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Self Portraits

Poet Michael Symmons Roberts explores the phenomenon of the selfie and its much older relative, the self-portrait, and its aspiration to portray the artist’s inner world.

In this exploration of the self-portrait, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts starts with the modern phenomenon of the ubiquitous selfie and questions whether it really is such a quantum shift in the way we see ourselves in the world. Or is this just the latest tech-twist in the story of self-portraiture?

“It’s become a cliché to mock and revile it,” Michael says, “characterising it as a narcissistic exercise, but the reality is more complex”.

Self-portraiture goes way back to cave paintings, he suggests, and has a long and complex history. “I still remember when I first saw one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in the flesh, or LS Lowry’s red-eyed, searing vision of himself staring back. There’s something about them that makes us feel they are giving us the real person, a glimpse of the painter’s true self.”

Michael goes on to extend his definition of the self-portrait from just painters and sculptors to include poets and novelists. The poetry of Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wistawa Szymborska, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickenson, and the music of Philip Glass, singer songwriter Don McLean and Nile Rogers, helps Michael conclude, “Self-portraits, at their best, aspire to portray the inner world, not just the surface appearance.”

Presenter: Michael Symmons Roberts
Producer: Michael Wakelin
A TBI production for BBC Radio 4

28 minutes

Last on

Sun 2 Dec 2018 23:30

Music Played

Adding a track to My Tracks will no longer be available from late March
  • Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers

    Good Times

    Performer: Chic.
    • Risqué.
    • Atlantic.
  • Philip Glass

    The Photographer: “A Gentleman’s Honor”

    Performer: Michael Riesman, The Philip Glass Ensemble, & Paul Zukovsky.
    • The Essential Philip Glass.
    • Sony Music Entertainment.
  • Jim Croce

    Photographs and Memories

    Performer: Jim Croce.
    • You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.
    • ABC Records.
  • Don McLean

    Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)

    Performer: Don McLean.
    • Favorites and Rarities.
    • EMI.
  • Edvard Grieg

    Solveij’s Song

    Performer: Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
    • Edvard Grieg Music to Henrik Ibsen Peer Gynt.
    • Blikkboks LTD.
  • Moonrakers

    The Bells of Norwich

    Performer: Moonrakers.
    • Beneath the Snow.
    • Moonrakers.


Title: Photograph from September 11

Author: Wisława Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Title: Unknown Woman in my Grandmother’s Photograph

Author: Jean Liebenthal

Publisher: Poetry


Title: Self-Portrait at 38

Author: Jennifer Tonge

Publisher: Poetry


Title: A Face to the World (Extract)

Author: Laura Cumming

Publisher: William Collins


Title: A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Extract)

Author: Karl Ove Knausgaard

Publisher: Penguin Random House


Title: I dwell in Possibility – (466)

Author: Emily Dickinson

Publisher: Harvard University Press


Title: No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.

Author: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Today’s programme was presented by Michael Symmons Roberts.

The producer was Michael Wakelin.