Preserving Memory in Fleeting Times: The Importance of Portrait Sculpture in the Selfie Era

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Image Source: Public Domain via Wikiart
Some portraits — like Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer — not only honor the subject but seem to take on a life of their own in the imaginations of art lovers. Image Source: Public Domain via Wikiart

According to Google, 93 million selfies are taken every day.1 That’s a pretty major leap since the Victorian era, to say the least, when the only way to make a lasting picture of someone was to commission an artist to make a sculpture or painting of them. It was a time-honored ritual then, conceiving masterworks like Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Henry Weeke’s expressive portrait sculpture of Francis Bacon. In a world where we can snap photos with the flick of an iPhone, those traditional methods of portraiture are no longer necessary to capture a person’s image.

But this tradition remains firmly rooted in our culture — in fact, with the advent of technology, it’s taken on an even greater symbolic role than ever and has evolved into a gesture of deep respect and affection. The material durability, larger-than-life scale, and social function of honoring a hero make portrait sculpture an artistic tradition as vital now as it was in ancient times.

Statue of Zeus Enthroned at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California | Image Source: Getty Open Content
Statue of Zeus Enthroned at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California | Image Source: Getty Open Content

If Memory Were a Material, Would It Be Dust or Marble?

If memory were a material, I imagine it would be geological: sands that settle in small moments and condense to legibility over the millennia. The passage of time warps the original form of the rock formations, and only over time do we understand their meaning and importance. Don’t get me wrong, selfies can be a great and fun way to create personal memories, but if a digital photo is a material memory, I imagine it would be more like dandelion tops fluttering off by the thousands on the breeze, lovely but fleeting.

A portrait sculpture is certainly a material memory — one that mimics contemporary human opinion but holds its own as geopolitical winds shift and time passes. One of my favorite portrait sculptures is one of Zeus at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, because of its ability to viscerally evoke the materiality of memory. This marble statuette — sculpted by an unknown Greek artist around 100 BC — lay submerged in water for much of its life, so half of Zeus’ body is covered with marine incrustations. The other half was likely submerged in sand, meaning that Zeus’ left side remained impervious to the destructive forces of the water.2

The Meaning of Scale

The larger-than-life scale of a portrait sculpture gives viewers the feeling of being in the presence of a larger-than-life personality. When an image is discerned through the glowing 4-inch space of your iPhone screen, it loses its lasting value. Monumental-scale sculpture has the opposite effect — it imbues the space around it with the personality and charisma of the person it depicts.

Nasser Azam’s monumental-scale portrait of Malala Yousafzai — the young Pakistani activist best known for advocating for education for girls in the Middle East — maximizes the impact of scale to express the honor and respect that we have for Malala and her unwavering pursuit of social justice in Pakistan. At three meters tall, the portrait has an impressive presence, and although I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Malala, I’m sure that it can only mimic the monumentality of her personality and strength of spirit. According to The Guardian, the scale of the sculpture is “intended to reflect the huge impact Yousafzai has had on the world.”3

For Malala, the painting connoted solidarity and support from the public:

“It’s more than a painting for me. It’s the support that it gives to the education campaign that I stand for. That’s why it means so much to me. It shows that people are standing with me to make sure no child is out of school. It is that support that strengthens me – we are together.”4

What’s in an Image?

Even the masters of social media have been calling out the frivolity and fakeness of the selfie era. Eighteen-year-old Instagram celebrity Essina O’Neill recently made international headlines by deleting her popular photo-reel, pointing out that the entire venture had “served no real purpose other than self-promotion.”5 As easily as we can snap a photo these days, it’s clear that our heroes and loved ones deserve to be represented with a spiritual and material depth that exceeds the thickness of an LCD screen. Some art forms become obsolete, but as we navigate a technological world, other forms like portrait sculpture shift and become more vital than ever as they find a new niche of importance in our culture.

The McLeods are Australian bronze artists with experience creating sculptures that celebrate culture and history. If you’re interested in commission a sculpture to honor a public figure or loved one, contact us today for a consultation.


  1. “You’re So Vain: 93 Million Selfies Are Taken Per Day.” WCBSFM 1011. Accessed December 14, 2015.
  2. “Statue of Zeus Enthroned,” The J. Paul Getty Museum, accessed December 22, 2015,
  3. “New Portrait of Malala Yousafzai to Go on Show in Birmingham.” The Guardian. Accessed December 14, 2015.
  4. ibid
  5. “Social Media Star Essina O’Neill Deletes Instagram Account.” The Guardian. Accessed December 14, 2015.

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