Face Value?

Time to mingle with the visitors, to watch them stand back, take in the artwork—and read those captions. During the past few months, I have been involved in putting together an art exhibition at the local university. It all started last October. I was given the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in writing informative and interpretive texts for museums: labels, text panels, promotional material. The class was designed as a workshop. So, rather than just theorizing about such matters as readability and legibility or analyzing prose styles and target audiences, my students and I were faced with the challenge of curating a show. That show, Face Value, is on display and open to the public until 30 March 2012 at the School of Art, Aberystwyth.  It features works on paper (watercolors, etchings, drawings) by artists as diverse as cover girl Gertrude Hermes, Edward Burne-Jones, Fernand Léger, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Simeon Solomon, William Strang, Stuart Pearson Wright, and Keith Vaughan.  Here is the introductory panel greeting guests at the private view tonight:

‘It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us,’ the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked. Face Value encourages such chance encounters.  Many of these works on paper from the School of Art collection are presented here for the first time.  Most have never been shown side by side.

This themed exhibition explores various acts of reading: our interpretation of facial features, our attempts to work out the relationships between appearances and mental or emotional states, between character and physical characteristics, as well as between artist, sitter and ourselves.

In 1868, Charles Darwin conducted an experiment to demonstrate that humans have a universal set of facial expressions. An anatomist stimulated a subject’s facial muscles with electrodes to elicit expressions of anxiety, sadness, and joy. He then took a series of photographs with which Darwin presented guests at a dinner party, inviting them to guess the subject’s emotional state. Are our responses predictable? Are faces quite this easy to read?

Face Value is itself the product of an experiment. It was conceived in a classroom, in workshops designed to debate or refute the value of interpretive texts written for museums. Do we look at and judge a self-portrait of a named artist as we do an anonymous, faceless study of a head? Does knowledge about artist or sitter influence our appreciation? What is the curator’s role in aiding or informing our ‘encounter’ with works of art?

‘Who sees the human face correctly,’ Picasso asked, ‘the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?’ Our various guides to interpretation are meant to suggest that there is no ‘correct’ reading and that works of art cannot be taken at face value.

At face value, this is just another art exhibition; but many of the texts on the wall would not read or sound the way they do had I not learned from listening to and reading about radio how to keep sentences simple, short and clear.  It is a lesson I am still learning … and worth learning it is.  Especially for curators.

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