Although Paul McCarthy’s infamous butt plug art installation erected in Place Vendôme has long since been deflated, Paris’ tourist hotspots have been thrust upon by another perhaps more imposing masturbatory device. You’d think it might be frowned upon to whip out your stick in a public place, but au contraire, the moment the selfie stick, or the “Narcissistick” as it has been dubbed, is protruded, it’s smiles all round. Not natural smiles, mind you. Because everyone knows natural smiles make your face look fat. Nothing screams ugly like genuine human happiness.
The real smiles come later, I suppose, after the buzz of approbation on social media for those less real – and so despite being criticised for encouraging anti-social behaviour (eliminating the need to approach another human being to ask them to take a photo), the selfie stick actually heightens people’s dependence on others. We see to be seen, and to be seen in a way that we can control and distort as much or as little as we choose, building our Facebook walls high enough that we can safely hide behind them, and I worry that this combination of self-disengagement and self-promotion is beginning to threaten our ability to look at ourselves introspectively. Because it seems that keeping the self at arm’s length wasn’t enough; now the selfie stick distances us from ourselves further still.
I reckon it’s the fact that we’ve grown so accustomed to images being routinely edited, veiled, and falsified (so much so that #nofilter is a thing) that the recent “Rembrandt: The Late Works” exhibition in London was so powerful. I went in early January, and definitely came out feeling a little bit more human than when I went in. A good painting, like a good friend, is one you can have a good conversation with. It knows how to talk, but also how to listen, how to ask questions as well as answer them. Rembrandt’s work does exactly that, and as the artist becomes more acutely aware of his own mortality the expressions he paints become more enquiring, less self-assured. And man and medium go through the same transformation; as the physical body in Rembrandt’s self portraits becomes frailer, the brushwork too loses its smooth, polished qualities, taking on a rough, unfinished style. Whoever the subject may be – a religious character, a wealthy patron, the artist himself - you feel like you’ve known them all your life. The paint is applied with so much gentleness, humility, honesty, and humanity, that it’s as if you could just reach out and touch life itself in all its tragic beauty.
Reading that paragraph back now, and seeing to my horror that I have just written the words “It’s as if you could just reach out and touch life itself in all its tragic beauty”, I will re-emerge from my own bottom and admit that the initial reason for giving self-portraiture a go wasn’t to discover life’s tragic beauty, nor its beautiful tragedy, for that matter. Instead, it was just to parody a Van Gogh painting – the self portrait with a bandaged ear – after I endured what felt like my own little amputation; that is, I had a haircut. Said haircut was prompted after the list of the Most Embarrassing Things That Have Happened To Me In Paris gained a new entry which soared straight to number one, beating a) going into a stationary shop and accidentally asking for a thong, b) being accused of stealing some mulled wine spice mix by a shop assistant who chased me down the street, and c) forgetting the word for “undergraduate” when registering at a Parisian library and therefore unconvincingly making up a Masters subject (“But I don’t understand – is it in French or Italian?” “… Both?”).
So when I walked into a chic Parisian hairdresser’s with a compacted knot the size of a tennis ball and composed of half my hair, I was greeted by the incredulous and flamboyant “Ohh là là” of a male hairdresser (however much of a racial stereotype the image in your head is, times it by ten), was told that whoever had advised me that not brushing curly hair for months on end would be good for it was very wrong, and that I could have the knot “delicately” cut out for the small price of 20 euros. Perhaps I should’ve gone for it, because after I (less delicately) cut the knot out myself, leaving one half of my hair half as short as the other, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d just cut out a part of my identity. Someone had recently asked me whether it bothered me that people consistently reduced me to my hair. I didn’t know they did; what would I be without it? Not only that, but practically every time I struck up conversations with New French People had been when they occasionally approached me thinking they had once met me or seen me somewhere before. As it turned out, nearly every time it was just that they had recently seen the Disney movie “Brave”. Now I wasn’t even Brave - just Tangled.
But maybe having a go at a self portrait is still a small act of bravery, in its own little way. After all, if Rembrandt’s work shows us anything, it’s that it’s not always easy, nor reassuring, to turn your gaze inwards. And I feel like I’ve learnt something about myself, even if it is just that I’m not very good at self portraits. At a time when it's getting easier and easier to run from reality, perhaps it’s more important than ever to know thyself, not thy selfie.