For centuries artists have sought to represent extreme emotional states through the vehicle of facial expression. Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV and mastermind of the decorations of Versailles, was one of the first to attempt to codify the range of expression possible in the plastic arts, especially painting. In a lecture delivered to the French Academy in 1688 he used a sequence of drawings to demonstrate how to represent a series of emotional states through calculated manipulations of facial features. Admiration, Hope and Veneration anchor the calm end of the scale. Images of Anger, Terror and Hatred lead to Le Brun’s farthest limits of passion: Despair and Rage. It is worth quoting Le Brun’s descriptions of these mental states:
Extreme Despair can be shown by a man grinding his teeth, foaming at the mouth, biting his lips, having his forehead furrowed with vertical folds, his eyebrows drawn down over his eyes, and strongly contracted toward the nose. His eyes will be burning and full of blood, the pupils rolling and hidden now by the upper lid, now by the lower, sparkling and restless. His eyelids will be swollen and livid, the nostrils, large, open and raised up, the end of the nose drawn down, and the muscles and tendons of these parts very swollen, as will be all the veins and nerves of the forehead, temples and other parts of the face. The upper part of the cheek will appear fat and prominent, but they will be drawn in about the jaws; the mouth will be open and very much drawn back with the corners more open than the middle, the under lip full and turned out, livid like the rest of the face. The hair will stand on end.
Rage has the same movements as Despair, but they seem yet more violent, for the face will be almost entirely black, covered with a cold sweat, the hair on end, the eyes rolling convulsively, the pupil moving in opposite directions, now into the corner by the nose, now back towards the ears: all parts of the face will be very prominent and swollen.1
Le Brun’s descriptions could serve for some of the more harrowing images in Clara Lieu’s recent set of fifty drawings entitled Falling. Lieu’s attention to nuances of physiognomy parallels that which Le Brun details in his writing, the artist taking us through a sequence of highly charged facial expressions starting with a relatively placid countenance that barely hints at the built up tension that is about to burst forth, followed by the sudden release of frightening screams and extreme contortions and ending with exhaustion represented by facial tissues so strained by the ordeal that they cannot immediately return to their ordinary surface tension.
There is of course an essential difference between Le Brun and Lieu. The French Academician gave his lecture to assist history painters in representing the passions required by their narratives. Emotion is projected onto his characters from the outside. Lieu’s project is to externalize a profound personal experience, to make visible something that she knows from the inside.2
In this drive to objectify and depict an extreme emotional state the artist has experienced but can never see Lieu has an artistic ancestor in the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt who worked in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 18th Century. After the passage of two hundred years it is impossible for us to assess Messerschmidt’s mental health, but it seems that there was a break in his life around 1771 that led to him losing his position at the Vienna Academy and the end to his commissions for the court. He settled in Bratislava and in the final years of his life concentrated on a remarkable series of expressive heads.3 Loosely based on the artist’s own image, these self-portraits often explore states of inward concentration shown through tight compression of the facial muscles. Screaming heads with extremely detailed teeth, tongues and palates express the opposite end of the spectrum. It is impossible to look at this work and not imagine that Messerschmitt, like Lieu, experienced the psychic pain he expresses with such clarity.
For Messerschmitt, this clarity is achieved through a highly resolved neoclassical style in rendering the form and great attention to graphic details of wrinkles and hair in the cast metal or alabaster sculptures. This was a break from the flowing Baroque style of his previous work for the court of Empress Maria Theresa. In a similar way, Lieu has made a stylistic shift from her earlier work. Past projects such as Wading represented isolation within crowds by means of shifting focus between soft and crisp to show figures drawn from invented sculptural macquettes in a vast but indeterminate space. For Falling, Lieu has taken on the extreme focus of photographically inflected realism, her rendering of the close up heads capitalizing on on her skills as a sculptor to develop powerful, palpable volumes on a large scale. The graphic precision and well developed form imparts a hallucinatory quality to the images. Though they are often disturbing, they hold the viewer. You cannot look away.
