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Memory, Identity, and Portrait-Images

22 May 2010 19,476 views 2 Comments

In the late 1920’s, René Magritte shared an epiphany with the world: for all of his photorealistic magic, all of his paintings were merely two-dimensional representations of life.  Nothing he painted would ever leap off the canvas into three-dimensional space.  Strangely, he seems less distressed than tickled by his realization of artistic limitation.  This isn’t a pipe! he crows as he gleefully whisks the rug out from under our feet.  Or at least… it’s not really a pipe.  (Here he backpedals a bit).  I mean it is in a sense… but just… as a visual representation of a pipe. (Arms propped on hips) That’s not the same at all! I mean—you can’t smoke it, can you?

Twenty-three centuries earlier, Plato had essentially the same lightbulb moment.  “Images are treacherous!” he decides, bringing his own set of household evidence to bear on the problem: “Beds are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them (he counts on his fingers): God… the maker of the bed… and the painter.”  Continuing to muse: “So God is the super-artisan, making the form-of-the-good Bed (something pricy and mahogany, no doubt).  Running a close second is the bed-maker, who crafts real (rather than theoretical) furniture for real (rather than theoretical) people.”  Here he pauses with distaste.  “But the painter’s bed is a mere shadow of bedness—third-order mimesis on a woefully inadequate two-dimensional plane.”  Plato’s implications are clear: even the most beautiful of the painted beds (and Magritte has quite a few to choose from) is inferior to the worst of the real, three-dimensional beds (case in point: the hastily-assembled purple LEIRVIK bought on steep discount at Ikea.  At least it sleeps two and has storage compartments).

So.  The ceci n’est pas crew has thrown down a hefty gauntlet: do faux-pipe, faux-bed images have value or weight in our living world of bodies and motion?

I’m going to use portrait-images to answer that question, perhaps by starting with a few counter-queries of my own.  Why do babies love mirrors?  Why do lovelorn teens destroy photos after breakups?  Why do facebookers cache reams of personal pictures (painstakingly tagging each one)?  What’s up with effigies?  Art historian E.H. Gombrich poses us a related thought-experiment: imagine yourself opening a newspaper and finding an image of your favorite public figure.  Easy enough.  Now, imagine yourself picking up a pin and stabbing it into the ‘eyes’ of the (wo)man represented.  More difficult, I would hope.  Gombrich describes his own feeling of empathy for the portrait-image: “However well I know with my waking thoughts that what I do to his picture makes no difference to my friend or hero, I still feel a vague reluctance to harm it.  Somewhere there remains the absurd feeling that what one does to the picture is done to the person it represents.”  The implied principle seems to be this: the world of the picture-plane and our world of existence just don’t seem all that far apart.  We know that portrait images are not flesh and blood.  (Thanks Magritte, we figured that one out for ourselves.)  Perhaps, though, they’re the next best thing—offshoots of selfhood, little agents of us-ness that carry our names outside of ourselves into the world at large.  If the individual is the nucleus, his images form a corona around him.  This relationship is intuitive.  Of course we don’t stab out Barack Obama’s ink-dot eyes; of course we purge ourselves of spurned love by expunging its visual fingerprints; of course Dad is filming this piano recital in three different digital media.  The common thread compelling all of these situations is that strange, instinctive homology between the individual and images that capture his likeness.  We interact with images because they form a bridgeway to other people and ourselves, a bridgeway that transcends both space and time.

For the ancients, this sense of kinship between portrait and portrayed was upgraded to a relationship of almost-perfect equivalence.  In Mesopotamia (~2500 BCE), the great Temple of Inanna was peopled with wide-eyed stone figurines who stood in attendance to the goddess. Like lightning rods, those little maquettes were made to channel the great power of divine favor directly to their human counterparts.  With their meek handclasps and luminous owl-eyes, these perpetual worshippers functioned on behalf of their pious donors’ souls, giving them the freedom to live non-ascetic secular lives.

