THE INVENTION OF THE FACE

Since moving to Germany, I’ve had the opportunity to look at quite a bit of medieval art, and I do mean quite. It’s sort of nice at first…all that gilt and holiness and sometimes some small bit of weirdness will make its way into the painting. But in all honesty, saints, and Holy Mary Mother of God, and Madonna with Child, and JESUS JESUS JESUS all begin to blend into each other after a while. At some point, it occurred to me that one reason this might be true is because all the people in all these paintings I’ve been looking at all have the same face. Or just about the same face. At any rate, close enough.

At some point in art though, this changed. (Obviously.) But bear with me.

 I was at the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum in Munich, Germany. (There’s also a Neue Pinakothek and a Pinakothek der Moderne.) Since you probably know what alt and neu mean (hint: it’s old and new) and moderne doesn’t really need translating, you can probably guess what sort of artwork hangs on the walls of the particular museum in question. Old Masters, that sort of thing. They’ve got Da Vinci, Tintoretto, Brueghel, Rubens, Raphael, and Rembrandt and the like.

However, my visit didn’t begin with Rembrandt or Rubens. Instead, I walked through the rooms according to the Rundgang, so that I could view the art in chronological order. This means that medieval art was up first. And yeah, kind of cool at first and quite a lot of the aforementioned gilt. I also noticed how saints were often painted with a device linked to their stories. (For example, you can always spot a Barbara because she comes with a tower. Catherine, on the other hand, can be recognized because she’s painted with a sword.)

I started to get bored though, looking at the flat, round faces of the women in the paintings. The male faces didn’t leave much of an impression on me either. It’s like every painter ever the world over used the same model. Or who knows, maybe they didn’t use models at all and therein lies the problem.

But then I finished that room and walked into another room, and maybe another room after that, and found the work of Albrecht Dürer. Most arresting of all was his 1500 self-portrait, Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock. That’s the one where’s looking straight ahead, displaying his head of long, curly hair. Suddenly, I realized, I was no longer looking at people in theory but at specific persons with unique traits and possibly even unique personalities. Maybe someone has a furrowed brow or a querulous expression on his face. That sort of thing.

And over time, the same thing happened to me at other museums. At some point, I would notice, the faces became real. My husband and I recently went to Dresden, and in a museum there, it was a Holbein portrait that signaled the change. Up to the point when I stumbled upon the portrait it had been human-looking shapes I’d been perceiving. But here was a man, with an almost soft expression on his face to boot. There’s a searching look in his eyes as well.

And so I’ve come to look for this turn, from generic painted figure to representation of individual human being. It’s fun, because even though I expect it, it always comes as a surprise.