Museum and art shows can sometimes make lasting impressions, for various reasons. Some years ago I had a museum experience that often comes back to me; at an exhibition at "Kunsthaus Zurich", in Switzerland. I warmly recommend visits to this museum for it's collections, the atmosphere and their choice of exhibitions.
The fact that is was a particularly cold and rainy February day, didn't lessen my anticipation as I entered the bright, warm, but hushed museum atmosphere, and I couldn't believe my luck when I saw the exhibition poster "THE FACE - AN OBSESSION". This was meant for me! Studying the face is just what I do when making portraits. Exhibitions don't often deal with the face - indeed a lucky rainy day.
It is not my intention to turn these posts into lectures, but in order to share what was an unexpected, but interesting art museum experience, I have to back it up with some facts and history. The exhibition presented the life and work of Johann Caspar Lavater (1741 - 1801). Born in Zurich; a clergyman by profession and a renaissance man by nature.
I didn't discover Lavater's background right away, as I have the bad habit of skimming through at first. However, what instantly did capture my attention was a large collection of detailed studies of the human features - beautifully presented. Like the eye below. Pastel on blue paper with painted mock framing.
Who was Lavater?
This part of the exhibit was labeled "Physiognomische Fragmente". Physiognomy is not in my daily vocabulary, but a dictionary says "a person's face or facial expression" which sounds innocent enough. It describes exactly what I study when working on a portrait. Exciting to come across these studies; I scrutinize eyes and noses too!
Throughout the exhibition it dawned upon me that Lavater was not a fellow portraitist. I hadn't found a painter, but a priest. He was only writing about features and faces. Somewhat disappointing, so I set out from the beginning again; paying attention this time. Historically, absolutely interesting, but equally fascinating to learn about a person's motivation. Above all, it made me reflect upon how I see a face. What I notice, and what I certainly don't look for, in a face.
These are the facts I gleaned. The exhibition showed selected pieces from Lavater's original collection - containing about 30.000 works, carefully mounted according to his personal instructions. The prints and drawings founded the base of his principal four-volume work; "Physiognomische Fragmente" subtitle; "Zur Befoerderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe". ("For the promotion of the knowledge and love of mankind").
Reading the human character
The material was collected or commissioned by Lavater himself. But for another purpose than portrait painting. He studied physiognomy in order to "reveal secrets of the human character". Like a few other contemporary thinkers and educators Lavater sincerely thought that classifying and deciphering the human features would promote Menschenliebe "love and understanding" of the human nature. In fact these were quite popular thoughs!
I guess Lavater's passion would have turned him towards psychology, or psychiatry today. As it was, he seemed to have been somewhat carried away, measuring angles and distances between eyes and mouth and dividing and subtracting and whatnot. All in the best interest, his research was clearly done in the spirit of Menschenliebe. According to many sources he was a highly intelligent and religious man, genuinely caring and thoughtful. Below: Lavater at his desk.
Lavater the networker
The exhibition also showed samples from Lavater's widespread correspondence; a collection of more than 20.000 letters. He stayed in contact with several of the big thinkers of his time; amongst them, Goethe and Herder. In fact, Lavater was an active contributor in a vast network of correspondence between contemporary influential Europeans.
It was common understanding that these letters were not solely for the eyes of the recipient; on the contrary, the letters would be openly discussed and referred to. Whenever he found it relevant, Lavater made not only his own letters publicly available, but the incoming letters as well. He clearly took his 'linking' seriously.(Below: Goethe, rendered by Georg Friedrich Smoll.)
In addition to his correspondence, his studies, his writings on physiognomy and preaching, he also travelled extensively. No wonder Lavater was, and still is, regarded as a communication genius. He was indeed a multitasking person; had he lived today I could easily see him as a blogging psychologist!
