Beyond the Face
Artwork in this city is starting to feel much more interconnected than I had realized before.
Quinn’s last blog post described the process of VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies, which involve slowing down and observing before making judgments or coming to conclusions. I feel that by constantly reminding myself to practice VTS while observing art in our museums, I am beginning to see a bigger picture emerge.
This is the pattern I usually find within the block plan, where the first week feels chaotic and scattered, but by the second week and especially the third, things are coming together in a tangible way. As material from the class and from our individual work and projects come together, the larger themes of the class begin to make sense.
Last week, we were discussing the intricacies of the human facial musculature alongside the evolutionary advantages of various expressions in humans and animals. These seemed like weird concepts to talk about in a class that places so much weight on art, but this week we have been exploring differing methods that renaissance painters and sculptors used to convey emotion. Suddenly, the importance of a facial expression started to seem like it mattered greatly for a work of art. This may seem obvious, but we continued to really ask how emotion can be conveyed, and it appears more nuanced than I first thought. Yes, the face is important in paintings, but emotion is so much more than that.
To demonstrate this idea, we played a little game in class. In the first round, somebody would get up in front of the class and, using just their face, try to convey a complex emotion, such as awe or guilt. Everyone wrote down a guess, and the next person went up. In the second round, the same “actor” was allowed to use their whole bodies and some simple motions, then everybody guessed again. In almost every single case, people got the emotion wrong in the first round and right in the second. An emotional expression goes so far beyond just the face.
Additionally, the face might be quite misleading. Furrowed brows, a wrinkled nose, and an open mouth could be a face of extreme excitement and celebration or burning anger, depending on the context. Combining salient, “real-world” examples like the game from class with the strategies of VTS has given me a much deeper appreciation for what is going on in any given painting or sculpture. Yes, the man is sad, but how do you know that? Is it the tear on his face? Is it his body language, showing him crumple in despair? Is it due to what the people around him are doing to him? It is all these things, and simply stopping artistic analysis at “the man is sad” limits not only our understanding of what is really going on in the depicted scene, but also our appreciation for the depth of the art and the immense talent of the artist.
To be an artist is to truly understand human expressions in a way that most people cannot even articulate. It is to understand the human form in a very “meta” way, and to be able to move past something as simple as a facial expression.