Wednesday, 16 July 2008

What makes a face?

I was chatting with a friend about some drawings that he and I had (coincidentally) made, some time ago, of a statue from the Nereid Monument. My friend particularly admires the Cycladic Figures, which have a greater aesthetic appeal to him, but which he finds, strangely, more difficult to draw. The sheer technical virtuosity and physical presence of the nereid statues does it for me; and also I was there mainly to practice my figure drawing. But the cycladic ones are fascinating aesthetically, and in respect of the question of what the essentials really are that make a shape appear to be a human figure capable of carrying emotional force.

There are many other things in the museum which present that question - a prehistoric sculpture of lovers that was in the temporarily-displaced-objects-room behind the shop when I was last there, is a good example. How exactly do our brains tell that it represents a pair of lovers, or indeed anything else? I know it's obvious - but how does that work?

It's the same kind of question as I asked myself when I set myself the task of knitting a frog. I don't use patterns - I always design. What makes a frog recognisably frog-shaped? After a bit of musing I concluded that it was essentially two long legs, two short legs, webbed feet, and goggly eyes, probably reinforced by greenness. The Moomin was a slightly different question because Moomins are fictional and all the same shape, only distinguished by accessories. So I had to get it right; but nevertheless it was obvious to me what I had to get right. How did I know this? I have no idea.

More broadly, I suppose the tendency to detect personality in things that have a face or look somehow humanoid is a basic observed property of the human mind, and it's what gives us the power to domesticate animals, as well as to knit things other humans will perceive as having personality.

And it's remarkable how little is needed to convey the idea of a face. What would Picasso have made of the standard smiley? :) It's quite clear to everyone who turns their head that this is a face, :o) But why and how do we know that? :-O

Even wierd goggly stalk-eyed stripey textured bell-legged asymmetric birdlike toys we give to babies, recognisably have faces. But how do their odd arrangements of buttons and blobs amount to faces? They are instantly recongnisable to humans as faces, in the same way that a piece of red cotton wool on a stick is instantly recongisable to a robin as something to attack. (If you have one in your garden, you can easily try this. It won't work on American robins - different species).

At the moment I'm working on a Fair Isle tiger. Its face will simply be embroidered on one end.


tg said...

They are strange, the cycladic figures. Hard to draw, perhaps, because they aren't much more than an outline, without the volume of later hellenic sculpture. Strange that they all have arms folded in front, even stranger that the nose represents the face, since eyes are the most basic sign of a face: in India, painting eyes on a stone gives it a sort of divine presence. So perhaps the cycladic figures had painted eyes. It was long thought that the Greeks loved white marble, and there were theories about how inward-looking the images are without eyes (without pupils, that is). The simple fact is that the white marble was painted. So the most mysterious fact about the cycladic images might simply be because we don't see them as they were intended to be seen.

Anonymous said...

I think the recognition of faces is quite a low level thing. It's always amazing how quickly a new born baby begins to focus and starts directing that focus towards faces. But that may also be towards where the strange sounds are coming from.

Another example would be how new born lambs know that the udder is at the top of a leg, quite humorous when they start at the front legs.

tangobaby said...

Now that I'm always out and about looking for things to take pictures of, I am surprised at how sometimes random objects can also look like faces, too.

I thought that neolithic sculpture was fascinating. The age of it is staggering to me.