Last week’s episode of the Apprentice saw Lord Sugar summon the candidates to the National Portrait Gallery in order to receive their instructions. It’s my favourite place to while away some quality Me-Time, and the programme reminded me that I really must go and look at the Van Dyck, now it has been expensively wrested from private ownership and bought by the public to be proudly displayed before it goes on tour around the country.
But the painting did indeed cost a small fortune, and in order to promote an entirely worthy campaign to raise ten million pounds for the purchase of Van Dyck’s self-portrait, the National Portrait Gallery got down with the people, and on the website called this seminal work of art a “Selfie.” I think the word is rather fun, although slightly misleading. Much thought, energy, and originality has gone into this particular Old Master, and indeed, all my favourite artist’s Selfies. I am particularly fond of the wig-free Hogarth, the delicate charm of Élisabeth Vigée Le-Brun, and the directness of Frida Kahlo. But these works were poured over, all time and talent concentrated to the canvas, to present a story to the viewer, a presentation of the self, to show not a mirror-image likeness, but instead an attempt to show how one would wish to be seen.
So how do we present ourselves? Are we, like the artists, always as we “wish to be seen?” Is it clear what we stand for? Do we show what is important and what we value? Our image should be consistent with how we choose to be thought about. We know that authenticity is key to establishing trust and rapport. This is essential, not just in our photographs, but every time we show up live, in front of our connections. Remember, it might not be you taking the photograph. It’s not just the stars who get “papped” these days, and now there is video to take into account; and goodness me, we’ve all got smart phones now…
But couldn’t we argue that perhaps too much emphasis is placed on authenticity, and not enough on creating and maintaining a professional image?
After all, the Old Masters showed only what they wished us to see. Oh yes, they were the original Masters of Spin; expert at using costume and props to portray themselves as they saw fit. I may be going against the grain here, but careful editing is not dishonesty; it is about choosing what we should or should not reveal to the public about ourselves. We do not have to tell everyone everything. This is not about concealment; it is more about being selective and allowing the audience to focus on the image of our choosing, rather than dilute our core message with excessive and unnecessary information.
Nowadays, we are so much more than just a picture, in fact, we are a Profile. In the past, journals and personal correspondence were written and kept, but although the enjoyable reading of them affords a tiny glimpse into a life gone by, they were written as personal commentaries, and usually in private. In this digital age, every time we write a post on social media, we add to our on-line image. Countless articles have been written about not tweeting or updating one’s Facebook status while under the influence of alcohol, (an important reminder at this time of year) but what about posting while under the influence of anger, fatigue, or infatuation? Do we really want to be known as the person who moans on a regular basis about missing the train, or who we are rooting for on X factor, or the outpouring sentiments of our romantic leanings?
So next time I’m in London I shall make sure I visit the National Portrait Gallery to gaze upon all my favourite portraits and of course, the Van Dyck Selfie. It is a beauty, a true work of art. At the same time, I love the fact that I can use my phone to capture impromptu moments in an instant and share them with my friends, however, I very much doubt anyone would want to pay around ten million pounds for a snapshot I have taken using my mobile phone in four hundred years time. Of course, I can always ask my wonderful portraitist Jonathon Xavier Coudrille what he thinks.