Understanding the New Movement of Defacement Part
Faceless in Front of a faceless god(s)
Back to the Beginning Part 1
Previous Post – Part 13 #2
This is my continuing study of art that distorts, smears, or obscures the faces of its subjects. I am trying to get my head around this art – in all its forms. It seems to me to be almost an art movement – there are hundreds of artists that do this type of work exclusively. They are men and women from around the world. They are educated, self taught, professional, and hobbyist. They work in all different genres from photography to sculpture. I think ultimately my goal is to understand what this art says about our world, the culture of our world. I think that collectively this art is saying something about this moment, I think that it means something beyond simply someone smearing their fingers through the paint on a persons face. So I muddle, picking through the minutia of art, looking at different works, parsing them for meaning, comparing them and writing ridiculously ungrammatical sentences. As always if you see your art here and want me to remove it please email me at email@example.com and I will take it down right away. None of this art is mine. All art is attributed, and if you click on it will take you to the spot where I found it.
Francis Bacon looked at the iconography of religion – the robes of Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the Crucifixtion, and the Figures at the Base of the Crucifixtion, and he saw the internal struggle of his own time. The ongoing pain caused by World War I, his own struggles as a gay man in a climate that was unfriendly toward gay people, the economic depression of the 1930’s, World War II among other events that happened during his time. He saw man’s inhumanity to man in the torture of Jesus on the cross, and instead of portraying him with the typical thorns and suffering cross he created a minimal faceless figure, one that was tortured. Looking at his figures – there is no redemption in them.
The struggle is to know how much of his work is due to technical ability – the concreteness of brush on canvas, and how much is intentional vision. That is always the struggle with art. Can we actually know from art what the artist is actually trying to portray? That is why you look at many different works the artist paints, to see if over time something emerges, gets through in all of their works. Also, looking at multiple artists helps a person understand the difference between what is a simply something technical – the movement of the artists hand on the brush, and what is something more, a message, a meaning, a still small voice maybe speaking through the colors, the figures, the lines, overcoming the artists skill or lack of. Francis Bacon left a clue. He said, “I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance; I can’t paint them literally. . .” (VIA)
So what does mean besides Francis Bacon is very honest? Looking at his portraits:
He is always trying to represent specific people. He is trying to “deform people into appearance” whereas in his religious works he does not appear to referencing specific people – unless you count the mythical furies as specific people. In his triptych ” Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” he references the figures specifically as the mythical Furies.
I’m going to make a leap forward to contemporary painting from Francis Bacon. Here is what has happened – like Francis Bacon I think that people still see in art a way to express the unexpressable – the ineffable as it were. Man’s greatest inhumanity to man – torture in the twisted shapes of Francis Bacon. There is great mystery in what people feel as the soul – in their experience of this ineffable part of not just themselves, but also the universe. If you put a face on it, it becomes less mysterious. So to express this mysteriousness artists create figures, religiously grounded figures that are faceless. Previously Jesus looked like well, the Pope. He had a face, and it was white and European. The mystery was not as mysterious, at least in art. Jesus was a physical person that could be touched, and the relics of the church performed physical miracles. Here is a side by side comparison of Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion done in 1933 with The Crucifixion, by Alonso Cano, 1601:
Bacon’s crucifixion is not about the person of Jesus. It freed the crucifixion from it’s religious ties and allowed it have a modern context – one of human suffering, and not religious redemption. It frees this whole concept subtly from its white anglo-saxon catholic roots and allows it to have the deeper meaning of universal suffering. (all right so I’ve messed that up a little, but I hope I am deforming myself into meaning? Perhaps?) So in contemporary painting many many artists no longer are constrained, and never were constrained by religious imagery, or classical imagery at all. When they want to express this mysteriousness of life, they create something new, but they also must reach for something old because they are connected to this world. Just as Bacon used religious iconography, not because he believed, but because he knew it, contemporary artists use forms, icons that are known, at least in the abstract because they are known in their world that they inhabit. They strip them of their faces to imbue them with the mysteriousness that in inexpressible. For instance:
So at first this may seem a little inaccessible, but this is grounded in nature, with trees, stars, a creature with antlers and the grass on the ground. Try this:
This time the figure wears a mask. The mask is a gazelle. The mysteriousness is very high in this work.
This is a more overtly religious work. Again in this work there is no face, but there are many many religious symbols here.
This is a mythical reference to Oedipus. This figure is just the torso, and its mysteriousness is enhanced again by leaving out the face.
The works of Safwan Dahoul are interesting. He is a Syrian artist. Click on the picture to find the best collection of his work online. In his work, the figures aren’t faceless, but they all have virtually the same face. This is where I am want to go next – Having the same face is facelessness. Look at this Chinese Terra Cotta Sculpture Army:
The soldiers are virtually faceless as from a distance their features, their hair style, and their dress all appear the same. Here is another work by Safwan Dahoul:
The figure here has the same sharp eye as the figure above – they could be interchangeable, and yet they convey a sense of mysteriousness, a sense of larger than physical life. How do we, how do artists, how does culture portray, talk about death, the soul, what happens after we die?
In an article by Michael J. Lewis How Art Became Irrelevant he looks at the change in art from modernism to the present. He posits specific changes in art – specifically the twisting of bodies – because of the changing nature of war. With world war one and the advent of modern war and modern weapons of war and also more modern medical techniques the massive number of injured and disfigured flooded Europe and America. The numbers of men and women (as nurses; as those caught in the front; and some who fought) who remained behind everything after The Great War as it was known is Europe was changed forever. Old empires were dissolved, communism was on the rise, rebuilding would be a massive task, and the new generation of artists would channel all the horror and grief into their art. Here is an Otto Dix work from less than a decade after the end of World War I
You can see the distortions in the landscape, and in the figures of his work. So how do we get from this kind of work to contemporary work like this:
With a complete erasure of the features, and nearly blank backround? Or something like this?
With a complete removal of the face? And what about religion? Francis Bacon and other modern artists, like Picasso:
And Barabara Hepworth:
Showed that portraits (whether in stone or on paper) did not have to reference christianity or the absolute cultural themes that had predominated “western culture” for centuries. Art now becomes artist centered. It certainly could talk about cultural topics – but that was no longer the point of art – to be tied to the church, or for that matter in an overt way a “culture”. Francis Bacon was not even tied to an art movement in the way that Picasso seemed to be. He didn’t identify with a specify art movement. So many contemporary artists site Bacon as a model because they don’t have to pin themselves down by doing so – they don’t have to then say “I’m a cubist”, or “I’m a neorealist”. How many times on Tumblr or some other social media have I seen some student say, “give me advice!” to an artist and they say, “go to art school and learn, but don’t be like any of the artists you learn about. Develop your own style.” So different from the artists at the turn of the century who spent hundreds of hours practicing an exacting skill getting it exactly right – No one said “Develop your own style”. (see part 9 about Edwin Dickinson) So, now lets begin with contemporary artists. In all their freedom, their wildness – their facelessness and defaced expressions. But to address specifically how modern war has affected art: