Statesman, poet, criminal, slave – could you tell who was who and which was which if you were simply presented with photographs of four different people? You would have a guess, trying to discern tell-tale traces which might reveal clues as to personality traits and lives lived. Of course, you’d actually hope to get it wrong – for it’s as much a truth that “thus is his cheek the map of days outworn”, in Shakespeare’s words, as it is that we’re all comfortable wearing our faces as masks to conceal our inner workings. The face may betray our age, health and general weathering, but it never reveals the whole picture.
This has always intrigued scientists, as has the desire to read the external features as a peculiar barometer of human intellect, will and emotion. Phrenology, the late 18th century study partner of Physiognomy, sought to demonstrate this supposed “connection between the faculties of the mind and organs in the brain”. This science of lumps and bumps was defined in Webster’s Dictionary c 1900 as “the physiological hypothesis that mental faculties, and traits of character, are shown on the surface of the head or skull”. You’ve probably encountered a phrenology bust or skull, with its carefully delineated areas deemed to correspond to emotional faculties such as “secretiveness”, “amativeness”, “combativeness” and “alimentiveness”.
It would be disingenuous to deny that Phrenology as a discipline itself was not two-faced, and Joanna Kane’s study of phrenologists’ life and death masks does not shy from holding up the mirror. The phrenological mask was one of a range of emergent technologies in the early 19th century concerned with the understanding of and documentation of “social types”. The social distinction of Kane’s “sitters” is however, concealed by these photographs, their “faces” made to look essentially similar – poised, elegant, in deep repose, eyes and mouths closed. In this way, Kane’s apparently innocent, exquisite images would seem to reflect subtly and intelligently upon the double-edged history from which they arose: Phrenology’s efforts towards creating a democratisation of knowledge engendered a psychological reductionism which later led to it being deployed to justify racism and social engineering. A terrible example of this occurred in the 1930s, when colonial authorities in Rwanda used Phrenology to justify the alleged superiority of the Tutsis over the Hutus, thus reportedly laying the groundwork for the genocide of 1994.
Phrenology cannot cast off this awful legacy, yet the objects and ephemera of this disabused science remain like archaeological relics awaiting their own pardon and laying to rest.
Kane’s photographs of a number of phrenological masks from the 300 or so remaining from an extensive collection (of over 2,500) from the Edinburgh Phrenological Society sought to create lifelike images through which we might – almost tangibly – explore the faces she focuses on here. Some are famous, some not: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Keats, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and painters David Wilkie and Jacques-Louis David hover almost transcendentally alongside the unnamed, untitled and the criminal – oh, and there’s a Russian princess, too.
Yet, Kane’s subjects become somehow one and the same, all reduced to beauty, their triumphs, talents, wealth or wrongdoing levelled to an ethereal, almost holographic, presence. Highly stylised, the lighting is staged to conceal the distinguishing features of the sitters and whitewash away any differences we might be keen to perceive; to force us to play exactly that guessing game of who’s who, or rather, who did what to whom.
A compendium of thumbnails in the back details each mask and its wearer. So you do finally find out who was the slave, who the phrenologist, who the metaphysical poet and who the 14-year-old boy who killed a fellow 13-year-old for the sum of nine shillings.