There is a new, relatively small exhibition at The Menil Collection, "Face Off: A Selection of Old Masters and Others from The Menil Collection," which, according to museum materials, "examines one of the most primary elements of human interaction: to look upon the face of another." The work, in both selection and installation, has an emotive and conversational quality rarely found in museum or gallery installations, thanks to the combined genius of Curator Franklin Sirmans and Exhibition Designer Brooke Stroud.
"Face Off" includes paintings, prints and sculptural works both ancient and modern, sacred and secular; some are highly recognizable, others rarely seen.
When you walk into the exhibition, start with any piece and move on to another — immediately, a dialogue is established between the two. For example, I started with a painting by Christian Bérard, Portrait of Tamara Toumanova (1931). Bérard was a French painter, as well as a scene and costume designer for theater, dance and film, who worked with choreographers including the likes of George Balanchine. Tamara Toumanova was a charismatic and passionate dancer, a protégé of Balanchine who later emigrated to the U.S. and danced with the New York Ballet. You might recognize her as the dancer Joseph Cornell obsessed over and created work about.
The portrait of Toumanova, influenced perhaps by the Breton and Tahitian women of Gauguin, is very simply done, with broad, flat areas of color and a minimal amount of highly efficient, defining brush strokes that delineate the details of her face, her long single braid, the outline of her cap, her dress and her arm, with its hand simply fading into a patch of putty gray. Her cap and dress are white, set against a stunning cadmium red background. She sits in profile, with her face turned toward the viewer, looking slightly annoyed at having been disturbed.
From the cadmium background of Bérard, your eyes are pulled rather forcibly across the room to the equally brilliant cadmium orange background of Francis Bacon's 1983 Study for the Human Body. I have always liked — and been very much disturbed by — this painting. A naked person, maybe it's a man, lunges forward and rings a doorbell, with an arm that looks like a leg, and shoulder blades that might as well be breasts. Like Toumanova's nonexistent hand, the foot of one leg and the calf and foot of the other evaporate into nothing. Where they should be there's a door stoop, in color almost the exact same putty gray of Toumanova's absentee appendage.
From the intense cadmium oranges of Bacon I moved to the more subdued complementary blues of a Joshua Reynolds piece across the room. Reynolds's painting A Young Black (circa 1770) exudes a dignity that I believe cannot be made up by the facile hand of an artist, but instead must come from the person that is portrayed. In this case, the person depicted is believed by some historians to be Francis Barber (1735-1801), a former slave who became the friend and secretary of the famous Dr. Samuel Johnson. Sometime in the 1750s, after obtaining his freedom, working at an apothecary's and being forcibly pressed into the navy, Barber was hired, and educated by, Johnson. Loved like a son by the great and much flawed lexicographer, Barber helped edit Johnson's dictionary, and upon the doctor's death, was willed an annuity and the bulk of Johnson's estate. Despite these advantages, Barber was not accepted by all and gained the scorn of many who considered him placed well above his race and station.
Reynolds's portrait, never finished, concentrates its efforts upon the young man's face. His body is loosely sketched in, his figure standing against a tumultuous sky. Barber's face, slightly turned to the right, looks out into the distance, somewhere into the unknown. As mentioned earlier, the young man's face reveals a great dignity, but it is also a sad face, full of much pain.
I followed Barber's eyes and they took me back to Bérard's Toumanova, who now, rather than looking slightly disturbed, instead gives a look of recrimination, for any of us having dared ever to mistreat another human being, much less an entire segment of society.
From Bérard's painting my eyes ricocheted like a cue ball across the room to a print by Rembrandt Van Rijn, St. Philip Baptizing the Eunuch (1641) and its near neighbor, a painting by Aelbert Cuyp, The Baptism of the Eunuch (circa 1642-43). These two artworks tell a story found in the book of Luke in the Bible.
As the story goes, an Ethiopian eunuch, the chief treasurer of Queen Amanitare of the ancient wealthy kingdom of Meroe, is riding in a chariot, coming back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on a very hot day. As he and his small retinue slowly travel, he reads aloud from the Old Testament. Philip, a disciple of Jesus, is walking along and, hearing what is being read, begins to engage the treasurer in conversation. The eunuch wants clarification of a part of the text that talks about suffering, wondering if it describes the suffering of an individual or a people. Philip says it refers to Jesus and tells him about Christ's life, death and resurrection. As they move along, they come upon a body of water, and, seeing it, the eunuch says, what's to stop him from being baptized? Philip accommodates his wish, and upon doing so, promptly vanishes into thin air. Overjoyed, the man goes on his merry way, saved from the fires of hell.
In Rembrandt's small, delicately etched piece, the eunuch is dressed in humble clothes and appears to willingly submit to baptism by Philip. A young black boy holds a parasol over their heads to shield them from the sun. To their left sits an exotically dressed man on a horse, and behind them is a chariot and horses lightly sketched into the background.
In Cuyp's lush painting, the eunuch is dressed as would be appropriate to his position as chief treasurer; he wears a brocade gown richly embroidered in gold. But although he kneels next to Philip, the man looks startled at what is taking place, as though something were lost in translation. A man in the chariot and another standing on the ground, both part of the eunuch's coterie, look on at the baptism with slightly bemused expressions. I imagined that when the eunuch saw the water, what he really said was, "Let's stop and get a drink," and Philip, fully intent upon baptizing a man he considered a savage, either misunderstood or refused to listen.
Even though the exhibition takes place in a relatively small space, each and every piece in "Face Off" is a treasure, from the pieces I have mentioned, to Goya's Disasters of War and Los Caprichos aquatints, to the sweetest Egyptian funerary mask I've ever seen. It's a great show, and I'm going back to see it. Hell, I might just move in.