Get familiar with faces found at the museum.
Why do we take pictures of our friends and family? One reason is to remember an event or person, even after the event is over or the person has died.
The people of ancient Ife (EE-fay), an important city in what is today the West African country of Nigeria, wanted to remember their friends and family too. A person who died became an “ancestor,” someone to be honored by the family and community. The ancestors were closer to the powerful spirit world than the living and were able to affect daily life on earth. They might help or harm, depending on how well they were treated.
The most influential people in life became the most powerful ancestors and were honored with sculptures like this shrine head. Such sculptures were kept in shrines, sacred places where living family members held ceremonies to keep the ancestors happy and feeling honored.
We do not know this woman’s name, but we can tell she belonged to the royal family of Ife. Various details show her high status-her elaborate hairstyle, the patterns cut into the skin of her face (called scarification), and the rings of skin around her neck. These features, perfectly spaced and balanced, show the ideal of beauty in ancient Ife. At the same time, her faintly turned-up mouth and the slightly lopsided placement of her eyes give the sense that she was a real person.
Hair on a chin. A lip. A nostril. A nose. And finally, dark eyes behind thick glasses. It takes time to see the whole of this larger-than-life portrait of Chuck Close’s friend Frank. This image is one in a series of giant paintings that Close calls “heads.”
Close did not use the real Frank as a model. Instead, he worked from a photograph. He divided the photograph into hundreds of small squares, making a grid. He penciled a much larger grid onto a huge canvas. Then he copied what he saw in the photography onto the canvas, square by square.
Why does Close work this way? He explains: “How do you make a big head? How do you make a nose? I’m not sure. But by breaking the image down into small units, I make each decision into a bite-sized decision.”
This picture shows us exactly how Frank looks--every detail of his face. But what is Frank like as a person? There is no hint of a smile-or a frown-on his lips. He keeps his distance behind the shadows of his glasses. The artist is interested in recording what the eye sees, not how he feels about his friend.
In any case, the portrait wasn’t for Frank. Chuck Close sells large works like this one to art collectors through New York galleries, for high prices. His giant heads have made him one of America’s most famous contemporary artists.
Take a look at this gope (GO-pay) board, made on the Pacific island of New Guinea sometime in the 1700s. Does its shape remind you of a shield? In a way, the gope board is a shield. Its makers believed it held a spirit with the power to protect them from harm.
In New Guinea, harm might come in the form of tropical storms, tidal waves, or starvation. People believed they could influence nature with help from their ancestors’ spirits. They created objects like this gope board as homes for the spirits. Like tools, gope boards were made to be uselful not for decoration.
The figures on this gope board represents an ancestor spirit. The head is far bigger than the body. The people of New Guinea believed a person’s spirit was located in the head. An image with a big head made a good “container” for the protective spirit. It was not important that the face be lifelike. This one is simply a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a beard. These shapes were enough to suggest the ancestor described in the words of the village elders.
Most villagers never saw the gope board. It was stored out of sight under the roof of the “men’s house,” the social and spiritual center of the village. But everyone knew it was there, and the community took comfort in knowing the spirit of their ancestor was protecting them.
When you look at this sculpture from a distance, you believe you are seeing a woman’s face through a thin fabric veil. It is all an illusion. You are in fact looking at solid marble. With this piece of trompe l’oeil (tromp-LOY)-French for “fool the eye”-Raffaelo Monti makes you think you can see through stone.
How has he done this? Monti was a keen and careful observer and a master with his chisel and mallet, the tools of a stone carver. He also knew a few tricks. For example, the top of the head and the shoulders are polished smooth, to reflect light. But where the veil falls across the face, the marble is less polished. It reflects less light, suggesting the texture of fabric.
Veiled ladies were Monti’s specialty. His workshop produced many sculptures like this one. They were extremely popular at a time when more and more people could afford to buy art for their homes. Other artists copied Monti’s technique, but few created such convincing illusions.
Who exactly is this woman? What do we know about her from this sculpture? It is easy to think she must be very beautiful. The veil reveals the curve of a delicate brow. It drapes over the bridge of a dainty nose. But the veiled lady will always remain a mystery, teasing us with what we cannot know.
Spunky. Curious. Self-confident. How else might you describe this girl? We can tell a lot about Hortense Valpincon (val-pin-SOHN) from this portrait painted by her parents’ friend Edgar Degas (deh-GAH).
Many French artists in the 19th century painted portraits to make money. Degas, however, usually painted portraits only of his family and close friends. He made this one as a gift for his friends Paul and Claire while staying at their country home. He decided to paint their daughter Hortense on the spur of the moment.
You can tell that Degas knew Hortense’s quirks well. Notice the tilt of her head, her slightly parted lips, her bright-eyed gaze, and the arch of her eyebrows. She looks as if she is about to say something or run off to play. Degas carefully drew the shape of Hortense’s face and other details. But he also left out things that simply weren’t needed to show her personality.
Degas painted and reworked the picture for days. Hortense had to pose for endless hours. Nevertheless, the portrait has the look of a snapshot. Some areas are less in focus than others-just as in a snapshot.
In Degas’ time, people thought his pictures looked unfinished. Today, he is considered a great painter because he could reveal so much about the people he painted. What do you think?
Give your students a chance to practice writing dialogue by imagining a conversation among the “Face to Face” images. What would the faces say to each other if they were exploring your school for the first time? What would surprise them? What would they learn from observing you?
Use a map or a globe to locate where all of the “Face to Face” works came from.
There’s nothing like a familiar face! Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see the works in “Face to Face,” as well as other portraits found throughout the galleries.