Exhibition | About Face: Human Expression on Paper

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 6, 2015

Press release (28 July 2015) for the exhibition:

About Face: Human Expression on Paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 27 July — 13 December 2015

Charles Antoine Coypel, Medea, ca. 1715. Pastel; 12 x 8 inches / 29.4 x 20.6 cm (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Charles Antoine Coypel, Medea, ca. 1715, pastel, 12 x 8 inches / 29.4 x 20.6 cm (NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The representation of human emotion through facial expression has interested Western artists since antiquity. Drawn from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of drawings, prints, and photographs, the diverse works in About Face: Human Expression on Paper—portraits, caricatures, representations of theater and war—reveal how expression underpinned narrative and provided a window onto the character and motivations of the subjects, the artists, and even their audiences.

Using Charles Le Brun’s illustrations for Expressions of the Passions and Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne and Adrien Tournachon’s photographic series as touchstones, the approximately 60 works dating from the 16th through the 19th century show how artists such as Hans Hoffmann, Francisco Goya, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Thomas Rowlandson explored the animated human face.

Expression was at one time thought to reveal elements of individual character and was codified through the influential publications on physiognomy by the French artist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). In 1668 Le Brun delivered a lecture to the French Academy entitled Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière (Lecture on General and Particular Expression). When published in 1698, the text was illustrated with engravings based on the artist’s drawings—images of facial expressions that range from calm to states of agitation. Le Brun’s rational approach and precise titles were scientific in tone and distilled the chaotic variety of nature into a coherent form that had a lasting influence on European artists. The writings, which came to be known as Expressions of the Passions, were translated into different languages and influenced art theory and practice for the next two centuries. The study of expression became a key component of artistic training in art schools and academies across Europe—so much so, in fact, that by the late 18th century it had also become a rich subject of caricature and other satirical works.

In the mid-19th century, the pioneering French neurologist and physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne conducted experiments involving the application of electrical current to stimulate the animation of the face. Wishing to move beyond abstract theory and into a scientific foundation for the study of facial expression, Duchenne published a scientific grammar of human emotions to be used as study material by artists at the École des Beaux-Arts. For this purpose, Duchenne collaborated with Adrien Tournachon (brother of the famous Nadar), a photographer who specialized in portraiture, to use the evidentiary power of photography to record his experiment precisely. The resulting series of gripping photographic portraits, made between 1854 and 1856, directly follow the physiognomic tradition of Le Brun and occupy a unique place at the intersection of art, science, and sentiment. Some 30 of these portraits are presented in the installation.

About Face: Human Expression on Paper is a collaboration between the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, and its Department of Photographs. The exhibition is made possible by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

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