June 3, 2021

At the Met: Faces

Head and Neck from a marble figure, Cycladic, 2700-2500 B.C.

While wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art I was struck by the inventiveness and varied approaches to abstraction when it came to depicting faces, both human and animal. In this very early small Cycladic head, all we see is the shape of the face with a protruding nose, yet it is distinctly human, We read this as a face even with minimal information; its forms are simple and beautifully rendered. 

Spouted Vessel, Mexican, Huastec, 13th-15th century

This decorated Mexican vessel depicts a face with an expression of wide-eyed surprise, emphasized by the eyelashes surrounding the protruding eyes and the dark, upturned nostrils. The piece is decorated with elegant abstract designs, moving it away from any perceived naturalism.

I love this wacky bird, eyeing me intently. His polka-dotted neck and abstracted feathers, along with the handles as wings, add whimsy. Of course, I don't know if that interpretation is that of the artist; perhaps they saw this bird as threatening. 

African artists from all over the continent had a marvelous ability to simplify the human face into beautiful shapes, lines, curves, volumes. With its perfect oval form, closed eyes, and calm expression it could almost be the head of a Buddha, as well as a ruler of the Akan people. 

Mask, Cote d'Ivoire or Liberia, Ku peoples, 19th-mid 20th century

From serenity in the work above, there's a shift to an elongated fierceness in this mask with jagged teeth and cylindrical eyes, and a knife-edge slice of a nose. The forms are softened by the gentle curves of the mask's outline.

This headdress is called Janus-faced because there's a similar face backing this one. The eye shapes remind me of the ovals of the memorial head above, but this face is more aggressively abstract; the long, protruding nose with lips below balance the eyes beautifully. I find the saw-toothed edge very interesting; I don't think I've seen that before. At the top of the headdress are two horns, and etched into the wood below them are two ovals for the eyes of an animal. 

I'm fascinated by the upturned head of this magical power figure. He seems to be quietly beseeching the gods. Although the form of his head is stylized, and his body is hung with strange (to me) objects of prayer, he is so very alive. 

With these two masks we are back in the Western hemisphere, but as I look at them I might think that they're African. It makes me wonder whether there is a universality of form in this stylized  type of art, tempered by cultural differences. The move away from naturalism toward simplification brings great power to this imagery that a more delicate realism cannot match, although that has its own strengths. 

This sculpture of a woman's head with its clear, bold features and stylized curls is more naturalistic than the works above, but still quite simplified. Her head rises above a plain sarcophagus (see in link) whose only details are the wavy lines at the top. This makes for a startling apparition when seeing the actual work.

A style closer to a Western idea of realism is evident in this sensitively rendered funerary portrait of a young woman. The flesh appears soft, the features delicate and particular to an individual. Only the hair is abstracted, with the curls as tightly wound circles. 

Portrait of a Carthusian, Petrus Christus, 1446

I had to include one painting in this post, and that of a face that I find intriguing. The heightened realism of Christus' painting invites me to attempt to understand the character of this monk. He is looking out with an expression that is somewhat askance, solemn and questioning. The portrait is so carefully observed, from the features to the delicate, cascading beard. Christus also plays with illusion by painting a fly on the edge of the frame.

Woman's Head, Amedeo Modigliani, 1912

Modigliani's modernism takes us back to an abstracted vision, inspired by the art of Africa. Those oval eyes, long nose, and slitted mouth can be seen as direct descendants of some of the sculpture pictured above, with his personal touch of elongation. 

**I enjoyed thinking about and seeing how differently faces can be appear in art. The Met allows for that with its extensive collections. I would like to remind you that clicking on an image will show it enlarged. I've provided links to the Met's descriptions of some of the objects if the information on their website is especially elucidating. 


  1. All of these are interesting and well-described by both you and the Met, Altoon. The antiquties sectiions at the Met are my favorite places to spend a lot of time.

  2. An extraordinary selection, anda gift to our senses! Thank you Altoon.
    The Congo workwillnot release me, nor the Petrus Christus! Palpable.