Saturday, November 7, 2009

On Foreheads: Caravaggio

Hey – check it out! A network!

Earlier on, I said that Caravaggio is getting a lot of mileage out of a simple bit of knowledge, which Rembrandt also uses. I said it wasn’t hard to do. Actually, it kind of is hard to do, but like every other technical thing, if you know what you’re looking for and you practice, you can eventually get pretty good at it.

They understand the expressive power of foreheads.

This is a very profound thing for facial expression. When we talk about how we read emotions in a face, we’re accustomed to thinking a lot about what goes on under the eyebrows, and not so much about the area above them. I think this is a profound mistake. To me, expression below the eyebrows relates to expression above them much the way the text of a play relates to the performance of a play. The idea may be clear enough in the word, but a world of nuance enters when the word is performed.

To get all tech on you, the muscles of the forehead are mainly controlled by two pairs of muscles, the frontalis muscles, which run up and down the whole thing, and the corrugator muscles, which are little muscles on either side of the top of the nose. Take a look (this is from the anatomical atlas I drew – I’ll tell you about working with cadavers sometime):

My hunch is that the effect these muscles have on the overlying skin is so expressive because they reinforce what the eyes are doing in a face. More than one fella has said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s true, but they’re also pretty small. You have to get right up and squint to really read the eyes. The forehead tends to do something either consistent with, or in interesting counterpoint to, the eyes. And it’s a lot bigger. So the immediate read of the action of the eyes actually lies in the action of the forehead.

When I say that the forehead is like the nuance of performance, I mean that the outright emotion of the face becomes textured and modified in the expression of the forehead.

Foreheads aren’t very expressive in young people. They’re too smooth. This means that most of the most expressive foreheads in art are on the faces of older men, older women not having played such a large part in the history of narrative painting. There are two masters of the deeply expressive forehead – Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

This is the Caravaggio painting of the incredulous Thomas we were looking at before:

Let’s take a closer look at Caravaggio’s stunned Thomas:

His facial expression is stunned, sure – his eyes bulge and he thrusts his mouth foreward slightly. But it’s the action of the frontalis that really drives it home: these broad vertical muscles have raised the skin of his forehead, producing line upon line. Before we have even seen his eyes, we know that his forehead is helping raise his eyelids – we know that his eyes are bugging out in wonder.

Now let’s look at Thomas’s corrupt buddies:

The guy on the left has some frontalis action going on, but not a lot. His frontalis is working – it knits his brows together. This is an expression of concentration, or of anger. We can hardly see the man’s eyes, but we know that he is not stunned like Thomas – he has not had his innocence restored to him like Thomas.

The same is true of the guy on the right. He can see clearly, but he is squinting. His squint, however, lies in shadow. Our first read of his squint is in his forehead, where the corrugator, once again, is knitting the brows together.

It is in his tremendous sensitivity to the complexities of ridge structures in the forehead that Caravaggio evokes character, age, and nuance of emotion. And it is only because he has set the default on his painting to “high forehead sensitivity” that we automatically read Christ’s forehead as expressively meaningful as well:

No wrinkling, no folding. Christ is young – but he is also calm. His mouth opens in pain, but his forehead is in counterpoint to his mouth: it tells us that his peace is greater than his agony.

Caravaggio uses the expressive properties of the forehead in most of his paintings. Consider the variations in the meaning of the brow-knitting corrugator in these faces:

Surprise and pain, with a sexual edge.

David: Disgust and sorrow.

Judith: Shock and revulsion.

That Judith is worth looking at more closely:

Why? Because we have another famous take on it from the same period, that of Artemisia Gentilesci:

Here, the furrowed corrugator indicates concentration, but it is much less clearly defined – not in the figure itself, but in the painting of the figure. Gentilesci does not see this as a useful tool for her painting. There is more expression in the mouth, but she reserves the most expression for the pose: the pose is the most expressive part of her representation of Judith. It is slightly contrived to make for pictorial effectiveness, but it retains the qualities of hard physical labor, and recoil. Caravaggio’s Judith does not have a physically convincing relationship with her work, but her forehead expresses a much more complex emotional state.

Tomorrow (ha ha): Rembrandt and foreheads, and me and foreheads.

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