Physiognomy

Messerschmidts Heads
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “heads”

In the late 80’s I wrote an awful essay for my Media teacher at Camborne Tecnhical College. There was no internet to speak of back then so I relied upon the books in the limited library for research. Most of the books seemed to be related to mining and farming. In the art section there was a book which mentioned the the long discredited science of physiognomy. I included a line or two about it in my essay, mainly for the obscure sound of the word. Using peoples features to identify aspects of their personality seems to be what people do. It seemed intuitive which is probably why it became an avenue for scientific racism before being rightly discredited. Judging people by their looks turned out not to be a science but just another example of cultural bias.

Not long after I saw an exhibition of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “heads”. Messerschmidt and his oddness are described by Friedrich Nicolai in the Paris Review. The exhibition was in a former night-club in Londons, Pall Mall (Pell-Mell as my Granny called it). The floors and walls were lined with textured black rubber. Messerschmidt’s gurning heads were like the venue, remarkable and strange. The exhibition blurb mentioned physiognomy in relation to the work of this crazy bloke. Maybe the artists self portraits as he pulled faces indicated his utter madness?

Nowadays science has moved on… or perhaps not. Facial recognition has fired up the imaginariums of nerdly psychonauts. Algorithms judging people by their physique; their shifty eyes or their skin colour. Physiognomy continues to stumble in a quagmire of truths and lies.