While gathering resources for this project, I remembered some old drawings I had seen on the internet some years ago while puzzling out some character design or other: portraits of blended human and animal faces. A short search later turned up a number of those drawings, by 17th-century French artist Charles Le Brun:
Among his other studies, Le Brun was interested in physiognomy – the notion that the inner character of a person can be read through the outward appearance of their facial features and proportions. While we now know this to be a mistaken belief, in the 17th century physiognomy was still taken seriously as a scientific idea. As part of his lectures on the subject, Le Brun made these drawings exploring various animal faces and applying their metrics to human ones. His drawings follow on from similar ones made by Giovanni Battista Della Porta in the 16th century, which compared the character of various human faces to those of animal ones, but did not mix them to the same degree as Le Brun’s:
Of particular note for my research was this observation on both Le Brun and Della Porta’s approach to combining human and animal traits:
Assuming a fluid continuum between human and nonhuman animals, both in body and in soul, [Della Porta] freely used humanistic behaviour to characterise animals, and animalistic traits to explain the human. […] When Le Brun carefully fashioned human likenesses from the animals he had worked up from Boel, he also appears to have been positing a graphic continuum between human and nonhuman. (Cohen, 2010)
This was encouraging to me, because this is the same approach I take regarding of the anthropomorphism/zoomorphism issue. While as literary devices the two terms have differences, I don’t necessarily see them as mutually exclusive – it may well be that both can work together – i.e. animal symbolism can tell us about ‘human-ness’ at the same time as human aspects give relatable context for ‘animal-ness’.
One of our tutors raised the question whether this midpoint between human/animal is more or less unsettling than a fully animal head on a fully human body, like my fox-headed model. Initial impressions from my coursemates were that the midpoint is more unsettling – this potentially suggests that the more difficult it is to determine the predominance or human or animal traits, the more potentially disturbing such a hybrid face appears. However it may be worth exploring designs to determine if Le Brun-like faces really are the true midpoint on a human-to-animal scale – it is possible Le Brun’s faces are weighted closer to the human side of the scale, in which case the Uncanny Valley effect would account for part of the unsettling impression they make.
Additionally, this description of Le Brun’s drawings on the Louvre’s website gives me some clues for my ongoing research into the elements necessary to make a bestial face contain some relatable humanistic appeal:
The animals are drawn naturalistically, but with a search for expression that gives them “a marked element of human intelligence.” (Louvre)
The next part of my research will be into the relationship between emotion and expression, and how this relates to what an audience can empathise with – the above quote suggests I’m looking in the right direction.
CharlesleBrun.com (undated) The Physiognomic heads. Available at http://www.charleslebrun.com/site_anglais/album_physiognomonies_english.htm [Accessed 22 January 2017]
Cohen, S. R. (2010) Searching the animal psyche with Charles Le Brun. Annals of Science 67:3, 353-382. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033790.2010.488143 [accessed 22 January 2017]
Italian Ways (2015) Giovanni Battista Della Porta’s “De humana physiognomonia”. Available at http://www.italianways.com/giovanni-battista-della-portas-de-humana-physiognomonia/ [Accessed on 22 January 2017]
Louvre (undated) Relationship of the human figure with that of the lion. Available at http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/relationship-human-figure-lion [Accessed 22 January 2017]