Portrait-images in Egypt, beginning around the same time, were produced on the same assumption of equivalence.  In this case, the function was primarily funerary rather than devotional: whether crafted from plebian terracotta or imperial diorite, a man’s portrait-statue served as the posthumous home for his ka (animating spirit) to reside.  Statues had a great and terrible responsibility—those constructs of earth and stone anchored souls to the world, preventing their dissipation and loss.  No wonder the great god-emperors used such formidably hard rock for their portraits—it would be a terrible faux pas for the deity-on-earth to lose his lofty spirit to erosion.

In the Roman republican era, this ‘perpetuation of memory’ theme was a fundamental concern of the patrician family-cult.  First gambit: the living generation honors and worships their ancestors who stay ‘alive’ through their presence in the lives of the living. Classicist Eric Varner refers to this act of remembrance a sort of afterlife.  In return, the ancestors’ renown galvanizes the younger generation to greater glory in the family name.  After all, the family screwups and black sheep don’t make it into the record books—they’re denied remembrance, that trump card on death accorded to their more-illustrious relatives.

The ancestral portrait-image serves as the locus point for this intergenerational rite, both in the creation of ancestral death masks (imagines) for permanent display within the household as well as the lavish funerary procession that followed each new death in the family.  Because these visual representations were homologous to the individuals they depicted, they served as a means to directly honor (therefore preserving) the ancestral spirit.  Funerary portraiture was the integral vehicle of praise: tribute paid to an ancestral portrait was directly transferable to the spirit of the man himself.  How did this work, exactly?  All of the imagery employed during the funeral procession was geared towards reanimating the images, treating them as living beings to bring them back to life.  Each new procession was a cue not only to celebrate the newly-deceased man, but for the family to trot out all of the ancestors and re-venerate them in one fell swoop.  The intent of the procession was to make it seem “as if the ancient dead had returned to earth.”  The ancestors supplied their faces (the imagines, funeral masks made at the time of their death); the life was supplied by real, living bodies: men who wore the masks and the curule garb which would denote their high rank (the funerary procession was a patrician affair).  With this setup, the procession began—a work of family-cult theater intended to stage the afterlife in the corporal world.

Revivification: A Drama in Five (Rather Synchronic) Acts

Act I: Orienting the bodies

During the honorary funeral procession, the body of the deceased himself was most commonly ‘conspicuous in an upright posture.’  The dead man would be dressed to the nines in his finest toga and accouterments and paraded through the streets.  Meanwhile, the masked and costumed representatives of his curule ancestors were enthroned on the ivory chairs that denoted their elite magisterial ranks.  Though slightly less mobile than your average hero-popstar-demigod-conquering general (other notable recipients of parades), the upright figure of the deceased and the seated images of his ancestors occupied space as they did in life—proud, autonomous, regal… almost lifelike.

Act II: The Processional

Continuing the parallel between representation and reality, the deceased and his ancestral representatives were borne high above the streets in classy chariots, accompanied by all the emblems of their elite rank (a la homecoming queen and court).

Act III: Proclamations

Appropriate, I think, for the climax-point of the processional, this stage is the auditory exception to what has heretofore been a largely visual spectacle.  The ritual of speech-making made manifest the reanimating sentiments driving the event.  According to Polybius, “he who makes the oration over the man about to be buried, when he has finished speaking of him, recounts the successes and exploits of the rest whose images are present, beginning with the most ancient.”  Explaining the implications of this auditory program, he states that “by this means… the celebrity of those who did noble deeds is rendered immortal.”  With every new addition to the family crypt, each familial great man received a fresh eulogy, a renewed exposure to the minds and memories of his living successors.

Act IV: Coming Home

Depositing the portrait-image in its final resting place capped the honorary public performance.  After the stately funeral procession and the interment of the deceased, the family brought home the imagines of departed and ancestors and deposited them in a wooden shrine within the house.  This shrine, couched in a conspicuous part of the household, allowed the ancestral imagines a prominent place in the daily visual fabric of the living family, a sort of pantheonic throne from which to rule the cult of kinship.

