Mastering Portraiture: Advanced Analyses of the Face Sculpted in Clay

by Meredith Bergmann

Mastering Portraiture: Advance Analysis of the Face Sculpted in Clay by Philippe and Charisse Faraut. New York: PCF Studios, Inc., 2009. 230 pages, nearly 600 photographs. 

An appreciation of this useful book has to begin with overlooking its title. The sculptor Philippe Faraut, who is highly skilled at rendering likenesses and teaches sculpture techniques and anatomy, has, with his wife, already published a very informative and comprehensive book, Portrait Sculpting (PCF Studios, 2004). In his introduction to the new book, he explains that their previous study, far from exhausting his desire to define the mastery of portraiture, led him to explore fields that “in appearance have very little to do with sculpting”: ethnology, physiognomy, micro-expressions for lie detection, forensic reconstruction and prosthetics. His students asked for more about “expression, aging, ethnicity and the techniques used to bring life to their work.”
Many young sculptors now wish to emulate the extraordinary verisimilitude achieved by the movie industry’s special effects workshops. This book can help them develop the skills to make lifelike expressions. The Farauts are gifted at classification, and their clear, direct instructions show how to render the effects of weight gain and loss, aging, gender and race, here sensitively called “ethnic specificity.” They cite Charles Cordier and Malvina Hoffman as inspirational sculptors of living “types” that transcend their classifications. There is no specific chapter on racial characteristics, and the words race and ethnicity are not even mentioned in the index, but the separate photographic “sculpture index” lists the ancestry of the models. It is unusual to find a book that so well and matter-of-factly shows how to analyze individuals by comparison with types.
Useful technical details include how to time sessions with a model, how to work from photographs while avoiding photographic distortion, and many subtleties based on Faraut’s knowledge of anatomy. In one spread, he explains the effect of the lacrymal gland on the shape of the volume below the eyebrow, with an illustration and six photographs of his work. Faraut is worth watching in action—he sells videos of his performances of exercises in which he re-works a face with compelling facility into a different face. In this book, ten pages of photographs capture a tour-de-force in which Faraut models and re-models the same female portrait bust from birth to age eighty. Because his emphasis in this portrait was on the effects of aging rather than, as in other exercises, transformations from one emotional expression to another, the baby’s/girl’s/woman’s portrait is relatively straightforward, subdued, dignified and lovely.
The chapter that explains how facial expressions are achieved at a muscular level is excellent, and the examples are skillful and revealing. It is here, however, that Mastering Portraiture fails to achieve mastery, as classification descends into formulaic simplification. In their introduction to this chapter, the Farauts write: “In the world of portraiture, whether it be painting or sculpture, there is a long history of struggle and frustration when it comes to facial expression. If we look at the sum of all the portraits left to us from the earliest representation of the face in art history, there is a very small percentage that exhibits an expression of some sort and even less that show a strong, recognizable, unambiguous expression.” Facial expression is described as a universal “three-dimensional language.” The authors assert: “In theory, it means that all we have to do is learn what the combination of volumes is for a particular expression and recreate it in clay.”
Facial expressions have long been sorted out into six or seven basic emotions: Fear, Anger, Happiness/Joy, Contempt/Disgust, Surprise and Sadness. From these can supposedly be derived all the nuances of the easily recognized, common human expressions of love, compassion, interest, boredom and guilt. No artist who loves life more than skill should take these categories—or the existence of categories—seriously. It’s impossible to read a how-to book by an artist that is so amply and exclusively illustrated with pictures of his work, and not respond to that work itself. The skills that Faraut has mastered and is sharing lead to one kind of virtuosity, but we do well to remember that the greatest figurative art involves an expressiveness that cannot be easily reduced to expressions. The Farauts suggest that a portrait with an expression that is not readily identifiable is impassive and an impassive portrait is not only a failure of knowledge, technique and courage but a missed opportunity to see into and portray the sitter’s soul. They argue that “it is worth the effort to become skilled at this task since even the most beautifully executed likeness will not trigger an emotion in the viewer if it is blank. It could be admired for its technical accuracies, but little else.”
