For Portraits and Selfies: A Case of Monkey See, Monkey Not-Quite-Do

Portraits and Selfies Re-enactment of famous Art

Emotions can be as contagious as Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean the facial expressions are easy to capture when art devotees around the world use their imaginations in wonderful ways to recreate famous works of art at home. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles have gotten into the act, encouraging art lovers to re-stage famous art works. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/museum-asking-people-remake-famous-artworks-with-household-items-180974546/  But no entity has surpassed a Facebook group, started in Russia, that boasts over half a million art re-enactors. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/25/world/europe/russia-Facebook-art-parodies.html  If you’re a painter or photographer who does portrait work – or somebody who likes to pose for selfies and are interested in what your expressions reveal about your mood that day or your personality, over time – listen in. Here’s an opportunity to sharpen your skills or pose. For my book Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others, I surveyed participants on what they viewed as the signature, characteristic emotions of 173 celebrities. On average, they were right only about 35% of the time – meaning there’s no shame in failing to detect emotions well. Join the crowd. We’re all more likely to be Watson rather than Sherlock Holmes!

In terms of life imitating art, just how good are the re-enactors at capturing correct facial expressions? In truth pretty good, but not great. Above on the left side is “Salome” with the head of John the Baptist by the 17th-century Bolognese painter Guido Reni. On the right is that same painting’s recent staging by Aglaya Nikonorova and her husband, Alexander. What’s faithful to the original, in terms of the couple’s facial expressions? Both women have wide open eyes (anger, fear and surprise), pursed lips (anger) and a smirk on the left side of their mouths (contempt). So far, so good. But the original Salome also has a pouty, raised chin (indicating anger, sadness and disgust), whereas the imitation includes a raised left eyebrow, indicating an extra dose of fear and surprise. That difference is trifling, however, compared to John the Baptist’s head. In the original, the eyes are sunken in grief with a pool of wrinkles above them, and the eyebrows are raised, pushed out and pinched together above the nose. In the re-enactment John the Baptist appears to be taking a nap, with his face relaxed. Further reinforcing the difference, in the original John’s lips are slightly apart and pulled down, triggering the viewer to feel the horror of getting beheaded, and perhaps inducing a contagious tremble. In contrast, in the re-enactment John’s lips appear just as peaceful as his eyes. In short, it’s a matter of being close – but no cigar.

In simple terms, these are important take-aways about where and how people express their emotions on their faces whenever contemplating a portrait or selfie:

  • The upper face is the place for surprise and fear. When the eyes go wide and the eyebrows lift, we’re increasing our field of vision.
  • The area around the mouth reveals the like/dislike reactions best. Look for anger (tightening), disgust (contortions) or sadness (wincing especially).
  • The chin area never reveals any happiness. It’s best for wide-mouth surprise and fear, or a jutting chin for anger.

More re-enactments will be included in my virtual talk, sponsored by the Duluth Art Institute on Thursday, May 28that 3 p.m. The heart of the presentation, however, will be highlights from my recent art book First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art. It’s the biggest study ever done involving eye-tracking and art – plus facial coding of participants’ responses, in order to also know how they feel about what they’re specifically seeing. The event is free but you must register. Please go to https://www.duluthartinstitute.org/event-3843385/Registration

I’m Lovin’ It: Donald Trump Jr. & Russian Collusion

When your father often behaves like a child, the enfant terrible of the family, it’s got to do a number on your psyche. Then throw in for extra measure this same father all but publicly lusting after your striking sister (“If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . . .” being but one of many vulgar examples). Now you’re really in trouble. So it goes with Donald Trump Jr. in what has to be a fruitless attempt to secure the admiration and affection of a father mostly obsessed with himself. On a daily basis, Donald Trump Jr. shares with his father, Donald Trump, and his sister, Ivanka Trump, the family trait of scoring relatively high on disgust. (“It’s disgusting, it’s so phony” Donald Trump Jr. told CNN when asked about allegations that Russia was trying to help his father’s campaign.) But whereas the mostly confident, even cocky Ivanka also scores high on contempt, her older brother Donald Trump Jr. wavers instead in another direction emotionally speaking. Along with disgust, sadness is the other most distinct feeling he displays – though not to the extreme, endlessly-disappointed-in-failing-to-secure-universal-acclaim level of his dad, the president.

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Father and son often share the chin-raising version of disgust, but Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are likewise prone to the flared upper lip version of that same emotion.

All of this brings us around to the overshadowed son trying to bring home some sizzling bacon two months before CNN asked him about the Russia allegations. I’m talking of course about the now disclosed email trail that shows Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of getting some compromising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

June 3, 2016, 10:35 a.m. email to Donald Trump Jr. from go-between Rob Goldstone

“[There’s an offer] to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . . This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russian and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 3, 2016, 10:53 a.m., email reply from Donald Trump Jr.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

I include the timing here for the simple reason that simple isn’t always better, despite McDonald’s augmenting its long-running slogan, I’m Lovin’ It, with the newer The Simpler the Better over the last two years. Sometimes simpler actually isn’t very smart, as is the case here. Being eager to meet with an emissary from a generally hostile foreign government eager to meddle in your country’s most important political contest? Then holding the meeting in your office, one floor below the office of your father in Trump Tower, no less? Neither move strikes me as well thought out. What ever happened to stopping to reflect? Nor is this rapid-fire decision-making either very ethical or patriotic in an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way.

First, the longing-to-matter son says the newly disclosed meeting was to discuss resuming the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Then by degrees the truth comes out, excluding of course an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. There the emoting by Donald Trump Jr. was a blizzard of downward eye-castings suggestive of sad disappointment in himself for getting embroiled in such a mess, along with a mouth tightened and occasionally, fleetingly stretched in expressions of grimacing fear.

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As for the president, he’s applauding his “high-quality” son for his “transparency” in releasing the email trail just ahead of a New York Times deadline for soliciting Donald Trump Jr.’s input on the soon-to-be published, newly more complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. Remember candidate Trump boasting in Iowa in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Well, Trump Tower is on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. having in effect shot himself by holding an ill-advised, possibly illegal meeting, followed by a clumsy cover-up. What we won’t do in search of love.