Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Facing History: The Human Countenance

“There are quantities of human beings, but there are even more faces, for each person has several.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Everybody has one – or even several, according to the poet Rilke. But how often do we actually contemplate not only the handsomeness or beauty of a face, but just what having a face at all means in the first place, and how a face communicates something about us to others long before we even open our mouths? Naturally every culture has differing definitions for what makes an agreeable face stylistically, but all cultures can tell an angry face from a happy one, a serene and comfortable face from one that connotes rage or fear. A face is the most central equipment for expressing feelings and character we have access to, one usually accepted as a means of signifying intelligence and power as well as an unavoidable “window into the soul.”

In the marvelous book The Face: Our Human Story, primarily an art book from Thames and Hudson and the British Museum following a landmark exhibition of facial representations, Debra Mancoff shows us how the changing face of our face is actually also the human story writ large, not with words but with emotional expressions we all apply by using exactly the same identical ingredients: two eyes, a nose, two ears, a mouth, and the landscape in which they are all situated. As the book illustrates, with captivating illustrations and sculptures from every culture and through every historical epoch, our face is totally central to our cultural identity, which can vary drastically, but also simply to our shared human identity, which never does or can.

A face asserts itself into our attention immediately, with even the most placid and unexpressive visage being utterly revealing about the person behind it. This book is a kind of guided tour of that basic human assertiveness, of how different cultures all depict faces, whether they make them idealized perfections or absolute likenesses. The wearer of a mask in many cultures is even more revealing than their own real face hidden under its protective seal. Faces are explored in ever detail of their details: as newborn babies, adults in their prime, elderly, dying, or often, even once dead, with the death mask being a hugely popular, if slightly morbid, tradition in many cultures.

Equally intriguing, if not downright frightening, is the question of why, given the basic core importance of the face, some cultures prone to iconoclasm (the opposition to images) are so opposed to its representation, as a form of doctrine, that they will go out of their way to deface it, or destroy it. Luckily, ours is not a theological debate here, but still, it does give one pause to reflect: if the face is so crucial to our humanity, why, then, is its depiction so gravely dreaded in some quarters? I mean, it’s only a face, or a body, and once again, everyone has one.

L: Noh mask of a female deity, 18th-century Japan; R: Contemporary Noh mask Nagasawa Ujiharu, 1980 (British Museum).

Above all, the face is the focus of our attention whenever we encounter another individual. But how have different cultures depicted a face, whether a likeness or idealized, whether masked or revealed, whether newborn, in the prime of life, dying or already deceased? Why has the depiction of the human face been so central to artistic expression in all world cultures, and why has it sometimes even been defaced or destroyed by iconoclasts and others? That question will have to left for another time and for others to answer, but for now, Debra Mancoff clearly had a field day when given free rein to roam across the curatorial pastures of all collections in the British Museum.

What she has unearthed and shared in this splendid tome is the wide array and spectrum of ways and means by which at the human face plays out its dramas and comedies across our world. The book, which is comprehensive and inclusive, is arranged according to subjects and themes that make the entire panoply of human affairs discernible at a glance, as evidenced by the recurring, recursive even, presence of the face. The chapters – devoted to birth and childhood, love and beauty, everyday life, faith and ritual, rulers and warfare, identity and disguise, and death and the afterlife – begins with an introduction to the theme and is followed by its own miniature exhibition, a museum you can hold in your hands, so to speak. And what this allows the reader/viewer to do is to interpret those juxtapositions in ways that suddenly reveal hidden human associations quite distinct and separate from the limited cultures in which the artifacts do their job of representing the face within their own unique iconography.

The exhibition and its catalogue are therefore both a typology and a topology, showing infinite variations within its scope. Indeed, it’s almost a topographical map of the face itself, spread out across the globe of our different societies and customs. As Mancoff expresses it, “Human faces tell us a story about human life. Over the long course of our history, that story has not changed very much. Our facial features are a window to our hearts and minds. If we study the faces of history, we should, by extension, understand something of their life stories. We should be able to identify what mattered to them, how they felt about their experiences, and the relationships that were important to them.”

Queen Nefertiti, Egypt, 1320 BCE (British Museum).

Edgar Degas, Portrait of a Young Lady, France, 1880 (British Museum).

As Cindy Helms, history editor for Culture Trip, summarizes it nicely, “Founded in 1753, the British Museum in London was the first national public museum in the world. It houses manuscripts, natural specimens, coins, medals, prints, drawings, and ethnographic material. Items range from the King’s Library to the Parthenon sculptures and anything in between having a relation to human history, arts, and culture. One of the top ten most visited museums in the world, more than five million people check in every year. It would not be a stretch to say that the British Museum has the largest collection of faces anywhere on earth.” And as a big fan of juxtaposition and montage, I love the way a kind of fabula, or story, emerges from seeing an ancient Egyptian queen gazing out next to a French girl’s face painted by an Impressionist over three thousand years later. 

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, Holland, 1639 (British Museum).

The same shock of recognition occurs when a couple of great painters share their self-portraits with us from almost four hundred years apart. We witness not only how the aesthetic style of representation has altered so drastically from the classical Rembrandt to the Cubist Picasso, but also, paradoxically, how the masculine confidence peering our from their canvases has remained almost unchanged by the passage of time. And that exotic traversal of styles, among so many other pendulum swings in this endlessly entertaining book, reiterates visually what the author/curator has been telling in the accompanying highly readable text:

We can identify someone by the way they walk, by a characteristic gesture or from a distinctive silhouette. To be certain of who they are however, we look at their face. In a global population of over 7.5 billion, no two individuals look exactly the same. Resemblances may be striking but there are always fundamental differences, even between identical twins. Our features, imprinted through genetic heritage, are further shaped by our unique physical and emotional experiences, prompting us to view ever face as a virtual symbol of identity: a record of who we are and what we know.

Pablo Picasso, Auto-Portrait 1907, France 1907 (British Museum).

“Famous faces,” Mancoff astutely points out, “are constructed out of a person’s appearance, their reputation and the ideas and desires we project on to them. False or true, their public images is regarded as their actual identity. Our own identity is harder fully to comprehend; our perception of self image, of our own appearance, is shaded by our inner life, our tally of flaws and faults, and our aspirations. But in the best portraits, whether of sitter or self, artists sharpen their observation with insight, looking through the lens of appearance to discover the essential elements of identity.”

The English painter Thomas Gainsborough, we learn, found it difficult to capture the likeness of skilled actors, claiming that “they have everyone’s faces but their own.” This raises interesting questions about altering the face, either by cosmetics or especially masks. “A mask,” Mancoff tells us and shows us in enchanting visual illustrations, “can identify as well as disguise. Masks have a long tradition in the theatre of many cultures, as devices for identifying actors or specific characters. The classical Latin word persona means not only the character played by an actor but also a mask.” This gives us fresh insights into a great actress and beauty such as Marilyn’s persona.

Publicity still of Marilyn from Charles Brackett’s 1953 film Niagara, which was later “borrowed” for Andy Warhol’s iconic 1963 silkscreen portrait (British Museum).

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.



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