Last updated on 01.07.2020
The human face is probably the world’s most recognizable image – it is the first thing a newborn baby learns to identify, and our brains are trained to look for images of the face where there are none. Throughout history, artists have gravitated towards the face as the first port of call when depicting a human being – the idea of distorting, covering or concealing the face has been viewed as fascinating and often disturbing in most cultures.
The concept of the uncanny valley, when something is on the border between realistic and unrealistic creating something disturbingly almost human, is a recurring theme in art up to the present day – specifically regarding creating images of the face through unconventional or sometimes controversial methods. One of the most pervasive examples of this is the mask, both as an art object itself but also the extent of their power to distort or obscure the identity of the wearer.
Through examining the works of different artists and the way in which they have experimented with the portrayal of identity through the face we can gain insight into the role of the face as a vessel for identity in art. In my project, I have responded to other artists’ depictions of the face to explore the importance of identity in art.
Masks and depictions
Masks and depictions of the face appear in art not only to depict identity but also to discuss it visually, with many artists playing with the way the face is portrayed to make comments on the semiotics of identity and the way we perceive personality through the physical shape of the face
In George Simmel’s The Aesthetic Significance of the face he argues that the face in art holds a ‘unique importance’ – indicating what he referred to as an ‘inner unity.’ The malleable quality of the face, the way in which any slight change could indicate a vast range of differences in personality or meaning, makes it visually profound in ways that few other things are, which perhaps explains artists’ continual representation and distortion of it. Alice Maurice argues that the face is ‘ineffably more than the sum of its parts”,’ and it is this that is the root of our fixation with it. The face is the primary vehicle of human expression, and art throughout history clearly appears to mirror that. Through the exploration of different artists’ approaches to depictions of the human face, a complex understanding of identity in art can be gained, which seeks to serve as a window into the human condition itself.
To discuss masks in relation to depictions of the face a recent approach is to consider them not as somehow inherently ‘other’ to conventional western depictions of the face such as traditional portraiture. Hans Belting in Face and Mask: A double history claims that we must ‘accept face and mask as a single theme in the organizing principle of a ‘history of the face’ and not view these concepts in sharp contrast to one another.’ Arguably there is very little difference between a mask and a traditional portrait in terms of what the convey about identity.
A mask seeks to transform the identity of the wearer, whereas traditionally a portrait would be commissioned by the person it portrayed and would set out to show them in a certain, almost always positive light. A portrait inherently shows a certain facet of the sitter’s identity, perhaps even a facet that doesn’t in fact exist, therefore transforming or obscuring the identity in a way like a mask. For example in Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas Moore pictured on the left, Thomas Moore is presented as honest and stern, regardless of how realistic that may be.
Therefore, it is possible to view all man-made images (drawings, paintings, photographs etc.) of the face as a certain type of mask, as any depiction will not be able to the true complexity and changeability of the human psyche, rather just a single conception of it at one given moment. The separation of the mask and the portrait as two different art forms with two different purposes is outdated and colonial, masks used for religious and ceremonial purposes are not in binary opposition to the purpose of a portrait – the process of self-reverence and manifestation of identity through imagery is in its own way a similar ritual.
Attitude to contemporary art
The fascination with the face is still pertinent in contemporary art. Marc Quinn’s self-portrait Self is a cast of his own face filled with eight pints of his own blood, which is kept refrigerated during installation. Every five years a new cast is made and filled with new blood, so the artwork evolves and ages with him. The artwork serves as a physical, separate manifestation of the artist, it is both made of and made in the image of himself and is, therefore, a self-portrait in more ways than one. It is an object made solely from the artist, by the artist, and of the artist. This artwork is interesting not just because of the unconventional and arguably controversial medium, but also in the way the concept of identity is portrayed through the representation of the face. The effect is somewhat sinister, his eyes closed and his mouth almost smiling, he appears to be deep in a knowing and content sleep.
The viewer feels persuaded we know something about him just from looking at his face. There is also a sense of guilt when viewing the artwork – the viewer feels as if they are intruding on something intimate, witnessing an object that is so purely concentrated with the artist’s own sense of self that it feels too private for public consumption. This sense of discomfort and our unpleasant confrontation with our own contrasting reactions is what makes the artwork so compelling.
There are also clear visual links between this artwork and the idea of a death mask – a cast of a face made of a corpse to preserve its likeness – usually reserved for the rich, famous, or culturally significant. Viewing Quinn’s Self in the context of death masks reveals a new facet of the purpose of the artwork – perhaps Quinn intended this as a record of himself and his identity, a life-like reminder or documentation of his sense of self. In my own work, I have made my own casts to try and mimic Marc Quinn’s success in creating a representation of identity. I have chosen to focus on the face rather than the whole head and I think this adds a new dimension to the cast – taken from its context of the head the face becomes abstracted and can take on new meaning and associations.
