Culture

Faces And Masks

A statue of Euripides (480-406 B.C.), Greek philosopher and dramatist, holding a "tragic" mask. i

A statue of Euripides (480-406 B.C.), Greek philosopher and dramatist, holding a "tragic" mask. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A statue of Euripides (480-406 B.C.), Greek philosopher and dramatist, holding a "tragic" mask.

A statue of Euripides (480-406 B.C.), Greek philosopher and dramatist, holding a "tragic" mask.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Portraiture fascinates because faces do, and faces matter to us because they are bound up with what it is to be a person.

I went to see Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera with my 7-year-old son not that long ago. It was his first opera, and he had a great time. I was struck by the fact that he found it perfectly comprehensible that Don Giovanni and his manservant Leporello could switch identities and evade their pursuers simply by exchanging their hats and cloaks

It's implausible and psychologically unrealistic to think that the Don's lovers and enemies wouldn't recognize him in the hat and cloak of his servant. Doesn't this undercut the plot? Why didn't my son think that the whole story was just silly?

In fact, there's nothing silly or implausible about this. The word "person" comes from the Latin persona (from the Greek prosopon), meaning mask, as in the mask worn by actors on the classical stage. A person, then, in its original meaning, is not the player, not the living human being, but rather the role played. By changing hat and cloak, the Don and Leporello exchanged the trappings of their different social roles and so, at least for limited purposes, they really did exchange identities.

My son, and the other characters on the stage at the opera, are not silly because they fall for the Don's ruse; this is just the upshot of their taking for granted a particular way of thinking about what it is to be a person. Just as we ourselves do when we, as members of the audience, see the actor on the stage as the Don even though we might, tomorrow, see a different actor in the same role. (And just a we can see Leporello and the Don on the stage, and tell them apart, even though, from our seats in the back of the house, we can't even really see their faces.)

Our modern conception of the person is poised awkwardly between these two poles: at one extreme, the roles we playItalian, aristocrat, father, lover, rogue, business person, etc; and at the other, the living human being who appears in these roles, the one who did not choose to be born in Italy, as a man, to an aristocratic family, etc. And we can see the tension between these different conceptions working itself out in the history and development of portrait painting.

To appreciate this, consider two paintings not from the wonderful show now up at the Met, but from the permanent collection of the Staedel museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Take, first, Cranach the Younger's 1559 portrait of Martin Luther. The painting gives an excellent likeness, but what it depicts is not the man, not really, but rather his mask, that is to say, the hat and cloak of his personality, his face. It might just as well have been the painting of a sculpture, for all the man himself shows up in the piece. To give you a sense of who this person is, and of the nature of his spiritual life, the painting shows him holding one of his books open to the viewer.

Now compare this with Rembrandt's 1633 portrait of Maertgen van Bilderbeecq. The face of this women shows up, here, not as the mask of a person, but as, in a way, the soul of a woman. This woman, and her inner life, are present in the picture. You can feel her heat. You can discern her thoughts and feelings. You don't need an open text to tell you who or what she is.

Three-quarters of a century separate Rembrandt's painting from Cranach's and one might be tempted to say that Rembrandt simply knew how to depict a human face better than Cranach did. Rembrandt's paintings are more lifelike and succeed far more in making their subject-matter present.

But it would be a mistake to say this, whatever your view of the relative merits of Cranach and Rembrandt. What is significant is not that they differ in their ability to capture a shared subject-matter; where they differ is in their subject matter.

Cranach, painting earlier, is not painting a man; he's painting a person, that is to say, a personage; he is exhibiting a role, a standing and a status. The standard by which his likeness is to be assessed is not so much its match to the man, as it is rather its match to our conception of the role this man has played in the religious and political life of Germany. A good portrait of Martin Luther will bring him forth as a man, yes, but in something more like the way a good performance of the Don will bring forth Don Giovanni on the stage, or, to give an important example, the way in which a religious icon can succeed in bringing forth a saint.

In contrast, Rembrandt's target is not the person — not the matron or wife or Dutch person, or Burgher — but rather, the woman herself, the women who may also be all those things but is not, really, summed up by them. His subject matter, unlike Cranach's, is the living human being.

In the final act of the opera, Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell by an enchanted statue of a man, the Commendatore, whom the Don killed in a duel, and whose daughter the Don had seduced and cruelly mistreated. It underscores the distinction between different ways of thinking about what a person is that the Don is eventually brought to justice not at the hands of a living human being, but that of a righteous statue.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.