This requirement of “strong, recognizable, unambiguous expression,” supported by the artist’s own works, in which extremely simple expressions flirt with clichés, would seem to disqualify from “mastery” many of figurative art’s greatest achievements. It would be a pity to overlook Houdon’s marvelously restrained portrait busts Robert Fulton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and particularly his Voltaire, whose tight, lopsided smile combines elements of amusement and chagrin and whose eyes seem both wary and avid. In painting, the Farauts’ idea would deny us the fascinating faces of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath and Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. Aristotle’s face shines with his thoughts, and even the bust of Homer, though largely concealed by facial hair (well-covered in the Farauts’ Chapter 6), has an expression on his brow that is reflected in Aristotle’s. These faces are not expressing easily describable emotions, but they are expressive and evoke deep and meaningful reactions in the viewer.
The authors admit: “It is also possible that a certain level of aesthetic can be lost with the depiction of strong facial expressions.” This level of aesthetic is a profound one. There are a number of sculptures in this book that are inadvertently grotesque, and many that are acutely sentimental. Faraut’s highly finished, highly detailed portraits, in general, work too hard and give too much information, stifling the viewer’s imagination and curiosity about the subject. The emotions he captures are too recognizable. The danger in portraying formulaic emotions is that one will make kitsch, a parody of aesthetic experience, rather than art.
Faraut’s sculptures are sometimes very effective. There is a hint of something more powerful and less realistic when an expression of Stern Disdain is pushed over the top into caricature in The Art Critic, perhaps the most honestly passionate sculpture in the entire book. But there are problems with the Farauts’ chapter on Style, which covers busts modeled in the styles of Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Middle Eastern, Classical Greek and European Romantic, Classical Roman, Italian Renaissance, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American (a 3-D Gibson Girl), thus skipping safely over Rodin, Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi. A single portrait is remodeled in four different styles, including one dubbed “twenty-first-century American.” This chapter ends with two full-page photos. On the left is a sculpture of a girl’s face turned far to one side, looking coquettishly out from under an ill-fitting pharaoh’s headdress. Her gesture and wavy, twenty-first-century American hair are incongruous. On the opposite page, a young woman with strong features and a sensuous pout stares out as if in defiance of her costume or chrysalis or calyx—a rather graceless abstract sculptural form. Both are exquisitely photographed examples of kitsch.
The Farauts have also worked as commercial sculptors of dolls, figurines and prototypes for animation. One might have hoped for a creative cross-fertilization between the world of sculpture and the world of toys, but a look at the facial expression of today’s “art dolls” shows that they, like most of these portraits, supply too many answers too fast. When they were first marketed, G.I. Joe and Barbie didn’t have what one might, after reading this book, call an expression, but they were coveted toys, perfect for play, for the projection of fantasy and for impassively surviving any punishment that play might involve. Action figures now come with an attitude, a script and a lot of equipment, as does Barbie. Art dolls are not toys but “collectibles,” something a grown-up buys and possesses, perhaps even as an investment—like art. Even the Farauts’ mastery of clichés is in doubt. They warn us: “The proportion and position of the nose is perhaps the first landmine on the path to a good likeness. If its size is not exact, it will start a chain reaction that may ruin the work. The nose is the anchor….” The introduction ends with this: “The deeper I go in my research of the face, the more I find to study and say. It seems to be a bottomless pit of wonder.” Perhaps the cliché Faraut was searching for is “an inexhaustible spring.” Buy this book, study the authors’ formulations and put it away when your model arrives.
Mastering Portraiture has an excellent bibliography, which includes Eliot Goldfinger’s 1991 Human Anatomy for Artists and Bruno Lucchesi’s 1996 Modeling the Head in Clay. Goldfinger’s book is an essential companion to this one, as he has a 42-page section on facial muscles and expressions, illustrated with photographs of living models with very mobile faces. They are the raw material from which a sculptor might more comfortably work, without a head full of another sculptor’s images. Lucchesi’s book, a classic, follows the creation of one ideal head and sets it, with a few images of his other sculptures, within the context of his work’s generous humanism, so that one may see what all his skill was for.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2