Putting your best face forward

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The other day when I wrote about Young Woman at an Open Half-Door I left out one of the main reasons this painting attracts me: the asymmetric face of its subject. In fact, I got to thinking about the portraits I like in the Art Institute and realized that at least two others have asymmetrical features: Rêverie (Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau) by Gustave Courbet and Alessandro de’ Medeci by Jacobo Carucci. Gabrielle is what one might call “belle laide” in French: her unusual features, bordering on unattractive, are what constitute her beauty. Alessandro looks as if he broke his nose in a brawl; the coarseness of his face combined with the softness of the painting make the young Medeci indescribably sexy.

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My penchant for unbalanced faces made me wonder if people in general find them more attractive, so I did some research (read: went on-line) and found that I’m a weirdo: perfection is preferred to imperfection (duh). Symmetric faces are perceived as more honest, more desirable, prettier, and healthier. One crackpot study even said that people with symmetric faces had orgasms more often! Doesn’t Jean-Paul Sartre’s face combined with his endless womanizing effectively put the kabosh on that theory? I found blogs for people with asymmetrical faces. The posts of the symmetry-challenged are particularly poignant in that many of them say that no one else notices their “defect” and yet they hate their face; many are considering plastic surgery.

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However, it turns out that the truly symmetric face does not exist. The term chimeric face refers to a computer-generated mug of perfect harmony. The concept is simple: a photo is divided down the midline, the left or right of the face is copied, and then the two identical sides are combined to make a totally symmetric face. They are unsettling to look at, if not downright creepy. Certainly there are faces in paintings that look almost perfect and there are people (usually women) who look so good you want to eat them: William Adolphe Bouguereau’s ladies were described as if they were made out of whipped cream. Nevertheless, the practice of painting gives us (thank goodness) plenty of portraits celebrating imperfection. This is in part explained by the very nature of portraiture and painting. John Berger has pointed out that the closest we get to putting our best face forward is unfortunately in the bathroom when we look at the mirror: we automatically adjust our face in order to see ourselves as we wish to be seen. When a painter paints, the subject is disarmed, he is without this corrective prop: he is painted not as he sees himself but as how he appears to others.

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Finally, the act of painting is an act in time: the painter begins, continues, corrects (unless he is an impressionist and even they cheated!), and then, with any luck, finishes. The moment of painting one eye is unique from that of painting the other; one nostril is separated from the other not only by the columella but by brush strokes and time. Seen in this way it is logically impossible for a right eye to be an exact copy of the left (this impossibility in painting is not present in photography where the image of the sitter is mechanically and instantaneously reproduced).

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We are indebted to portraits that show perfection in imperfection. Indeed, they provide a great antidote to our world of Photoshop, airbrushing, Tom Cruise, and those cute little Manga faces. Maybe the craniofacial asymmetric bloggers could benefit from a visit to their local museum before they undergo plastic surgery?

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John Berger: “A Cloth Over the Mirror” in The Shape of a Pocket

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