John Ashbery and the Selfie in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (c. 1524)

Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (c. 1524)

The art critic Jerry Saltz has written a long, interesting piece about “the history of the selfie” for New York magazine.  Beginning with the idea that “we live in the age of the selfie,” he examines how we got here, how the selfie constitutes not just an annoying trend but a new genre worth thinking about, and how it relates to art history and current directions in art.

After discussing proto-selfies by Van Gogh and M.C. Escher’s Hand With Reflecting Sphere, Saltz writes:

“My favorite proto-selfie is Parmigianino’s 1523–24 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, seen on the title page of this story. All the attributes of the selfie are here: the subject’s face from a bizarre angle, the elongated arm, foreshortening, compositional distortion, the close-in intimacy. As the poet John Ashbery wrote of this painting (and seemingly all good selfies), “the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect what it advertises.'”

This is not the first time Ashbery’s remarkable poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” has come up lately in discussions of new technologies and genres that have altered our sense of ourselves and the world, like the selfie and Google Glass, as I’ve posted about here and here.

Perhaps this is because Ashbery’s profound, prophetic meditation on representation, selfhood, and the relationship between the two, seems to speak so well to our own image-saturated, digital age of Facebook, Instagram, and constant self-regard.

Fascinated by the 16th century painting that New York magazine labels “the first selfie?,” Ashbery seemed, in the early 1970s, to recognize the paradoxes and problems of the genre, as when he writes:

                                                            … your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there….

You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

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