I had the idea to write a book of literary selfies almost by chance. I was leafing through a book on Frida Kahlo (who isn’t my favourite artist, but I admire her courage, and how her numerous self-portraits form a sort of painful autobiography). I came across the painting Tree of Hope. It is a dual self-portrait: a Frida lying on her side, draped in a sheet, on a wide gurney, and a Frida sitting up very straight on a seat against the gurney, facing the viewer, and wearing a gorgeous red dress.
I was stunned: this dual portrait echoed precisely a situation I had experienced myself. It was so similar that I immediately imagined the picture I would paint if I could. But I am no artist. And so it was a matter of painting in words an image that existed only in my imagination: two Sylvies, one lying on a radiotherapy bed and the other sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing a very beautiful dress.
The medium of the image was the perfect trigger. It afforded the necessary distance for my writing to be more than a self-centred account of a moment. The double description (ekphrasis) of the artist’s work followed immediately by my ‘painting’ allowed me to portray a situation and to make visible the feeling that underlay and vindicated the narrative. The image, namely the selfie – since these are autobiographical accounts – allowed me to show things that I would find hard to write about. It would never have occurred to me to write about the experience of undergoing radiotherapy had I not been inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting.
After writing this first literary selfie, I started looking for other self-portraits that I could copy, or that could act as prompts for my work. I’d been planning a book of autobiographical short stories for a while, so I was ripe for a series of selfies! I very quickly decided to restrict myself to self-portraits by women which in fact corresponded more directly to situations I had experienced. Self-portraits by women across the centuries are different from those by men. The female painter must show not only that she paints well and can be trusted with commissions, but also that she has high moral standards and is of a good family. Men are much freer to depict themselves as they please.
I found myself immediately identifying with certain self-portraits, as if they were snapshots that mirrored (imaginary) self-portraits of my own. For example, Gwen John’s Self-portrait Holding a Letter evoked a very particular memory for me and sparked my ‘Self-portrait with postcard’. A postcard whose meaning eludes me and which, like Gwen John’s letter, is from a love affair. So I attempted to paint myself with words, holding the postcard.
This was also the case with a self-portrait by Gabriele Münter, in which she looks surprised and alarmed, her eyes open wide beneath an enormous, blue, rather ridiculous hat, which inspired my ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ – a snapshot of myself at the precise moment when I receive an email that does not bode well.
These three paintings sowed the idea of the literary selfie – a snapshot that captures a moment, sometimes the moment when a shock occurs, which is a very interesting idea for the writer of the short-story, which nearly always is the description of a moment, and very often, that of a shock. The device of the selfie allowed me to depict the moment of the shock, and paved the way for the short story that would explain or justify it.
Each of my selfies begins with a precise but of course partial description of the chosen painter’s self-portrait, followed by the literary selfie inspired by it. Some of these self-portraits do not have that quality of a snapshot, but the emotion I felt, the sense of identification with the painting’s subject, resulted nonetheless in an internal snapshot of myself in a given situation: a literary selfie.
There is a self-portrait of Olga Boznanska, for instance, which doesn’t give a precise idea of the situation in which the artist finds herself: she is seated and appears to be holding a bunch of flowers, and she’s wearing a rather extraordinary hat. Perhaps she is visiting someone. What is immediately striking is that the woman in the painting, with her discreet smile and slightly haughty gaze, exudes self-confidence and a quiet sort of irony. Those are the very qualities I wish I’d had during a visit, shortly after my mother’s death, to a lady who was supposedly her best friend. So I chose to ‘paint’ myself visiting my mother’s friend, a visit during which I hadn’t managed to equip myself with those valuable qualities.
Another self-portrait that inspired me was by Giovanna Fratellini, who paints herself putting the finishing touches on a very pretty portrait of her son Lorenzo. This self-portrait of a mother depicting her son prompted my ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’. The selfie, in other words expression through an image, enabled me to write about an episode concerning my own son which I found deeply painful. He had been the victim of an appalling attack, during which he had been seriously injured and disfigured. After my son was out of danger, had been operated on and had his face reconstructed, I suffered from insomnia and I spent my nights making little paper mâché figures – ‘idols’. (In my social circle there are a number of perceptive psychologists who pointed out to me that each night I was reconstructing my son’s face, as the surgeon had done.) Approaching this time through the device of the literary selfie gave me a necessary distance, and at the same time added intimacy.
I wanted to make the most of the selfie fad. I became fascinated with variations, like the photobomb: an intruder unexpectedly appears in the field of vision. Like when two young Australian female hockey champions had the wonderful surprise of seeing the Queen appear in the background of their selfie. In her splendid green hat, Queen Elisabeth II was gazing into the lens with a broad smile.
I wanted to record myself at the precise moment when a ‘bomb,’ in the guise of a telephone call, entered the field of my selfie – a call which, in the space of a few seconds, transformed my childhood memories for ever. Only one genuine selfie provided me with a model, and that is the wonderful self-portrait by Vivian Maier who photographs herself in a mirror being transported by a removal man. I think she must have cheated a little, that the photographer asked the man to stand still for a moment while she framed her photo. But nevertheless we are confronted with the portrait of a young woman in a moving mirror. A fugitive mirror.
That photo took my breath away the first time I saw it because I have exactly the same one. Yes, the same ‘selfie’ which, admittedly, exists purely in my head, but which is no less real, a snapshot of myself in a huge mirror being carried by two antiques dealers. I was clearing out the family apartment in Paris after the death of my father. In my selfie, taken, like that of Vivian Maier, in a moving mirror, four generations of my family were there beside me:
Standing alone in the sitting room, I twirled a little so that the mirror would preserve my image for as long as possible. It wasn’t rational, of course, but I didn’t want that mirror to lose sight of me, that mirror in which, at one time or another, all the members of my family had gazed at their reflection [ . . . ] But when the removal men had to turn to get through the door, and I could no longer see my reflection in the now lifeless surface of the huge, flat thing they were carrying, I knew that the place where my history and already my prehistory had been played out, the place that had been my home, no longer existed. (Sylvie Weil, Selfies)
This essay was first published in the French as ‘Selfie(s), analyses d’une pratique plurielle’, in a collection edited by Bertrand Naivin, Éditions Hermann, 2018. Sylvie Weil’s book Selfies, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz, is available now from Les Fugitives.
Cover Image: ‘Tree of Hope’, Frieda Kahlo