faces

Today is another car-free day. The largest boulevard is closed to traffic. Vendors and performers are setting up stands. The weather is drab and the crowds are small, but it’s still very early. There is a woman with face paint and two blond children who come up to her knees. One of them, the boy, has half of a pink mask painted onto his face. Another little boy rushes up to her with his father.

Face paint beautifies by treating the face as a blank canvas—and turns all faces blank, or through it, all faces are blank. Unlike other types of makeup such as one finds in the drugstore beauty section, face paint does not mean to enhance any particular aspect of the face—the art is itself the locus for attention. There cannot be a better buoy for self esteem. White children and Asian children accept their implicit facial differences without wanting to exchange their features for the other’s.

Early cinema is reminiscent of this childish play. ‘The first films were primarily about “showing”, or display, rather than about “telling”, the narration of stories’. In this sense, Greta Garbo’s face belongs to the story, rather than the display[1].

For unlike the later films, which create self-enclosed narrative worlds and carefully disguise the relationship between action on screen and spectators, cinema before 1906 is explicitly exhibitionist[2].

Early cinema developed with an enthusiasm for the apparatus, the camera. Suddenly, human life is captured in its mundanity, which is rendered exotic and exciting. Auguste and Louis Lumiere, with their new toy, march through town and film society from static points[3]. As 19th century men with 20th century equipment, they turn the street into the theatre stage. In Démolition d’un mur, the camera remains in one place—the people seem to be the focus, but then!

The reel loops backwards and the wall comes back up. Face paint holds that same indelible joy—excitement for the apparatus itself, without trace of drama or irony. There is a realness to the early film which is barred by the narrative of films and modern documentary. To this style of film, there is a self-awareness, an element of the enhancement, which is the adult’s makeup. Makeup here turns the face itself into the art object, enhancing what is already beautiful in the face and crafting a narrative of the features. ‘A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic unity[4]’. Garbo’s face is no mask—it is flesh set into narrative; her face constructed into a narrative of the aesthetic. Each shot of Garbo’s face is carefully elicited to portray an idea, an emotion.

Face paint, like the film, is anticipatory. Makeup is an attempt to capture what is there, a snapshot of a beauty caught in time.

Photographs are the opposite of films. Photographs are retrospective and are received as such: films are anticipatory. Before a photograph you search for what was there. In a cinema you wait for what is to come next. All film narratives are, in this sense, adventures: they advance, they arrive[5].

But it isn’t purely binary—film captures the essence of the person, painted or enhanced. In the modern era, the selfie quickly evolves from a snapshot to a 7-second profile video.[6]

Modern selfie culture creates a hybrid of display and narrative—it is an exhibitionism crafted by place. At the watershed of continuous production (new hardware and software for us to play with) that human desire to play is continuously tickled. But the pathos of later film hasn’t left us. We now have the capacity to display ourselves and craft personal narratives at the same time—we choose how the other perceives us. The spirit of play is now tinged with irony. Colourful palettes sold to us cannot replace the jouissance of a child’s face paint. There is a self-awareness that informs our craft, that informs our aesthetic.


[1] Within the story her face may be a mask, but a mask which tells a story, a mask which forms an archetype of the face, of an idea.

[2] Grimshaw, Anna. 2001. The ethnographer's eye: ways of seeing in anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. P 19.

[3] Grimshaw, P 18.

[4] "The Face of Garbo". Barthes, Roland. Mythologies: Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972

[5] Grimshaw, P 24.

[6] Facebook Newsroom: Improving Mobile Profiles