Faces in Our Minds

A mountain in The Marche, Italy, with Mussolini's "profile" indicated

Humanity’s existence is so dependent on recognizing faces that our visual system specializes in it, reserving a large proportion of the brain’s neurons solely for that purpose. Amazingly we can even recognize a person in profile when we have only ever seen them from the front. The brain stores a vast amount of information about faces. The fun begins, though, when that part of the visual system continues to work even when no real faces are present. In fact, our visual system is so face-focussed that it allows us to “see” faces almost anywhere. Take a bath and you can even imagine a face in the two faucets/taps as “eyes looking at you” from the other end of the tub with the circular drain below as “an open mouth.” Someone made a book of photographs out of objects like that.

As a city resident I seldom see nature. Out in the Arizona desert for the past ten days I saw giant boulders and rock formations, many resembling faces, parts of faces or even animals. Indeed the multiplicity of forms in nature ensure that face-forms lurk everywhere. We are not talking about a photographic-like reproduction of a face with all features visible. No, our minds pick out certain facial landmarks (perhaps eyes, nose, lips or chin) allowing themselves, as is their wont, to fill in the missing parts. A hill in Italy always had the profile of a face in its contours, chiselled a bit more in the mid-20th century to make it closer to Mussolini's (above). Similarly, Camelback Mountain, a hill in Phoenix, has two summits resembling a camel’s two humps. For thousands of years people have been able to see animals, objects and faces in nature’s forms. Table Mountain behind Cape Town is flat like a table. Why should we be so surprised then if artists, like Leonardo, Dürer, PoussinCorot, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and Balthus, painted “faces” in nature? Leonardo – in the world’s earliest extant independent landscape – made a “face” out of the hill facing us. Why would he do that? To indicate that the scene is a mental image of material reality formed through his imagination, not a copy of the physical view itself. Indeed in forming a face out of the landscape the artist produces a scene far more like how our visual systems actually view a landscape than a camera does. The camera merely records physical features within a specific band of wavelengths; our minds view nature with our imaginations at work. So does an artist’s to an even greater extent. Art lovers should use theirs too.

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