Physiognomy and the arts: A rich but neglected relationship

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Martin S. Lindauerc&eb_8_hb

A face perceived as friendly or hostile is a typical example of physiognomy, and so, too, are objects (a brooding mountain, a peaceful glen) and events (an expectant crowd, a threatening movement).  These affective and cognitive meanings, in phenomenological terms, emerge naturally, spontaneously, and without delay.  In this essay, the place of physiognomy in the arts is introduced, both in general and for specific forms, along with its relevance to creativity and aesthetics.  As an overview the review is selective, given the limited space available.  (For a broader treatment of physiognomy, including its history, theories, methods, findings, and research possibilities, as well as an in-depth examination of its role in the arts, artists, and arts audiences, together with extensive references, see Lindauer, M. S. [2013].)

The topic of physiognomy has a marginal if not unsavory status in psychology because of its historical excesses and fakery; its close association with phrenology; and following the popular writing of Lavater in the late 18th Century, its use as a parlor game (Crabtree, 2000).  Consequently, neutral labels like non-verbal behavior (or communication), interpersonal space, body language, gestural psychology, and kinesics are substituted for physiognomy in order to avoid its negative connotations.  However, physiognomy’s preeminence in the arts (Gombrich, 1960), unlike its faint presence in ordinary objects, layered as they are by familiarity and habit, as well as its relevance to artistic creativity and aesthetics, makes it hard to ignore.

Artists are especially attuned to the physiognomic overtures of people, objects, scenes, and events that “demand a hearing.”  Their evocative pulses challenge  artists, to translate visual, auditory, written, and textural messages imaginatively.  Colors, shapes, sounds, words, and movements are manipulated and transformed into music, paintings, literature, and other artistic forms.  Hence, a positive correlation between creativity and physiognomy (e.g., Dailey, Martindale, & Borkum,1997).  Creative artists, open to the physiognomic wisps of sounds and other stimuli, discern what is difficult for most of us to hear, see, touch, and notice. The expressive undercurrents of a painting and the other arts supplement if not transcend literal, concrete, explicit, and denotative meanings .

Physiognomic undercurrents capture and hold the attention of arts audiences, including readers of literature, who are sensitive to the subtle nuances of artistic works.  What they see in a painting or sculpture, read in a story, observe in a dance, hear in a theater, and listen to at a concert are facilitated and enhanced, readily attended to and perceived, strongly felt, and assigned greater meaning with physiognomic undercurrents.   Non-art rarely prompts such emanations.  (Notable exceptions are sporting events and scenes in nature.)  A heightened sensitivity is especially welcome for art that is unfamiliar, abstract, and avant-garde, like a Cubist painting by Picasso or an early Stravinsky piece, where little is clear and conventional reference points are minimal, irrelevant, or non-existent.

Arts audiences are open to and unselfconscious about reacting to physiognomic effusions, in contrast to their typical approach to non-art, which is matter-of-fact, pragmatic, rule-bound, routine, stereotyped, and utilitarian.  Reactions to art, moreover, are not burdened by an implicit pressure to be correct.  Unlike everyday objects, art is not meant to be taken literally. Hence, audiences feel little discomfort in calling a portrait by Rembrandt “reflective”; a character in a story by Poe “malevolent”; a Chopin interlude “dreamy”; a Rodin sculpture “solid”; or a Graham dance “exuberant.”  Similarly, they are not hesitant in calling a painting “frenzied,” a chord “ominous,” and a word “loaded.”  With unfamiliar works, where knowledge, memories, and expectations are minimal or inappropriate, physiognomic resonances may be the only basis for responding in a meaningful way.

Each of the arts has its unique physiognomic penumbras.  Take the visual arts.  A Japanese watercolor with a “hurried” brushstroke depicts an insignificant figure hunched next to a turbulent waterfall tumbling down an overpowering mountain.  In paintings by Kandinsky and Klee, lines, shapes, and colors are childlike, playful, and lighthearted. A portrait by Rembrandt is reflective and brooding.  The colors of a portrait by Matisse and a landscape by van Gogh are wild and unruly.  The swatches, bars, swirls, drips, and strips of pigments in a Jackson Pollock clash and collide.  With non-figurative works, like the wide bars of vertical or horizontal swathes of colors by Kline, physiognomy is perhaps the only basis for responding.

Caricatures and political cartoons, exaggerated and distorted, are nonetheless recognized and given significance with physiognomy.  With Op(tical) or geometrical art (called retinal art by Duchamp), stationary geometric shapes and patterns seem to pulse and quiver.  Physiognomically suggestive, too, are the titles, sizes, frames, placement, and lighting of paintings.  So, too, is the presence or absence of crowds in a gallery and the arrangement of rooms that direct viewers’ movement.

