Why are there so many heads in modern art? Watching from behind tin in Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, wobbling through Wonderland with Charles Blackman, knitting socks in Grace Cossington Smith’s living room — the modernist canon is a veritable game of Guess Who.
Not only do heads dominate modern art, they appear in ways contrarian to the history of portraiture. These heads are blurry, flat, bulbous, ugly, anonymous, plebeian, personal, grand, pretty and small. They are not the regal imitations (or elevations) of reality that traditional portraiture is known for. Indeed, the modern head serves a different function, spurs from a different context.
Let’s go face to face with the modernist head.
What is human nature?
At the turn of the twentieth century, the West underwent several colossal changes. Two world wars, a Great Depression and unprecedented technological innovation threw the very boundaries of human existence into flux. Artists, many of whom served at war, became acutely aware of the darker sides of human nature. Idealised portraits of the noblesse no longer seemed satisfying nor relevant.
In their place, a more ambivalent portraiture emerged. Anne Marie Hall for example, proffers images of the unconscious. She is more interested in a psychological likeness, a soul over a surface truth. Even in works with a more traditional portrait structure, Hall’s fascination with what lies beneath seeps forth; no matter polite company, she is intent on eyeing the truth.
Draw what you know
During the twentieth century, artists became increasingly interested in capturing their intimate worlds. When all else is in disarray, it makes sense to take stock of what’s near — friends, family, neighbours, the self.
In his early monotypes, Charles Blackman tries to clasp fleeting impressions. His delicate faces, wrought from people in his immediate world, seem preoccupied with something invisible. They speak to an artist in the throes of change. Then only in his mid-twenties, Blackman had just crashed onto the art scene with his Schoolgirl series.
This series spoke to the anxieties of youth, urbanisation and modernity, as well as Blackman’s own experience of alienation. In this way, his ghostly monotypes can be read as an attempt to connect, a document of the fragility inherent in any proffering to know another. Strangely enough however, there can be company in recognising loneliness.
Beyond skin deep
Core to the modernist project was a reevaluation of art itself. Artists wanted to throw light on the very syntax of image-making: the canvas’s flatness, the paint’s artificiality, the subjective artist’s eye. If the goal of the Renaissance was mimesis through artistry, the modernists wanted to rip back the velvet curtain.
With this in mind, unrealistic or abstracted modern heads are not evidence of laziness nor a lack of talent. Sidney Nolan’s flat heads are visual reminders that everything, even people themselves, are subject to construction. His Ned Kelly, reduced to a rudimental symbol, is a metaphor for mythmaking itself. We do not see history clearly: we see it through paintings, words, photographs and feelings, we build it from future perspectives.
At heart, the abundance of heads in modern art reflects a profound interest in humans. There is a curiosity and despair in this interest, a wealth of knowledge alongside an awareness we can only ever know so much. In an encounter with the other, we often glimpse ourselves — who do you see? The past, present or future?