A fascinating look at a place that Instagram takes in our lives and how it recycles art of the past.
The first selfie in recorded history was made by Leon Battista Alberti in Florence, sometime around the year 1435. Alberti sculpted his self-portrait in wax and then had it cast in bronze. It’s a portrait medallion, and an unusually large one. It looks like a very large, awkwardly shaped, oval coin. Connoisseurs tell us that it is obviously the work of an amateur. There’s a blemish on the cheek from a casting flaw, and the ear, though ably sculpted, rises too far above the rest of the relief, creating the odd impression of a whorled mountain towering over the plain of Alberti’s face. But then amateurishness is part of the medallion’s message. Coins and medals were the province of emperors and kings. And now here is Alberti, the illegitimate son of a merchant father, born in exile and without a lasting position anywhere, saying to the world: This is my face. Take a good look—it’s worth your time.
On photos of food:
The golden era for the depiction of food in art came with the popularization of the still life in seventeenth-century Holland. The first society to experience the problem of having too much money and too much stuff, the Dutch had multiple genres of food-related still lifes, each dealing in a different level of luxury. [ … ] Instagram’s obsession with food isn’t the only thing it shares with the Golden Age of Dutch art. In seventeenth-century Holland, art was plentiful and cheap. A middle-class home might contain a hundred or more paintings, and a canvas could be purchased for far less than the price of a tablecloth or a fine plate. It was the first time in history that ordinary people had easy access to images that depicted their surroundings and did so without prejudice. The result was a world of images that was at once vast and trained on the ordinary. It was an art that collapsed hierarchies of class and subject matter—an art that could concern itself, deeply, with breakfast.