Act V: Transcending Time

I suppose my paradigm of the five-act drama has been a bit disingenuous—this last element is no denouement, but rather a jumping-off point.  The honorary funeral rites mentioned above—image orientation, mode of carriage, auditory component, and final destination—are all elements of the procession, occurring within a fixed timeline on the day of the ceremony.  The final, most integral aspect of ancestor-veneration—the imago or commemorative portrait-head—transcends this timeline, remaining a daily fixture within the household until the family line itself dies out.  Enjoying pride of place within the family shrine, these simple wax masks with their remarkable fidelity of feature were the only permanent element of the elaborate funeral celebration, returning home from each ceremony to be placed back on display within the house.  All the other accouterments of the procession—fasces, curule chairs, and insignia-emblazoned togate bodies—were ephemeral costumes, worn only for the duration of the day’s rites.

The assertion that the face/head is central to the Roman funerary cult may seem to negate the mechanisms described earlier, which required full and lavish representations of the body to achieve their full honorific effect.  Clothed in majestic magisterial togas, these bodies were striking assertions of republican power and civic service.  Was this rich display less important than the humble wax imagines?  Why were only the imagines preserved?  Perhaps what’s at work is the face-body dichotomy that characterizes so much of Roman portraiture.  In this schema, the face is unique to the man portrayed, serving to indicate personal identity in naturalistic, lifelike terms.  The body, in contrast, is an indicator of social identity, outfitted in the garb of the elite and accompanied by appropriate symbols of rank.  These two forms of identity—personal and social—coalesce in life but disaggregate in death.  In life, the individual is born with a unique personal identity and matures into a typified social role (a patron, a magistrate).  He brings his personal identity to the grave, but the social identity is generic and nonstransferable.  Eventually he must cede it to his successors.

The funeral procession posthumously recombined imago and toga, reuniting personal identity with social, and reanimating the dead in a stately promenade.  However, like life itself, that procession was ephemeral.  At its end, the ancestors again released their social personae and returned to the household shrine retaining only their individual, innate identities, encapsulated within the simple facial portrait.

Leaving the republican era and moving into the imperial, we see the same trend of the living interacting with the dead through portrait images.  Here, though, we won’t be looking at the honorific perpetuation of memory but rather the infamous damnatio memoriae (‘obliteration of memory’).  If honor was accorded to those whose portraits were readily visible, the opposite fate—shame and ignominy—were the desserts of those whose portraits were removed or destroyed.  To brutalize an image was to physically manifest abstractions such as disgrace and revenge.  Whereas the funeral procession consisted of a public parade of portraits designed to promote remembrance of the dead, the imperial obliteration of portraiture was intended to induce social amnesia, removing the memory of the condemned from the collective consciousness (Stalin’s purges operated on the same principle).  Ultimately, “the condemnation, damnation, or abolition of an individual’s memory is a posthumous destruction of his or her very essence or being.”  Memory being homologous to portrait image, the removal and destruction of such likenesses acted as direct blows to the spirit and social legacy of the deceased.

In the early years of the empire, a nascent form of the damnatio memoriae fulfilled its condemning function by simply removing the imago of the deceased man from any funerals in which it would usually have been present.  Ordered by senatorial decree, this state-sanctioned process implied the negation of the dishonored spirit through its conspicuous absence from the procession of its peers.  Given the potency of portrait images as vehicles of praise and commemoration, this snub accorded to the imago of a disgraced man would have been a striking mark of dishonor.  The fundamental principle behind this action of posthumous disgrace was the inversion of norms.  Standard funeral rites had established principles for displaying portrait images; the purpose of these typified actions was to praise and propagate the memory of the deceased.  By directly negating these norms, forbidding the display of a dead man’s imago, the proto-damnatio created a stark visual antonym: if exhibition meant honor, omission could only mean disgrace.

