“Smiling Like a Person Sunbathing”

Katie Da Cunha Lewin reviews Sylvie Weil’s Selfies (trans. Ros Schwartz)

Sylvie Weil, Selfies.
Translated by Ros Schwartz.
Les Fugitives, £12.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

To my mind, there is something profoundly conceited about the selfie. To search one’s own expression for its most beautiful possibility, for the angle that illuminates a new version of the face: the selfie announces a moment in which the individual has set aside everything else but themselves, a moment to consider themselves as a subject. We might note the gender imbalance of the selfie, or, more specifically, that it has become synonymous with certain female celebrities, setting off a trend for particular poses that have been repeated by girls and young women across Instagram. I’m not convinced by any feminist message regarding the genre — particularly anything couched in the wishy-washy language of empowerment — but in the taker and the subject becoming one, there is an important symbiosis between individual and action. There is no set background to the selfie; if the person taking the image is also the subject, the image is a selfie. The subject both governs content and creates genre: it is a statement about control.

In Sylvie Weil’s Selfies (trans. Ros Schwartz), the author finds a thread connecting the contemporary selfie to the broader history of self-portraits in painting. Although Renaissance self-portraits, Frida Kahlo’s energetic experiments, and Vivian Maier’s photographs may not immediately share a visual lexicon, Weil finds a similar impetus underlying them all and the selfies produced in abundance today. In the various artists’ “selfies” that catch her eye — mostly paintings, but also one illustration and one photograph — she notices a communal language about the composition of the self. All of the pieces she selects are by women, and many show their subjects engaged in some form of creative work. Her selections are mostly of a realist sort — though the two examples of Kahlo’s work are characteristically symbolic — and depict women painting themselves in their own clothes and in their own time period. She does not write about images which seek to transform the depiction of the self, a la the modernist artist Claude Cahun or contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman, nor do her selections show women in states of high emotion. These are women looking out at the viewer and looking back at themselves.

Weil follows their lead and turns this doubled gaze on to herself, using a variety of self-portraits across the history of art as jumping off points for stories from her own life. In Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (2016), the art critic Frances Borzello writes that she considers self-portraits to be “the painted versions of autobiography”, and Weil seems to be working from the inverse of this: making autobiography painterly. Her chapters are uniform. She begins with a reading of a particular self-portrait, anchored in an analysis of expression, colour, and clothing, so that each opening paragraph becomes a slowly emerging impression of the subject the image contains. This impression then sparks a personal response, and so Weil uses her readings to create her own literary selfies. Her descriptive prose creates textual snapshots of visual artworks, and these descriptions in turn become short anecdotes, stories or ruminations. Is this a distinctive form, and if so, what is it exactly? In the move from the painterly to the photographic to the lived, it seems that Weil is writing tableaux vivants, literally “living pictures”, which straddle multiple artistic forms. There is a fascinating interplay between the paintings she describes and her gradual moves toward the stories she tells. In ‘Self portrait as an author’, for example, she shares her response to Judith Leyster’s painting by announcing: “I am going to paint myself sitting at a table with three piles of books in front of me.” Further down the page, this scene is brought to life: “Suddenly attentive, sitting up in my chair, elbows on the table, I push aside the bottle of Evian.” The possibility of action in the image becomes real. Although this technique sounds rather clunky, Weil moves fluidly between visual forms and her responsive “selfie-paintings” by writing a deepening narrative, working from the outside in.

In following the movements of Weil’s formal dexterity, and considering the relationship between the still image and moving life, I was reminded of the famous scene in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) in which Lily Bart takes part in a tableau vivant at a party. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, recreating well-known artworks through tableaux was a popular social activity. Lily recreates the Joshua Reynolds painting Mrs. Lloyd and the partygoers are struck not only by her beauty, but by the seamlessness with which she seems to inhabit the image. One original title of the novel was A Moment’s Ornament, and in this scene Lily lives up to that name: she becomes an art object momentarily, but importantly an object in public. For her observant cousin, however, Lily’s pose reveals some inner truth, and to her mind the tableau “look[s] like the real Lily — the Lily I know.” In this blending of artforms, there is a central instability in the composition that is about the public, composed version of self. In The House of Mirth, where the possession of art connotes the possession of wealth, this idea of becoming art is also about becoming a valuable object — a central theme of the novel is Lily’s understanding of value — as well as seeing oneself from an exterior vantage point. Weil’s writing often appears to be about this problem, too, about how to think from an outside position, looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. This does not seem to be about revealing that “real” version of the self that Gerty Farish sees in Lily’s pose, but about its sheer possibility, the strange reality of the stuttering self.

