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Heads and Headlessness. Essay by Stefanie Hessler


Heads and Headlessness

By Stefanie Hessler

The head is a particularly popular body part amongst artists, art historians and spectators alike. Antique busts are often the only segments remaining of Greek and Egyptian sculptures, and promise a certain transcendence to past worlds. Just like death masks, they radiate an aura of proximity to their models, who continue to live through the mould. Let me take you on a brief and arbitrary journey around curiosities of the head and headlessness in art history and today.

The most emblematic if not to say famous head in art history may well be Nefertiti. Permanently exhibited as part of the collection of Neues Museum in Berlin, the bust of the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten from around 1353–1336 B.C. attracts more than one million visitors per year. Presented in its own wing of the museum, the aura of its presence is almost physically palpable. Not only do we see the bust of a beautiful woman, but her head seems like a passageway from presence to past; as if by looking her in the astute eyes (of which only the right one is preserved), we could depart from our experience today and reach something else that once was.Today, Nefertiti’s head is also representative of Egypt’s seeking for restitution of its archaeological heritage, and the post-colonial discourse around this debate.

A peculiar anecdote I was told when I visited city hall in Stockholm a couple of years ago may prove the importance of the head and its auratic potential. Around 1920, Einar Forseth was commissioned to design a wall mosaic of Sankt Erik (king of Sweden in the 12th century) in the Golden Hall of the building. While implementing the task however, he either committed a grave miscalculation or simply did not want to obey to the order. The design he made for the mosaic was too big to fit the wall, which nobody realised until it was almost completed.The workers had started tessellating from below, and after they had worked their way up to the ceiling, covering the entire wall in precious stones, they realised that a part of the picture would not fit. As the king was supposed to sit above everyone else, there wasn’t enough space on the wall for his head. By this point, it would have been too costly and time consuming to change the work, so the mosaic stayed the way it was, with the decapitated king still overseeing the hall today.

Another art historical classic of headlessness is “Salome With the Head of John the Baptist” painted amongst others by Caravaggio in 1607. The painting depicts Salome, who – after she danced before her father for his birthday and was promised to be granted any wish she might have – asked to receive the head of John the Baptist on a silver plate. The brutal masterpiece speaks of morality, revenge and lust for power narrated in the biblical event. Whereas the king of Sweden and John the Baptist were beheaded, other art historical creatures have too many heads. One of them is Hydra; for each head that was cut off the snakelike multi-headed monster from Greek mythology, two new ones grew back.

And then of course there are the masks, famously worn in the Venetian carnival, but also by indigenous cults. Covering the face renders its wearer less accessible, and anonymity allows for a certain freedom of behaviour (think of the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”). At the same time, as is always the case when things are hidden, they immediately become more interesting and attract our curiosity or even invoke eroticism. My fa- vourite examples are the masks worn during Areté Guazúheldin Santa Teresitain Paraguay every year to celebrate the harvest season and in honour of the Guarani ancestors. The colourful headgear allows humans to transcend their mundane existence, and proves the special status the human face and head have in almost all cultures.

From the 15th century, when artists stopped working exclusively for the church and the court, a rightful obsession with self-portraits started. An attempt to place the artist in the limelight and a manic urge to document and control ones features and their transformation over time, self-portraits are a further manifest of the auratic dimension that adheres to the head. A few weeks ago I saw an exhibition by Ferdinand Hodler at Fondation Beyeler in Basel, in which an entire room was dedicated to his self-portraits. The paintings have a fascinating presence and seem as if he was examining his features in a dissect- ing manner: How does a facial expression change over time, and what does the artist’s head tell us in relation to his or her condition and the context of the works produced at a time?

By depicting the head, or rather skull, death and demise have been thematised throughout art history. Vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries by artists like Pieter Claesz prominently displayed the human skull next to burnt down candles and other symbols of mortality such as rotten fruit. Referring to this tradition, Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills” depicts a ram’s skull with large horns floating above a Southwestern American landscape, and a hollyhock flower hovering above it on the left.While the hollyhock is often used to represent female fertility, the skull can be read as a masculine symbol, commonly associated with death and evil. O’Keeffe is perceived as a feminist artist and her employment of the masculine transcendental Vanitas symbolism may well be read as a sceptical act. A contemporary allegory to evanescence is Damien Hirst’s notorious “For the Love of God” (2007). Hirst’s hundred million dollar human skull covered with diamonds is often used to exemplify the recent boom of the art market; the sales price exceeds the material value of the diamonds by more than three times, and the fetish of the real human skull is related to the authenticity question of the original artwork.

A long way from death and diamonds, one of my favourite works dealing with the human head is Bruce Nauman’s video “Raw Material with Continuous Shift – MMMM” from 1991. While the artist’s head is spinning around upside down, he monotonously mumbles “Mmmm.” The turning speed is dizzyingly fast that standing before it, one directly relates to the bodily sensation caused by the spinning movement. At the same time physical and psychotic, it is a contemporary self-portrait that invites the viewer to relate to the work, yet never permitting us to fully identify with it.

This article was published in our Head Piece Issue (Spring 2013). The writer, Stefanie Hessler is a curator based in Sweden and Germany. Recent exhibitions include“LoveTriangle” at the Goethe-Institut & Instituto Cervantes, Stockholm; “Thinking and Speaking” at Galerie Nordenhake, Stockholm and “The Return of the Object” at Invaliden1, Berlin (all 2013). Hessler holds an MA in Curating Art from Stockholm University, and a BA from Zeppelin University in Germany. During 2013, she will be part of “Máquina de Escrever” at Capacete, Sao Paulo.