Another example of a way in which an artist has experimented with and subverted the concept of the mask is Gillian Wearing – by making extremely lifelike silicon masks of her own and her family members face and photographing herself wearing them, she is metaphorically ‘seizing her own identity’ . Her work contains explicit ties to the idea of the Uncanny Valley – through assuming other identities she moves further away from her authentic human self and appears more and more like a robot or mannequin. In contrast to the work of Marc Quinn there is no sense of peace or passivity, her self-portraits force the viewer to confront her and the unsettling nature of assuming other faces. The fact that she wears a mask of her own face is also significant – she suggests that perhaps all identity is inherently performative, regardless of whether it is your own or belonging to someone else.
During the early 20th century there was a widespread interest among European artists in a less traditional European aesthetic – taking inspiration from art outside the renaissance or classical antiquity. This interest was fuelled by the fashionable idea that an aesthetic inspired by African Art and pre-Columbian sculpture was ‘freer’ and less rigidly bound by artistic forms and conventions. During this time Henry Moore produced many masks, including the mask opposite. The mask is deliberately asymmetrical and imperfect, yet the expression and features are simple and betray no personality or emotion. These imperfections mean that from every angle that the mask is viewed, it seems subtly different, like when viewing the human face. The mask is perfectly neutral, and it doesn’t seek to transform the identity of the wearer rather than to reduce it to the most simple and objective state, to erase all the unnecessary features and produce something simple and anonymous.
The masks produced by Henry Moore interestingly have some very clear similarities with the first known mask, the smoothness of Moore’s masks lend them an ancient, archaic quality and the neutrality and blankness of expression are present in both masks. This is an interesting comparison in terms of the idea of the transformative quality of a mask – both these masks fail to give away any features of identification other than the most basic eyes, nose, and mouth, walking the line between what is recognizable as a human face and what is formless and abstract. To wear either of these masks would be to become the most natural and original human state, simple, without any ornamentation or identity.
This contrasts greatly with the intense concentration of personality in Marc Quinn’s self-portrait – Henry Moore didn’t seek to place any personality of his own into the mask and as a result, the two sculptures have completely different purposes – while Marc Quinn sought to record something of himself in his sculpture Moore’s sculpture is deliberately empty of any idea of identity, it is an empty vessel.
I have attempted to use the idea of erasing identity in my own exploration of the theme with my own Moore- influenced mask, I thought that the use of clay would lend my mask a similar smooth texture to Moore’s masks and the oldest known mask. I think I was successful in capturing the blankness and solidity of Moore’s masks, but I found that I felt more drawn towards manipulations of the face rather than abstraction/simplifying it. Although I like Moore’s work, working in his style leaves little room for detail or texture.
Manipulation of personality perception
Perceptions of one’s identity can also be manipulated through the deliberate distortion of the face. A good example of this is the portraits of Francis Bacon, whose smearing and twisting of the face lends his paintings a haunting, uncanny, and sometimes even disturbing effect. The thick line of demarcation that almost violently splits the face in two gives the impression of a hollowness to the face – as if the top layer of skin has been peeled away to reveal a gaping hole of negative space. There is an undeniable sense of emotion and personality in the way that the face has been warped, the split from the cheekbone to the bottom of the nose almost resembles a thick rope, as if the face is physically bound and bulging against some mysterious pressure. The thick brushstrokes and the exaggeration of the twists and bends of the face gives it the impression of being made up of tendon-like strips – like muscles or almost tentacles.
What exactly Bacon was trying to communicate about himself, the subject of this portrait, is ambiguous, but the emotion is there, the sense of trying to portray something dark and personal. It seems he is transforming from one state to another – caught in a liminal moment between portraying something specific and something abstract. There is a sense of movement, as if his face is swirling or contorting, at no point does the movement or distortion seem artificial – unlike the cubist approach to abstracting the face, this seems purely organic as if Bacon is putting visual form to an inherent aspect of humanity. However, as a self-portrait the painting is not only a study of how Bacon is, it is also a study of how he views himself. Whether this painting intends to portray himself in his true state, existing independently of any point of view, or whether it is a study of how he perceives himself is again ambiguous.
Assessment and Analysis
In fact, it is difficult to say whether these two things are even different, or if any self-portrait can ultimately differentiate between the two. Perhaps the ambiguity of what Bacon is trying to show about himself is part of the purpose of the painting, the difficulty to pin down the movement and twists of his face is the message itself. He is making a deliberately ambiguous comment on his own identity, that identity (specifically his own), is inherently changeable and subject to constant metamorphosis.
In this way, it is possible to explore identity through less lifelike depictions of the face, without diluting the sense of personality, and often this distortion of the face can in fact enhance the emotional potency of an image.
The face endures as one of the most pervasive ways to visually discuss identity – the ‘semiotics of identity’ are deeply tied to the face and the different ways of depicting it. Different variations on the depictions of the face can lend it different emotions or comments on the identity of the subject – techniques of distorting or stylizing the face as well as the physical material can affect how the face is perceived, making it one of the most varied and complex subjects of artwork to this day. Not only can depictions of the face be used to describe identity but can be used to comment on the inherent nature of identity as fixed, transient, or ultimately performative.
Any artistic representation of the face will reflect both on the identity of the sitter or subject and the artist themselves – in this way through the imagery of the face we can gain deeper psychological understanding into their respective sense of self. In my final piece, I am painting a cast of a face that I have made to represent some of the ways the face can be used to convey and discuss identity to try and channel these ideas about identity and the self.