Weil demonstrates a particular preoccupation with another form of exterior view through her attention to costuming. In all the images she selects, she notes the dress of the painter and seems particularly fond of hats: Olga Boznańska wears “a sort of Chinese hat, amusing but elegant”, while Gabriele Münter wears “a heavy and unbecoming straw hat”, and Gwen John wears “a dark, high-necked dress, her hair parted in the middle”. In her descriptions of herself, she is equally careful to pay attention to her mode of dress, a silk skirt or a hat, but she also mentions the tailor or the milliner, focusing both on the object worn and on how it has been made. There is a simultaneity here, as Weil reveals the many parts to dress, and therefore the many pairs of eyes that participate in the process of dressing. To be composed, in the image or in public, is to put oneself together in the awareness of a viewer.

The ghostly presence of this presumptive viewer also emerges in the idea of the mirror. In her discussion of Vivian Maier’s self-portrait in ‘Selfie in a fugitive mirror’, Weil plays on the idea of being at “home” in a reflection. She also seems to be referencing the famous “discovery” of Maier’s work, which occurred in 2007 when three collectors bought the photographer’s auctioned negatives. There emerged a neat relationship between the content of Maier’s work and the narrative of her artistic life: an unassuming woman captured copious street scenes as well as self-portraits as a means of giving herself a voice, finding herself in new places through her camera. Borzello notes that Maier took a photograph of herself wherever she could find a reflective surface; Weil finds an alternative kind of reflection in looking for kinship in the people she “meets”. This search for reflective surfaces continues in her other vignettes, and Weil’s writing is often at its most interesting when she speculates on very particular relationships between individuals outside of a family unit. In ‘Self Portrait with a dog’, for example, she is touched by the behaviour of a pet belonging to her friends, a dog named Lucky, and she offers the startling explanation that his apparent melancholia must be due to his being Jewish. In ‘Self portrait with a Chinese mushroom’, she finds friendship with a magazine editor, but an unguarded comment immediately alienates her. Though at one point she notes that her new friend “gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging”, this belonging is quickly shattered. There is a fragility in Weil’s descriptions of seeing herself as seen by others, and, like Maier’s “fugitive mirror”, the glimpse of recognition can disappear as quickly as it arrives.

This sense of ephemerality returns in another form in Weil’s discussion of digital photography; although much of Selfies revolves around painted self-portraits, Weil also engages with the selfie as a digital genre born of smartphones and front-facing cameras. In ‘Self portrait with a portrait of my son’, the act of taking pictures becomes a kind of shield, a disguise for Weil to be able to look at her son closely during a family dinner away from home. On the return journey, she deletes the array of images she has just photographed, leaving her with “several lovely pictures of my son, captured at the right moment, ironic or serious, smiling, relaxed. These images are my spoils, the fruits of a hard-fought campaign.” In deleting certain images, Weil also effectively deletes the scene she has just painted and reformulates a narrative through the malleability of what she has chosen to retain. In the final vignette, ‘Photobomb selfie’, Weil exploits photographic terminology to great effect, establishing the photobomb as a transformative detail that shatters the container of the frame. She describes herself as “becom[ing] the ‘bomb’ — with a strand of my hair, the corner of my eye or a nostril intruding on a rather lovely landscape.” She herself disturbs the picture, or what she envisions a photograph should contain. When she learns she has a half-brother, the product of her father’s infidelity, photography takes on another meaning, and the “photobomb” becomes a useful metaphor for the presumed coherence of the family portrait: as she writes, “A number of family photos, real or imaginary, will need a makeover.”

Borzello finds the self-portrait and the selfie to be oppositional forms because of the contrast in their methods of composition: one is the product of careful study, preparation, and time; the other is a free-wheeling snap produced immediately in a happenstance context. But Weil does not want to draw such clear lines of definition between them. In her use of the term “selfie” to discuss works of art from throughout history, Weil brings together women looking at themselves from an exterior position and finds them conversing in a shared dialect across various periods and contexts. She rescues the selfie from its conceitedness, proposing that it can be become a starting point, and not necessarily an enclosed mode of self-regard. Underscoring all the readings of her selections is something else about how little each image reveals: these are figurative selfies, containing faces and bodies, but the expression of the subject is often inscrutable. Similarly, in Weil’s accounts of scenes from her life, there are stops and starts, gaps, distances, time jumps. Whether read as memoir or autobiography — or whatever else Selfies may be — Weil pays homage to these painters and their art by leaving much unsaid and unexplored. The selfie is not wholly a revealing form, so much as a method of putting a self in a new context — a genre that is made through the interaction of frameworks, atableau vivant in words.

About Katie da Cunha Lewin

Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher, tutor, and writer based in London. She has a PhD in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee from the University of Sussex and was the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in The London Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, The White Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.