Seeing Ourselves: from Boccaccio to the age of the selfie

Frances Borzello’s study of women and their self-portraits is a cornucopia of the weird, the chilling and the sublime

Some books are so beautiful, you tremble to open them. Thames & Hudson’s new edition of Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits is one of these, its ivory pages so crammed with fantastic reproductions, you might want to think about investing in a pair of white cotton gloves before you read it.

And it does demand to be read as well as gawped at (first published in 1998, this edition comes with a new afterword in which Borzello, an art historian with a special interest in bodies, ponders the self-portrait in the age of the selfie). Art books are too often jargon-filled, theoretical to a headache-inducing degree. But this one is both lucid and unexpectedly compelling. The surprise is, I suppose, that in a world in which women artists have often been invisible, so many of their self-portraits exist. The earliest appear as illustrations in Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) from 1355-9, and then down the centuries they multiply in number rather amazingly until we reach the 20th century, which brought us Suzanne Valadon, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas and countless others.

What I like best about Borzello’s book is the fact that it introduces the reader to so many of these countless others, artists whose work I didn’t previously know, or not well: Paula Modersohn-Becker, a German painter who depicted herself pregnant on her wedding anniversary in 1906, though she was not expecting a baby at the time; Wanda Wulz, an Italian experimental photographer who in the 1930s transposed a cat’s face over her own to brilliantly eerie effect; Charlotte Salomon, a German Jewish artist who painted Life? or Theatre?, a series comprising some 769 autobiographical gouaches, between 1941 and 1943, while she was in hiding from the Nazis (she and her unborn child were gassed in Auschwitz in October 1943); and Hannah Wilke, an American who photographed herself with – honestly – tiny vulval sculptures made of chewing gum stuck to her body. Here are ideas for a hundred novels I will never write, or perhaps just one too-clever-by-half genre-bending book on female identity which, if I had the time and the money, I would research in the grand libraries of the world, this volume on my desk in every single one.

Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits by Frances Borzello is published by Thames & Hudson (£19.95). Click here to order a copy for £18.15


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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