As the empire matured, the damnatio process evolved as well, although it continued to operate on the principle of norm-inversion.  Taking the language of praise, especially that typified in the traditional funeral procession, the damnatio systematically reversed it.  What was created was an orthogonal set of visual and methodological signs that became the standard language of blame.  The effectiveness of the damnatio lies in its subversive simplicity: what more effective way to create a vocabulary of dishonor than to take the existing lexicon of praise and turn it on its ear?  Rather than reinventing the wheel, damnatio set the existing one rolling in reverse.  If the family-cult procession was a somber sort of comedy, the damnatio perversely reverses its vocabulary of action into a profane kind of tragedy.

Act I: Orienting the Body (Throw it on the Ground)

Remember the dead man (rather eerily) ‘standing’ through his funeral procession as a last nod to his upright, dominant posture in life?  The damnatio process overturned this convention of body orientation as the crowd began its denunciation by toppling the statue of the condemned individual.  Think Saddam Hussein.  Lying in the dust, the statue of the dishonored dead was subordinated into a humiliating position that connoted defeat and death.

Act II: The Processional

Ancestral honorees at the funeral procession rode high above the street in chariots, preceded by all the emblems of their rank.  Statues of the damned were borne by chariots as well: dragged behind them like dishonored corpses, lying facedown between their wheels.  Often, this contempt accorded to the statue echoed the treatment received by the slain body it represented.  Blacklisted imperial enemies often went the way of Hector, battered in the dust beneath Achilles’ wheels.

Act III: Proclamations

… of jeering rage and dissatisfaction.  From hired claques to senatorial groups to the general mass of the crowd, all participated in chanting the damnatio.  During the later empire, the Senate’s chanting was systematized into a bastardized mimicry of praise-standards from the Theodosian Code.  By perverting the preexisting language of praise, such chants created an easily recognizable and effective language of blame; again, simply by reversing norms of praise and honor, the crowds conducting the damnatio created a standard idiom and practice of humiliation.

Act IV: Coming Home?

No indeed.  Comfortable interment and imago preservation being the province of the honored dead, statues which had undergone damnatio ended up thrown into waste pits, recut into new portraits, or simply warehoused and forgotten.  Whether a latrine or a neglected storeroom, these final destinations for portrait statues were the unmarked graves which relegated the former emperor or dignitary to ignominy and, ultimately, oblivion.  Often, the statue that had undergone damnatio underwent the treatment as the disgraced body it represented: “corpses ended up in the sewage system as with any other refuse.”

Act V: Losing Face

In its paradigm of honor-inversion, the damnatio focused its destructive activities on the images of the face.  The symbolism behind the mutilation is “the loss of identity,” and—for the same reason that the imago was the iconic ancestral image—this identity was most frequently associated with the unique features of the face.  Though the full-body statue was toppled, dragged, taunted, and eventually disposed of, specific and intentional mutilation was reserved for the facial features.

The iconic image of face-based damnatio memoriae is probably the tondo portrait of emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and their two children Caracalla and Geta.  It’s a fairly standard family portrait, the adults looking sweetly parental, imperial headdresses jauntily perched on their heads; young Caracalla gazes solemnly into the middle distance, all doe-eyes and long side-curls.  To his right, his younger brother Geta…oh wait.  He doesn’t have a face. When young doe-eyes ascended to the throne he took issue with co-ruling alongside his little sib and had him killed in a fit of pique.  Since fratricide wasn’t enough to efface Geta’s (apparently) threatening memory, Caracalla went through the corpus of family portraits and had his brother erased from each one.  In the case of the tondo portrait, this ‘erasing’ creates a tragicomic cognitive dissonance: the remnants of the happy family don’t square with angry childish scribblings where the fourth head should be.  Really Caracalla?  Are you a pouty two-year-old?

