Face and Mask: A Double History by Hans Belting / Alice Maurice

Jörgen Lindström and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Hans Belting, Face and Mask: A Double History. Translated by Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Pity the poor human face. We ask so much from it. From physiognomy to facial recognition, we have looked to the face for meaning and knowledge, for beauty, subjectivity, and soul. In 1901, sociologist Georg Simmel attempted to account for the face’s “unique importance in fine art,” pointing to what he called its “inner unity”—the fact that even the most minute change to any element of the face “immediately modifies its entire character and expression.”1 In Simmel’s estimation, this sense of unity—the face as ineffably more than the sum of its parts—allied it with art. From our contemporary vantage point, this may seem rather quaint, however, as the mutable, modular face is stripped for parts in the digital age. Take the recent popularity of “FaceApp,” for example. The app, billed as “using neural networks” to create photorealistic changes, allows users to modify photos of their faces: everything from adding a smile to aging to swapping genders. Or as one critic put it: “FaceApp is an app for ruining your face.”2

But, as Hans Belting shows us in his impressive and wide-ranging new book, Face and Mask: A Double History, “ruining the face” is part of a long and twinned history of facial preservation and modification. Belting makes clear that no history of image-making can be told outside of a history of the face, and vice versa. As he puts it, “the face is not merely an image but also produces images”(21). Indeed, the face is a site of image-making—each expression produces a new image, a new meaning. And that, in turn, has inspired centuries of images, a dizzying array. From Neolithic masks to Renaissance portraits to Facebook, Belting attempts to shape this massive archive of human image-making into what he calls a “cultural history of the face”(6). He begins by acknowledging the sheer “audacity” of the task, not just because of its scope and range—the first image in the book is from 7000 B.C.—but also because of the elusiveness of its subject: “For what, actually,” he asks, “is the face?”(1).

The answer can only be found in a “double history.” Belting’s most important claim is in his title: Face and Mask. To follow his argument, we must first “accept face and mask as a single theme in the organizing principle of a ‘history of the face’ and not view these concepts in sharp contrast to one another”(8). We must reject any binary opposition in which the face stands for authenticity, while the mask is aligned with concealment and deceit. Face and mask are bound together, their histories intertwined. While this may seem obvious—how can you have a mask without a face and vice versa?—Belting shows how understanding face and mask together fundamentally shifts our understanding of the image. Face and Mask divides its enormous wealth of material into three roughly chronological sections, but as Belting warns, this is not a traditional history. Rather, he identifies face and mask as “operative concepts” that he then traces through movements, artists, and constellations of thought as a way of “discover[ing] the face in its ever-changing historical contexts”(5). This results in a sometimes vertiginous but ultimately revealing way of delimiting the topic, which is less a thing than an idea—an image refracted across centuries. In short, Belting offers a way of seeing the face which amounts to a conceptual framework for re-thinking the history of Western art.

The first section lays the historical and conceptual foundation for the book, primarily by exploring the mask—examining actual masks and cultural practices but also the idea of the mask as it related to the face and to the concept of personhood in ancient cultures. We begin with funerary rites and death masks, but also, importantly, with ritual and performance, and shifting theatrical practices. Putting the face back in touch with performance—with the idea of playing a role—is key to understanding the interplay between face and mask. The section goes on to survey the history of attempts to gain knowledge from the face, primarily through physiognomy (as popularized by Johann Kaspar Lavater in the seventeenth century) and its many afterlives. Despite the rise of brain science and competing modes of knowledge, the physiognomic urge—the essentialist desire to read character in faces—remained, morphing into the mug shots, measurements, and photographic studies that would fuel late nineteenth-century criminology, psychology, scientific racism, and eugenics.

The long journey of the first section sets the stage for what I would identify as the most important, foundational claim of the book, which is the work of the second section: understanding the European portrait as mask. What are the consequences of seeing it this way? First, it offers a different way to recognize the relation between art, colonialism, and modernity. By getting beyond the mask as only “a subject for ethnology,” Belting seeks to “restore its privileged place in the cultural genealogy of the face”(33). As Belting explains, Western understanding of the face had been severed from the mask: “The ritual mask had been utterly forgotten,” Belting says, such that “when it was encountered again during the period of colonization, the response was astonishment at this exotic artifact”(33). In other words, these masks are treated as the Other of the face in in Western art—and become part of the exoticization and consumption of “primitive cultures” in nineteenth-century museums, exhibitions, and elsewhere. This then paves the way for modernism’s love affair with the “primitive.” By restoring the mask to the history of the European portrait, Belting seeks to reveal and repair this definitive discursive rift. He argues that Europeans used the portrait “in place of” the mask—and in understanding the portrait as mask, he works against the art historical tradition of seeing the portrait primarily as “an authentic facsimile of life”(9). The portrait, too, is an artifact. Belting performs interesting and contextualized close readings of many European portraits before turning ultimately to a study of the self-portrait, from Rembrandt’s definitive works to the deconstruction of the genre by twentieth-century artists including Francis Bacon and Jorge Molder. In its “revolt against the mask,” the self-portrait must attack the face.

The last section takes on the face in photography, film, and contemporary media. In many ways, there is the least “new” to be found here. Belting borrows from other media theorists such as Thomas Macho who have dubbed our contemporary moment a “facial society.” Here, we find the usual suspects: considerations of Garbo, Bergman’s Persona, and Andy Warhol’s Marilyns and Maos. But Belting also engages closely with contemporary artists including Chuck Close, Nam June Paik, Christian Boltanski, and Arnulf Rainer; and he touches on the “cyberface”—just enough to warn against seeing the digital as a complete break with what has come before. Yet, what’s important here is not any one reading, but the amalgam. As Belting notes, he does not come at something like Bergman as a film studies scholar would; rather, we are able to see screen faces in a new frame, as part of the long history of face and mask that Belting traces here.

Face and Mask offers sweeping, comparative scholarship, the kind of interdisciplinary approach that must be brought to bear if we are to understand the face. Ours has always been a face culture, it seems, and the face—standing at the nexus of philosophy, religion, art, and science—reveals so much about how a society sees itself. In Face and Mask, Hans Belting does not read the face as map; rather, he maps the places (and people) we have been by looking at the faces we have made.


  1. Georg Simmel, “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face,” in Georg Simmel: 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, ed. Kurt Wolff (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1959), 276.
  2. Abby Ohlheiser, “Everything that’s wrong with FaceApp, the latest creepy photo app for your face,” Washington Post, April 26, 2017. Online. Accessed June 10, 2017.