The person represented in Falling is Lieu but the face is not hers. She worked with a surrogate in the form of an actress directed by the artist. In video and photography sessions the performer worked with Lieu to create the source material for the drawings. It must have been a difficult, even harrowing experience for both as Lieu relived her mental state as represented by another and the performer took on Lieu’s emotions in order to create a convincing representation. This was an essential step in giving a previously internal experience a visible form, providing a starting point for the project.
Lieu sifted through the resulting images and selected a group that met her needs. Each image was developed in her remarkable and innovative drawing technique. The supports are four by three foot sheets of duralar, a thick but flexible clear plastic. To make the surface receptive for her media Lieu sands it with coarse sandpaper, in a process similar to laying a ground for mezzotint. Oil based brownish black etching ink is applied to the surface with rags and the artist’s hands. Nuances are created by rubbing in a process that refers to developing a plate for a monotype. Sharp knives are used to scrape out lights, building form through removal in the manner of carving a sculpture. Finally details and graphic touches are added with lithographic crayon, the cool blacks and grays of the crayon activating the warm tones of the etching ink. The material properties of the resulting drawings are enhanced by the translucency of the sanded duralar. It sits slightly off the wall allowing the image to be enriched by the subtle shadows it casts.
This refined facture is used to create a set of expressive heads that are in turns terrifying, pained, pathetic, aggressive and exhausted. In some cases the emotional state is ambiguous, an issue that certainly colored the reception of Messerschmidt’s work. In his case an unknown author of a posthumous brochure written to accompany an exhibition of the so-called character heads ascribed comic names to many of them. These titles have become the standard nomenclature for the work, for instance identifying the wrenchingly emotional screaming self-portrait mentioned above as The Yawner. A similar double reading is possible in some of Lieu’s haunting images. The head of a screaming figure with mouth wide open could almost plausibly represent laughter. We become acutely aware of how close a smile can be to a grimace of pain and learn to look for subtle clues such as the deeply incised wrinkles on eyelids, remnants of an ordeal that touches the limits of endurance. We are required to call on our inherent knowledge of human faces to try to understand what we see. The sustaining strength of this work lies in its understanding that any given face can convey a variety of emotions at one time. Expression remains elusive: the codified catalog of facial expressions proposed by Le Brun is an impossibility.
At its core, Le Brun’s essay is clear about an essential point: the representation of expression is a tool the artist uses to create meaning.
Expression, in my opinion, is a simple and natural image of the thing we wish to represent; it is a necessary ingredient of all the parts of a painting, and without it no picture can be perfect; … expression is also that which reflects the movements of the heart, and which makes visible the effects of the passions.4
When applied to Lieu, the French artist’s words remind us that she uses her art to create an entirely new subject, separate from the experience that provided the starting point. The artist makes this clear through several means. The use of a surrogate allows her to stand at a remove from the character represented, enabling an unexpected objectivity in the face of the subjective content of these works. Most important is the paradox implied by the highly controlled style employed to depict loss of control. This stylistic choice is what links Lieu with the rationalized styles of Le Brun and Messerschmidt and separates her from what in our culture is the predictable link between the representation of extreme emotion and the obviously expressive or expressionistic handling famously seen in Munch’ Scream or the extreme distortions that characterize Picasso’s Guernica and its progeny.
In the same way that the style has an unexpected relationship to the subject, the title, Falling, does not directly refer to the images but gives us an oblique point of entry. This is a shift from her past projects: Wading really did show figures standing knee deep in water. With Falling we wonder what we are falling into. In this profoundly moving new body of work Lieu provides an unflinching and sustained look into the terrifying abyss that is the human psyche.
Andrew Raftery is an engraver and Professor of Printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design.
1 Jennifer Montagu, The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun’s Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 138-139.
2 In a recent interview Lieu discusses her diagnosis with depression and her treatment as the entry point for this project. Lois Tarlow, Profile: Clara Lieu (Art New England, Sept./Oct. 2011)
3 Maria Pötzl-Malikova and Guilham Scherf editors, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism (Paris: Louvre Editions, New York: Neue Gallerie, 2010), 201-202.
4 Montagu, 126.