I took a facial coding expert around the National Gallery to "read" some portraits, with interesting resultsby Sebastian Smee / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
For most of the past two millennia, the primary purpose of portraiture was remembrance. But since the few people who could afford to commission portraits – rulers, merchants, clergy – usually had interests extending beyond the merely personal, these were also expected to be edifying and exemplary in character. Then, from around the 15th century, a more intimate ideal of portraiture gradually took hold in western art: an expectation that portraits should provide insight into the character of the sitter.
Of course, in more recent times, the idea that character can be pinned down in an image has been thrown into doubt. Yet the assumption persists. To read about any well loved portrait, be it a Hockney, a Hogarth or a Holbein, is to be subjected to a stream of near random guesses about the personality and temperament of the person depicted. Art history is still mired in spurious suppositions about the relationship between facial appearance and identity.
A current exhibition at the Mus?e de Luxembourg in Paris called "Moi! Autoportraits de XXe si?cle" presents self-portraits by some of the great artists of modernism, starting with Degas, Picasso, Giacometti, and going through to Kahlo and Baselitz. In their variety, the works bring home the fact that the 20th century saw a spectacular breaking apart of old notions about the relationship between portrait and personality. You can see this in Picasso’s two-faced heads, or Giacometti’s wretchedly isolated individuals. And now, at the Hayward Gallery, a photographic exhibition curated by William Ewing called "About Face" aims to question further the conventions of portraiture, casting doubt "on the idea that a photographic portrait can be a credible likeness of an individual or a ‘window on the soul.’" Ewing’s selection has been prompted by the new technological possibilities of manipulation both in reality (cosmetic surgery, personality-altering drugs) and in representations (digital manipulation). The underpinning of both exhibitions is clear: "essences" and "truths" about a person cannot be defined by an image of that person.
And yet, despite all such developments, discussion of traditional forms of portraiture still takes its cue from the discredited 18th-century science of physiognomy. Witness Casanova, who wrote in the introduction to his memoirs: "Only there, in the face, is a man’s character in plain view, for that is its seat." What’s surprising is that this continues to sound acceptable, and even obvious, to us today.
Modern science acknowledges the…