I mention this because it wasn’t just a narcissistic blip, it was actually the most important artistic thing she did this decade – although, yes, ‘Work’ ft. Drake does come close. What has more currency than a selfie? Since RiRi has built a billion-dollar beauty and fashion empire off the back of them, you’d have to say not very much.
Wikipedia describes a selfie as a ‘self-portrait digital photograph’ and the term was named word of the year in 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries. However, the self-portrait obviously has a much longer history than that. For millennia, human beings have portrayed themselves doing things, from hunting for food to staring in a mirror. It’s fair to say, though, that as the centuries have crept on, the quantity of self-portraits has expanded ever quicker, with men and women scrutinising – and selling – themselves more and more via canvas, stone and now screen. Most great artists have done one at some point, although some are specialists in the genre, notably Rembrandt, Goya, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and Cindy Sherman. Back in the 1730s, the British painter Jonathan Richardson drew a quick self-portrait every day. The speed and informality, the sense of things changing hour to hour, make Richardson’s approach the most obvious precursor to the selfie. Although it’s safe to say that the artist, a jowly white man in his sixties from Bishopsgate, would probably have had limited use for Rihanna’s top tips. ‘Get a good light… Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day,’ she advised back in 2013. ‘If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.’
Two things have intensified our approach to the self-portrait: the tools at our disposal and the take we have on ourselves. Firstly, the advent of the camera, followed by the cameraphone, has meant that pretty much everyone can be a self-portraitist. Turning the lens on yourself isn’t just a quirky thing you might try, but a default activity to be done idly in bed, at a party or on public transport. It’s not guaranteed that every selfie produced is necessarily going to be ‘art’, but since nowadays people say anyone can be an artist, it’s not guaranteed that it’s not all art, either. Instagram is the most important gallery on earth. Secondly, it’s the ‘self’ bit that has changed radically. Believe it or not, there was a time when we didn’t really talk about having a ‘self’ at all. We weren’t always individuals preoccupied with self-love, self-hate or the current Holy Grail, self-care. Shakespeare’s sonnets, written at the end of the 16th century, are cited as some of the earliest examples of literature, charting a writer’s preoccupation not only with their loved ones but also with moi as a concrete thing.