Going to Extremes: Physiognomy, Caricature, and Studies of Expression

Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756/57–1827), Man’s Head and Sheep’s Head. Pen and brown ink, brown wash with watercolor over graphite, 10.4 × 16.8 cm. Bequest of Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895 This selection of prints, drawings, and photographs from several centuries and diverse cultures examines artists’ enduring fascination with depicting and interpreting faces. Works on view by Guercino, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Thomas Rowlandson demonstrate the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque figures and the development of caricature in early modern Europe. The art of caricature (from the Italian caricatura, meaning “loaded portrait”) centered on the exaggerated and humorous representation of a specific individual. It was largely built on Renaissance theories of physiognomy, which posited that an individual’s character could be judged through his or her facial attributes.

Shunkōsai Hokuei (active 1829–1837), Japanese, Edo period, 1600–1868, Mitate: Arashi Rikan II as Hachiman Taro and Nakamura Utaemon III as Abe no Sadato. Woodblock print (ōban yoko-e format); ink and color on paper, 26.5 × 39.3 cm. Museum purchase, Anne van Biema Collection FundDifferent approaches to the face are explored in the installation. In the nineteenth century, artists continued to manifest an interest in extreme expressions using a variety of media. Photographs by Clarence White, in which he experimented with capturing emotions such as fear and grief, reveal an interest in pose and encourage interpretation by the viewer to complete the scene. Two Japanese woodblock prints from Osaka feature close-up views of Kabuki actors, whose exaggerated theatrical expressions are made more legible through the use of traditional white makeup and black and red face paint.

Ana Mendieta (American, born Cuba, 1948–1985), Two prints from Glass on Body Imprints–Face, 1972. Gelatin silver prints, 24.3 × 19.5 cm each. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, Courtesy Galerie LeLong, New YorkThe final two works are photographs from a powerful performance in which the artist Ana Mendieta pressed a piece of glass against her face and different areas of her naked body. Across from Leonardo’s distorted faces, the images are a daring modern reinterpretation of the grotesque as commentary on the societal biases Mendieta experienced as a Cuban American female artist.

Going to Extremes inspired a panel discussion this fall that considered works on view from the perspectives of art history, psychology, and neuroscience. In addition, numerous classes have incorporated the installation into their Museum visits.


Veronica M. White

Curator of Academic Programs