The word “selfie” gets a lot of play lately, on T-shirts, hashtags and social media.
The term, referring to a self-portrait, may be new, but the concept has been prevalent in the art world for centuries. Artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso and Frida Kahlo all immortalized their looks, or their interpretation of their appearance, in “selfies.”
“Portraits have always been the link between the people and high culture, the palaces and the pubs,” says Matan Daube, curator of the Prima Facie exhibition at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery at Tel Aviv University. The show, which boasts dozens of carefully selected works from the extensive private collection of Igal Ahouvi, opened late last month and will run through April.
Daube, 37, was born and raised in Petah Tikva. He completed studies in art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and went on to show work in galleries throughout Israel. Four years ago he relocated to London, where he continued his academic pursuits at the Royal College of Art. During his time there, Daube became a close associate of Sarit Shapira, the former curator of the Igal Ahouvi Art Collection.
Last year, Daube replaced Shapira in that role.
“I’m in London for them,” he says as he gestures toward the photographs and paintings.
Walking through the various spaces of the gallery, Daube pauses to explain the reasoning behind the exhibition’s build.
“The infrastructure of the setup makes for a kind of symphony.
The opening presents the subject, portraits, in a very straightforward way,” he says. He stops to glance at the 101 images lining four walls of the first gallery space. This series is Hans-Peter Feldmann’s famous 100 Years, in which every age from zero to 100 is captured in a black and white photograph. In the middle of the white space stands a blue-lined ceramic vase filled with flowers.
This article, oddly colorful amid the stark monochromatics of the work, appears at once old and new, vintage and fresh out of the kiln.
“This was part of the artist’s requirements,” explains Daube.
“He specified the necessity of wildflowers; the vase was our choice.
We wanted something that could be from anywhere but [was] also a bit familiar.”
Moving upstairs, Daube stops in front of a photograph of Andy Warhol by Richard Avedon, topless and cut off below the chin.
“This is in many ways the anti-portrait. It was taken after Valerie Solanis attacked Warhol. He had to undergo surgery and was left with scars. Warhol is all about faces and here, he shows his bare, injured chest.”
Daube goes on to say that opening the second room, the body of the exhibition, with this image felt right and powerful. Carrying on the theme of violence, two photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe’s hang side by side. One features a James Dean-esque Mapplethorpe holding out a knife. The second, a naked woman wielding a revolver.
The two images evoke a world of dichotomy, the way that the two subjects hold these weapons, the contrast between male and female, hard and soft.
“I chose these pieces prior to the recent flare-up of violence in Israel,” says Daube, “but I suppose it gives another context.”
It is in the third space that Daube lights up.
“This is my pride and joy,” he beams. Facing off with a gray wall holding five embedded screens, Daube explains that this series, Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, is the only part of the exhibition not to come directly from Ahouvi’s private collection.
“These were generously lent to us from the Warhol Foundation. I brought them because I felt that if I was going to do something about portraits, I needed to bring fundamental pieces that changed the way that portraits were done.”
In these moving images, a handful of Warhol’s friends, muses and associates are seen for four minutes each.
“Warhol set up a camera in The Factory and filmed each person for two minutes. He then stretched the footage out to half-time. There are 472 of these films.”
In the next room, Daube chose to display the works as one would at home or in a coffee shop. 23 pieces, by Israeli and foreign artists alike, hang in a mosaic on the white wall.
Here, Daube shows the many possibilities of the portrait, from stencil to cartoon, photograph to sketch.
Tucked in a corner is a small sketch of Modigliani’s.
To succeed in bringing all of the works he felt needed to be part of this exhibition to Israel, Daube was forced to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops. One piece, a meters-long Jacquard tapestry of Kate Moss’ face by Chuck Close, caused many sleepless nights.
“The authorities could not understand how a tapestry could be a piece of art. They said that it was furniture and that art was either a painting or a sculpture. We almost didn’t get it in,” Daube says.
As he reaches the close of the exhibition, a small chamber with two pieces by South African artist William Kentridge, Daube says, “artists say that every portrait is a self-portrait. Perhaps they are also self-portraits of the viewer. Artists make portraits not to show likeness or resemblance but to say something about society about life and solitude. I believe that what we’ve done is less about the mind and the intellect and more about addressing the senses. I think the world we created is very emotional and tactile.”
Heading back towards the sunfilled entrance, Daube points out the writing on the wall.
“We made sure to create a hashtag for the exhibition and we want to encourage people to take selfies and post them. We are not against selfies, rather we are very much in favor of them.”
Prima Facie is currently on display at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery at 54 Haim Levanon Street in Ramat Aviv. For more information, visit https://en-art.tau.ac.il.