In photography, many photos are taken in order to find a singular shot, the one that hints at what lies beyond its specific content.  Iconic examples are Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite National Park, Mathew Brady’s of the civil war, and Rosenthal’s raising of the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.

Physiognomic resonances abound in literature as well.  The Bible:  “A man’s wisdom makes his face to shine” (Ecclesiates 8:1).  Mythology:  The face of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships.  Ancient writings:  There are often voices and words in a silent look (Ovid).  Shakespeare: Cassius, the betrayer in Julius Caesar, has a “lean and hungry look.”  The fictional dectectivc Sherlock Holmes attends to faces, bodies, and speech for clues to who done it.

For readers, literary characters behave as befits the lengths of their chins and shapes of their mouths.  Stooped or slouched postures, hands raised or pointing, dwarfish or statuesque height, and loud and profane language portend character, temperament, and status. Beauties have snow-white skin and delicate nostrils; heroines have freckles and turned up noses. The nose in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the teeth in novels by D. H. Lawrence foreshadow the narrative. In works by Poe the flaneur observes people and their appearance in order to gain insight into their personality. The uncapitalized poems of e. e. cummings illustrate the effects of words, qua words, and of sentence structure, on the meanings readers attribute to a work. hysiognomically redolent, too, are the covers and titles of books, and whether hard- or soft-bound, thick or thin.   So, too, are the first line or two (the “hook”), the names of characters, even a blank page at the end of a chapter.  Mattering physiognomically as well are an author’s workspace and whether she uses a pen or computer.

In musical performances, conductors communicate the metrics of a work by marking the beat with their hands and body.  They also add a dynamic sub-text by waving their arms and hands, twisting fingers in the air, hunching shoulders, changing posture, and shifting their stance.  Members of the orchestra reflect and augment the emotional tone of a piece by swaying, stiffening, rising up on their toes, moving to the edge of their chairs, and varying positions. Audiences react to these movements.  They also hear the initial chords of Beethoven’s Fifth’s powerful announcement of what is to come and opera voices as cold, brittle, coarse, dark, heavy, and rough.

Audiences here and elsewhere show signs of surprise, alertness, and pleasure, of being visibly stirred or stunned.  They fidget, squirm, and gasp audibly to indicate satisfaction or disapproval.  These tremors are sensed by musicians (and other performers) who either rise to the occasion or become deflated (emotionally “flat”).

In theater, including mime as well as dance, audiences react to suggestive movements.  Gestures without speech have “a voice” that conveys emotions.  Spoken words are supplemented if not supplanted by an actor’s lifting of a finger, waving a hand or arm, and raising an eyebrow.  A voice is insistent or resigned; a stance signals intimacy or distance, warmth or coldness; a glance hints at hostility or friendship.  Stock characters behave according to “type,” augmented by a pronounced jaw line, a characteristic swagger, or a casual posture.

In dance, performers leap, twirl, bend, run, and skip alone or together in a line or circle.  Each pattern of movements throws off physognomic nuances to audiences.  Presaging further developments are how dancers enter the stage: as soloists, pairs, a group, or as the entire company.

Physiognomic forebodings occur even before a performance begins as the curtain rises, lights dim, and the audience hushes.  With the sudden stillness, the air is pregnant with anticipation as audiences become alert with expectations.  Something similarly preparatory occurs when we enter an art museum, concert hall or theater; open a recommended book; and approach an architecturally distinguished building. The latter, along with bridges and churches, have mass;  they also “thrust,” and “soar.” A structure hints at its function, the kinds of people who might work or live there, what its owner could be like, and whether it challenges, resists, or fits into a neighborhood.  Office size, view, and location speak of power, wealth, and position.  The silence of an empty room is heard.

Sculptures, without speech or movement, stationary and untouched, nonetheless radiate a textural “feel,” apparent movement, and implied spatiality. They exude massiveness, weightiness, and immovability–or their opposites.  The carved face in the Lincoln Memorial is noble, melancholic, and thoughtful.  The type of material (marble, bronze, wood, metal, stone), along with scale (tiny, realistic, huge), have a physiognomic impact.  Observers often feel impelled to touch a sculpture despite warning signs not to do so.  Physiognomic tremors also arise from a statue’s placement, whether crowded with other sculptures, placed among paintings, or by itself in the middle of a museum floor, square, or park.

In the movies, actors are photographed from high or low angles, close-up, or within a panoramic backdrop.  Lighting is bright or dim; shadows prominent or absent, as in film noire.  Good or bad guys have tiny or large eyes, gaunt or full cheeks.  Silent films exaggerated facial features in order to clearly and forcefully convey evocative meanings.  Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is a powerful, and frightening portrayal of the brutality and fear evoked by the Nazis.

