The New Narcissus: Identity Construction through Self-Portraiture

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Katja Zigerlig, Independent Scholar, New York, USA


    Throughout art history, painted portraits of men and women have revealed explicit and implicit information about the subject’s status, values and position in society. Representing the self is still highly relevant in contemporary culture, yet one’s visual identity has now become known as constructing one’s “personal brand.” (Self) Portraiture is an optical form of communication that re-lies on visual tropes of the past, and either rejects or contemporizes them. The new Narcissus therefore refers to a strategically constructed identity that trumps the mere self-reflection one sees in the mirror. Professionals in creative industries are more aware than most about the symbolic language of their representation, as they are conscious of the power of images and their historical precedence. Therefore, this demographic offers a case study to observe how power and status can be coded in one’s visual identity and suggests methods for assessing identity construction in other disciplines. Specifically, I will address how men and women in the arts represent themselves, and the gender and power implications behind their “portraiture.” For example, men tend to assert notions of power through their visual domination of objects, possessions, or people, which has a long tradition in art history. By contrast, women who have achieved significant professional status tend to portray themselves using signifiers of autonomy, for which there is little visual precedent. Conversely, the media most often portrays women based on aesthetic parameters, thereby referring to a long visual tradition of portraying women as allegories of beauty or as a Muse. The digital age allows us to create, manipulate and distribute our own Dorian Grays. However, now the portrait triumphs as the medium to convey the message. As such, contemporary portraits offer formal visual language and paradigms for analyzing how identity constructions still convey power – about the self, and within a community.