The extent of Lavater's work shows an admirable persistence. For years, he collected these prints and drawings of the famous, the farmers, geniuses or "idiots" - all of eaqual interest to him. He also commissioned drawings by artists and art-students. He had a whole 'staff' of well known artists; Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Johann Heinrich Fussli, a childhood friend, the illustrator Johann Rudolf Schellenberg, the portrait painters Heinrich Pfenninger and Georg Friedrich Schmoll. They did all the studies and details like eyes, noses, mouths - the "fragments of physiognomy" - Lavater just classified and wrote comments.
He was simply obsessed with collecting evidence to promote and support his theory on physiognomy. But, even with this capacity for networking, Lavater would easily have been forgotten, were it not for his ambition to turn these theories into a science.
Lavater the face reader
I started to read the accompanying texts more carefully and had just begun to appreciate and admire the attention to detail and extent of the work when I discovered a new dimension. The texts were both disturbing and confusing; a person who Lavater described as wise, noble and honest looked just plain silly to me. Beware of your lips too, on page 260 in one issue Lavater starts a chapter about lips like this: "Wie die Lippen, so der Charakter" - he claims the lips reveal our character. Many of Lavater's comments came over as pretty preconceived judgements, based on the most bizarre interpretations of human features. More and more disturbing - but also an interesting peek into European fads two hundred years ago.
Hopefully, the texts reflected Lavater's time, more than his personal attitudes. The way he connected dishonesty or greed to a certain type of lips made me wonder how he chose his friends. I'm guessing; not entirely by his own research criteria? Personally, I hardly notice the details of a friends face. That is, until I draw or paint it - and I most certainly don't choose friends by the angle of their nose.
According to Lavater, there were even specific national features that accounted for more or less heroic character. See for instance how he describes a "typical Russian": "Fig. 5.- This head is visibly Russian. At least there will be no hesitation in answering the question - Is it English, French, Italian, or Russian? The retreating of the upper parts, the high eyebrows, shallow eyes, short, somewhat turned up nose, and the large under part of the countenance, show the Russian. Worthy, faithful, good, brave; one to whom all wish well."
The Russian in the drawing instantly reminded me of someone. A Russian of today. Now, I'm sure Putin won't have a problem with Lavater's flattering words, as he certainly resembles the heroic figure to the left, illustrating Lavater's description. His last sentence makes me wonder - how much was political correctness? (Middle and right: two photos of Putin).
Read my nose
Even if I find noses intensely fascinating I like to think I'm witout the prejudice of Lavater's century. Still, I wonder if other discriminating attitudes may be lurking in my subconscious? Can I really trust myself never to judge someone by their mouth or nose? I don't know. After all, our features are part of our body language. We read body language, whether we notice or not, it is a distinct and expressive language when used on the stage.
Take for instance wrinkling of the nose - the interpretation of that expression is bound to be universal. But Lavater didn't deal with expressions. He was interpreting the actual features, as shown in the selection and comments below.
Have a look at these nose-studies above, and see if you find one that matches the nose of Putin or his predecessor. I'm not quite sure which one to pick, it would be either nose number two, three or six. Possibly number two? Now, let's have a look at Lavater's personal interpretations of the three selected noses:
Number two says 'verstandig und roh' - that means 'wise and raw', 'raw' as in 'brutal'.
Number three: 'merklich schwach' - means 'oddly weak'
Number six sounds funny too; 'schwachgut' - this means 'good, in a weak way'.
Quite intriguing, description number three. What is odd? That a nose has a weak form? - Or does he really mean that a person with this nose is weak? That's nonsense! Or is it? Sort of baby-nose, really a nice nose for a girl or a small child.
Again I check myself; will I rule out that someone with a baby-nose is aggressive and dominant or rather assume he is pleasant and good humored? (I know. I shouldn't go there.) Then, number six, 'good in a weak way', what does that imply? I find it more 'merklich' that it should be termed weak - looks rather common to me. But then again, maybe Lavater thought it pretty common to be weak?
If I had lived in Zurich during the last part of the 18 th century maybe I would have been making portrait drawings for Lavater and writing notes like this one: "Kunstler aug, nur sollte der Winkel spitzer sein", or "Artists eye, but the angle should be sharper".