In summary:  Physiognomic reverberations run through all of the arts.  A painting, sonnet, and symphony look, read, sound, and seem “right” or “fitting.”  Creative artists observe, feel, and communicate evocative tremors that trigger expressive meanings in aesthetically perceptive observers, listeners, and readers.  When art doesn’t “work” it may be that it lacks a physiognomic aftereffect, leaving audiences cold and indifferent.  Ironically, people open to the physiognomic ambiance of the arts are often oblivious to the slight evocative sights and sounds lurking in non-art.  No wonder they welcome the refreshing interlude brought to them by the arts.

Explanations of physiognomy range from Darwin (evolution) through Gestalt psychology (the figural qualities of what they called tertiary perception) to J. J. Gibson’s affordances (what retinal patterns afford or demand).  Closer to the arts are Kurt Koffka’s (1940) emphasis on the inherent requiredness of sensory input; Arnheim’s (1972) belongingness, goodness, and rightness of visual stimulation; and Heinz Werner’s primitive or “magical” nature of perception, especially among creative people and children.   (Werner, 1956;  see also Crosby, 2001).

Space permits only a few suggestive starting points for research on  physiognomy within an artistic framework.  One is comparing the physiognomic sensitivities of different types of artists (realistic or abstract) and audiences (those that prefer music, theater, and so forth).  Another is exploring the relationship between physiognomy and synesthesia (Lindauer, 1991, 2009;  Marks, 1982).  For example, when we say a musical piece is “hot, cool, or leaves me cold” we are simultaneously experiencing synesthesia (a sensory crossover) and physiognomy.  Open to exploration, too, is physognomy’s possible ties to neuroaesthetics (Buchtel, 2001; Ramachandran & Hubbard,2000).  Physiognomy’s origins may lie in the emotional limbic system, the cognitive cerebral cortex, or the visual occipatal lobe–or all three simultaneously.

Physiognomy is a broad and integrative framework within which to study art, artists, artistic creativity, the venues of art, arts audiences, and aesthetic experience.  Of more general relevance is how it gives order to the multiple and ambiguous streams of input that bombards us from things, events, and people.  We select what is perceptually significant, at least in part,  by imbuing stimuli with physiognomic meaning (albeit occasionally at the price of fidelity).

Important qualifications need to be kept in mind.  Not all artists and audiences depend solely or primarily on physiognomy or do so to the same degree.  Errors of the past in promoting physiognomy, including  overgeneralizations and simplifications, must also be avoided.  Nonetheless, the pervasive presence of physiognomy in the arts and related areas like aesthetics enhances its credibility as a legitimate subject for scientific inquiry, a focus that deserves greater attention than it has so far received.


References Cited  

Arnheim, R. (1972).  The Gestalt theory of expression.  In Arnheim, R., Toward a psychology of art:  Collected essays (pp. 51-73).  Berkeley, University of California.

Buchtel, H. A.  (2001).  Left and right hemisphere contributions to physiognomic and verbal discrimination.  Neuropsychology, 15, 597-606.

Crabtree, A. (2000). Lavater, Johann Kaspar. Encyclopedia of psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 492-493).  Washington, DC/NY: American Psychological Association.

Crosby, W. (2001). Heinz Werner:  Mapping the territory between scientific and poetic understanding. Encounter, 14, 44-55.

Dailey, A., Martindale, C., & Borkum, J. (1997). Creativity, Synesthesia, and Physiognomic Perception.  Creativity Research Journal, 10, 1-8.

Gombrich. E. H. (1960).  On physiognomic expression.  Daedelus, 89, 228-242.

Koffka, K. (1940).  Problems in the psychology of art. In R. Bernheimer, R. Carpenter, K. Koffka, M. Nahm (Eds.), Art: a Bryn Mawr Symposium (pp. 180-273). Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College.

Lindauer, M. S. (1991).  Physiognomy and verbal synesthesia:  Affective and sensory descriptions of nouns with drawings and art.  Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 6, 183-202.

Lindauer, M. S. (2009). Literary creativity and physiognomy: Expressiveness in writers, readers, and literature.  In S. B. Kaufman & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Psychology of Creative Writing (pp. 117-130). New York: Cambridge University Press

Lindauer, M. S. (2013).  The expressiveness of perception:  Physiognomy reconsidered.  Netherlands:  John Benjamins.

Marks, L. S. (1982).  Synesthetic perception and poetic metaphor. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Human Perception and Performance, 8, 15-23.

Ramachandran, V. S. & Hubbard, E. M. (2000).  Psychophysical investigations into the neural basis of synaesthesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 979-983.

Werner, H. (1956). On physiognomic perception.  In G. Kepes (Ed.). The New Landscape in Art and Science (pp. 280-283).  Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co.