In a fascinating study of the self-portrait spanning six centuries, Facing the World finds a surprising connection between renaissance masters and Instagram snaps.

This summer’s big exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Facing the World, is subtitled Self-Portraits: Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei. But when the same collection of images was shown in Germany and France en route to Edinburgh, the subtitle was rather more direct: From Rembrandt to the Selfie. This, after all, is an exhibition that makes the unexpected connection between the celebrated studies of the great renaissance masters and the images you may well have uploaded onto Instagram this week.

Indeed, one of the novelties of the display is a working photo booth. Thanks to artists Peter Weibel and Matthias Gommel, gallery-goers can not only compare and contrast the way that artists from Sir Henry Raeburn to Andy Warhol have tackled the self-portrait, they can also take pictures of themselves.

“People can go in there, pay £1, and get their photo taken, and it gets broadcast immediately in the exhibition,” says Imogen Gibbon, the gallery’s deputy director. “They’ll also be able to see all the photos from Germany and France, so we’re building up a European community. Photo booths were important to Warhol’s Polaroids, so it’s all part of the tradition.”

The approach taken by Gibbon and her fellow curators is not to present a chronological survey of the self-portrait – something that has already been well covered in print – but to group the work of otherwise unrelated artists into five broad themes. Images drawn from six centuries are gathered together under the titles ‘Up Close and Personal’, ‘The Artist at Work’, ‘Friends and Family’, ‘Role Play’ and ‘The Body of the Artist’.

“You might get a 16th-century Dutch work next to an engraving made during the First World War,” says Gibbon, who, among other tasks, had to trawl through the 11,000 photographs in Ai Weiwei’s Instagram account to complete her selection. “It places works from different eras alongside each other to show how something in the 16th century was similar to what someone in the 1760s was still trying to do or had moved on from.”

She adds: “Ai Weiwei’s posts are making a global political point, whereas Palma Vecchio in 1510 was entrenched in portraying an artist and the bare bones of humanity. Within those two ends of the spectrum, anything goes.”

Before now, you might never have thought of Annie Lennox at the same time as Allan Ramsay, or Sarah Lucas at the same time as Henri Matisse, but as artists dealing with the question of portraying themselves, they were attempting the same thing. The connections are there to be found: John Bellany painted lurid images of himself wearing an oxygen mask in his Addenbrooke’s Hospital series, just as Scotland’s Cecile Walton painted herself clutching her newborn child in a maternity ward.

Likewise, Alexis Grimou saw himself as a drinker in 1732, cheerfully raising a glass of wine, just as, 200 years later, a rather more morose Edvard Munch represented himself sitting next to a bottle of wine.

The self-portraiture theme also means we can see familiar works from the gallery’s Scottish collection in a new light. “It’s very important to give visitors something else with this exhibition,” Gibbon says. “So, yes, they might have seen the Sarah Lucas self-portraits, but here they’ll be telling a different story. I’m hoping people will be inspired to try a self-portrait themselves or go and take a selfie.”

If the juxtapositions are unexpected, so too is the definition of a self-portrait. As well as painting and photography, the exhibition includes drawings, video and sculpture. And it’s not all faces. Positioned overhead are the linking bronze limbs of Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Hand Circle), not a million miles away from the hands of Helen Chadwick photographed clutching a human brain.

“Nauman is in effect saying, ‘I’m a sculptor – this is the part of me that makes things’,” Gibbon explains. “When we were selecting works from our collection, nothing was off limits. Then we’d push it to our French and German colleagues and the ideas would start flowing.”

Words: Mark Fisher

Facing the World, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 16 July–16 October

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