How to take a literary selfie | Daily News


How to take a literary selfie

I had the idea to write a book of literary selfies almost by chance. I was leafing through a book on Frida Kahlo (who isn’t my favourite artist, but I admire her courage, and how her numerous self-portraits form a sort of painful autobiography). I came across the painting Tree of Hope. It is a dual self-portrait: a Frida lying on her side, draped in a sheet, on a wide gurney, and a Frida sitting up very straight on a seat against the gurney, facing the viewer, and wearing a gorgeous red dress.

I was stunned: this dual portrait echoed precisely a situation I had experienced myself. It was so similar that I immediately imagined the picture I would paint if I could. But I am no artist. And so it was a matter of painting in words an image that existed only in my imagination: two Sylvies, one lying on a radiotherapy bed and the other sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing a very beautiful dress.

Vindictive narrative

The medium of the image was the perfect trigger. It afforded the necessary distance for my writing to be more than a self-centred account of a moment. The double description (ekphrasis) of the artist’s work followed immediately by my ‘painting’ allowed me to portray a situation and to make visible the feeling that underlay and vindicated the narrative. The image, namely the selfie – since these are autobiographical accounts – allowed me to show things that I would find hard to write about. It would never have occurred to me to write about the experience of undergoing radiotherapy had I not been inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting.

After writing this first literary selfie, I started looking for other self-portraits that I could copy, or that could act as prompts for my work. I’d been planning a book of autobiographical short stories for a while, so I was ripe for a series of selfies! I very quickly decided to restrict myself to self-portraits by women which in fact corresponded more directly to situations I had experienced. Self-portraits by women across the centuries are different from those by men. The female painter must show not only that she paints well and can be trusted with commissions, but also that she has high moral standards and is of a good family. Men are much freer to depict themselves as they please.

I found myself immediately identifying with certain self-portraits, as if they were snapshots that mirrored (imaginary) self-portraits of my own. For example, Gwen John’s Self-portrait Holding a Letter evoked a very particular memory for me and sparked my ‘Self-portrait with postcard’.

A postcard whose meaning eludes me and which, like Gwen John’s letter, is from a love affair. So I attempted to paint myself with words, holding the postcard.


This was also the case with a self-portrait by Gabriele Münter, in which she looks surprised and alarmed, her eyes open wide beneath an enormous, blue, rather ridiculous hat, which inspired my ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ – a snapshot of myself at the precise moment when I receive an email that does not bode well.

These three paintings sowed the idea of the literary selfie – a snapshot that captures a moment, sometimes the moment when a shock occurs, which is a very interesting idea for the writer of the short-story, which nearly always is the description of a moment, and very often, that of a shock. The device of the selfie allowed me to depict the moment of the shock, and paved the way for the short story that would explain or justify it.

Each of my selfies begins with a precise but of course partial description of the chosen painter’s self-portrait, followed by the literary selfie inspired by it. Some of these self-portraits do not have that quality of a snapshot, but the emotion I felt, the sense of identification with the painting’s subject, resulted nonetheless in an internal snapshot of myself in a given situation: a literary selfie. There is a self-portrait of Olga Boznanska, for instance, which doesn’t give a precise idea of the situation in which the artist finds herself: she is seated and appears to be holding a bunch of flowers, and she’s wearing a rather extraordinary hat. Perhaps she is visiting someone. What is immediately striking is that the woman in the painting, with her discreet smile and slightly haughty gaze, exudes self-confidence and a quiet sort of irony.

(Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz)

- Granta Magazine

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