Apparently so.  In any case, the tondo portrait is an exemplary-if-rude specimen of the face-based thrust of the damnatio.  Mutilation and Transformation, by classicist Eric Varner, is a comprehensive study of surviving imperial images that bear evidence of damnatio memoriae.  Of all the full-body or extended-bust statuary, none show signs of intentional body-mutilation.  All, however, bear evidence of facial mutilation, transformation, or, more-rarely, decapitation.  Clearly the agents of damnatio did not need to destroy the body to destroy the memory of the man: because the governing source of personal identity was the head and facial features, the honorific body on its own had now specific meaning, purpose, or power.

The tondo portrait is not the only case of Geta getting short shrift from his paranoid and power-mad brother.  Another image to get the effacement treatment is a heroic portrait statue of the younger imperial son.  As future co-emperor, Geta is depicted with all of the imperial honors accorded to his rank: from the sculpted cuirass and sweeping military cloak to the martial hand gesture and barbarian underfoot, Geta’s regalia is clearly imperial.  The fate of the statue, however, negates this regal imagery.  Caught in the purges, the damage done to the statue conforms to the pattern mentioned earlier: Geta’s face was violently and entirely chiseled off of his head, leaving a gaping and gruesome shallow of marble where features should be.  His body is completely unharmed—although now ludicrous in its assertion of imperial might and military virtus.  Unlike the honorific funeral portraits in which the body is transient while the face remains, the only aspect of Geta’s statue that endures is his generic, typified body.  The portrait body accords military and imperial honor to its wearer.  However, because the face has been pried off, removing all signs of his individual character, there is no means of attributing the virtus portrayed by the body to Geta, its intended recipient.

So.  The evidence is in.  The question now is how these ancient mechanisms of praise and blame help us counter the Magritte/Plato insinuation of image falseness and irrelevance.  In the Roman context, the portrait image is a mediator of subtle semiotics, a locus through which the living may bequeath honor or shame upon the dead.  Let’s go back to Gombrich’s thought-experiment: the principle staying our hand from defacing the grainy black-and-white image is precisely the same principle compelling Caracalla’s scribbling rage. Portraits equal people, and that’s all there is to it.  That scratched-out face on the family portrait would be mere petty silliness if Geta’s graven image didn’t have real significance in their shared world.

I propose a new model, then, to counter all the foregoing talk of pipes and beds.  Because household items have cornered the market on the nature-of-reality debate, let’s look to Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.  It’s a simple piece: a straight-backed wooden chair—a tangible, sit-worthy one—flanked by an image of itself on the right and the dictionary definition of chair to its left.  The object, Kosuth concedes, is not the same as its images.  The central, physical chair is the One underscored in the title of the piece (nod to Magritte here).  However, the whole trinity forms a greater unit, necessary to our complete understanding of chairness.  Those Three—image, object, and verbal understanding of the concept—sum into our conceptualization of…whatever it is we’re dealing with.  It could be chairs, it could be newspaper clippings, it could be prom photos, or (if we’re elite Romans) it could be ancestral images and prefigurations of the life after death.  The province of the artist is not the creation of new life—that’s the work of God, or biology.  Rather, the artist’s role is to reframe understanding within the already-existing world of flesh-and-blood.  His image-based subjunctive reframes and expands upon the simple indicative of worldly fact, contributing richness, color, and complexity to the day-to-day syntax of our lives.

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  • http://walshteam.ca Bill

    I definitely can connect with this passage…

    “…However well I know with my waking thoughts that what I do to his picture makes no difference to my friend or hero, I still feel a vague reluctance to harm it. Somewhere there remains the absurd feeling that what one does to the picture is done to the person it represents.”

    Obviously that is not going to be the case with everyone, but I think it resonates true with anyone that conforms to a certain level of decency and respect for others. It also could perhaps be linked to Karma in that what you send out into the world comes back to you, regardless of whether you act on a thought or not.

  • http://www.gatwickhotelswithparking.com Steve

    Great post Jackie, Your speech making paragraph I found interesting. Its funny how they felt the ritual of speech-making made manifest the reanimating sentiments driving the event. We surely have the same thoughts now by ‘keeping memories alive’ and so forth…