Vegder's Blog

April 6, 2014

The Eyes Have It! No… It’s the Nose! – A Riff on Facial Recognition

When did artists first develop the skill to recreate in portraiture a reasonable likeness of the person being drawn or painted? I don’t know? Nor does anyone else for that matter. But what I do know is that the ability to make an image identifiable was slow in coming and varied from culture to culture. In fact, there were periods when portraits were basically true to nature and then something went wrong and the skill level declined into mere nothingness. Not even into caricatures and it took centuries before that skill could be reapplied.  But I’ll get back to that later. For now I want to start off this post with a two-pronged approach:  some general principles and thoughts about how we know what we are seeing is what we are seeing followed by a discussion of the development of portraiture in Japanese woodblock prints.

For the infant this is “…a big blooming buzzing confusion” – William James wrote in 1890 in The Principles of Psychology that “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.” So you won’t think I am trying to impress you, I’m not, I think you should know that I have never read William James before. In fact, I didn’t find out until recently that this quote from James is much used and often discussed in scholarly circles. The first time I read it was in an early novel by Samuel Beckett first published in 1938. Beckett wrote in Murphy: “The face,” said Neary, “or system of faces, against the big blooming buzzing confusion.” [Is that even a sentence? Rhetorical.]

I even read that novel twice, but it wasn’t until I got a book by C.J. Ackerley, its compendium, Demented Particulars, that I found out that it came from James and was somewhat famous. Ackerley tells us that Robert Woodworth in his Contemporary Schools of Psychology from 1931 disagreed somewhat with James and wrote:

When the baby first opens his eyes upon the world, while he certainly does not see a world of objects such as adults know and see, he may not,
on the other hand, see a mere chaos of miscellaneous points, a “big, blooming, buzzing confusion,” as James thought. If there is some compact
bright mass of color in his field of view, such as a face bending over his crib, this probably stands out as a figure from the general background.
The baby cannot be supposed to see the face accurately, nor to have any notion what that blotch is, but at least, so the Gestalt psychologists
believe, he singles out the face as a compact visual unit, and so makes an important start toward coming to know the face. If it were no easier
for him to see the compact figure as a unit than to lump together miscellaneous points from all over the field, his progress in knowing objects
at sight would be much slower than it actually is.

Let’s not start at the beginning with the first identifiable actor prints in Japan, but a few decades later with the images of one famous actor in particular – Matsumoto Kōshirō V (松本幸四郎 – 5代目). I have chosen to start with him because more than anyone else you always know who you are looking at. Below is an early print by Kunisada showing the actor’s face on the surface of a New Year’s battledore. It dates from 1823 and represents the actor in the role of Takechi Mitsuhide and comes from the collection of the Freer-Sackler galleries. Don’t forget to look at that nose. It is the nose that counts.

Kunisada_Koshiro_V_Mitsuhide_Freer_Sackler_7b   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Kōshirō V had a nickname. You’ll never guess what it was. Okay, I’ll tell you. It was ‘Hanataka Kōshirō’ (鼻高幸四郎). – Now it depends on how you translate it, but generally all versions get at the main point: ‘Big-nose Kōshirō’. It has also been translated as ‘High-nosed Kōshirō. Of course, the term ‘high-nosed’ carries with it the sense of a proud individual. But that is not what matters here. It is the nose, the nose, the nose.

Another great representation of Kōshirō appeared in 1826 and was also by Kunisada. It shows the actor in the role of Ishikawa Goemon. The copy below is from the collection at Ritsumeikan University.

Kunisada_Koshiro_V_Ritsumeikan_7b   Ritsumeikan University

Of course, there are other famous acting noses we have known and loved – In Cyrano de Bergerac, a work of fiction, for example, Act 1 -scene 4, Cyrano is confronted by the Viscount who says “Sir, your nose is. . .hmm. . .it is. . .very big!” Cyrano responds by saying, basically, “Is that the best you can do?” [My words.] He then follows with one of the best soliloquies since Hamlet’s existential crisis.

 Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: ‘Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’ Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’
Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!’
Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’
Gracious: ‘You love the little birds, I think?
I see you’ve managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!’
Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’
Considerate: ‘Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o’er heels you go!’
Tender: ‘Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!’
Pedantic: ‘That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead’s bump!’
Cavalier: ‘The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? ‘Tis a useful crook!’
Emphatic: ‘No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give THEE cold!–save when the mistral blows!’
Dramatic: ‘When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!’
Admiring: ‘Sign for a perfumery!’
Lyric: ‘Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?’
Simple: ‘When is the monument on view?’
Rustic: ‘That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!’
Military: ‘Point against cavalry!’
Practical: ‘Put it in a lottery!
Assuredly ‘twould be the biggest prize!’
Or. . .parodying Pyramus’ sighs. . .
‘Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master’s phiz! blushing its treachery!’

Below is an image I found at commons.wikimedia of José Ferrer, as Cyrano, gazing fondly at his Roxanne.


Back to Kōshirō V – Kōshirō had a long and illustrious career. Born in 1764 he died in 1838. Kunisada created a number of woodblock prints of this actor toward the end of his life and the image shows it clearly. It shows not only Kōshirō’s devotion to his art, but Kunisada’s ability to show how much this man had aged.

Kunisada_older_Koshiro_V_Ritsumeikan_7b   Ritsumeikan University

Before Matsumoto Kōshirō V was Matsumoto Kōshirō V he was Ichikawa Komazō III – For those of you unfamiliar with the traditions of the kabuki stage, an actor’s name is not his birth name and during his career he may many different stage names. To try to explain this here would probably put you to sleep. So, let’s skip over this and you are just going to have to trust me on this one. Anyway, as I said, before he was called Kōshirō V he was Komazō III and before that something else. But it his years as Komazō III that concern us here. It was during this period, the 1790s he was presented in print form by the most enigmatic of Japanese print makers Sharaku. Below are two examples. The large  head, the close up, is from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Sharaku_Komazo_III_7c            MFA_Sharaku_Komazo_III_bust_portrait_7b

Even before Sharaku – By the time Kunisada was only five or six years old Komazō III/Kōshirō V was already making a lasting impression on the stage. Below is an image from ca. 1791-93 by Katsukawa Shun’ei (勝川春英: 1762-1819) of Kōrai-ya Kinshō, the stage and poetry names of Komazō III. See, I told you Japanese names are a big blooming buzzing confusion.

BM_Shunei_Komazo_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

Like father like son – a family resemblance – There are many images of Kōshirō VI misidentified as being those of his father Kōshirō V. This is understandable to some degree, but since #5 died in 1838 images said to be of him from the early 1850s are almost always those of his son, #6. The confusion for the novice of who was the son of whom among kabuki actors is common because relationships are basically a quagmire. Authors/historians rarely make the distinction between a blood relative who takes the stage name of his father and that of an adopted son who does the same. In fact, it is much more common for an adopted son to be so honored. This was fully acceptable in Japanese society and mattered little to the theater-going crowds. However, sometimes genius does runs in the family and the true born son would take on the mantle of his father. His voice might resonate the same way, his dancing skills might have a genetic factor or perhaps the shape of his face would be almost the same. This is clearly the way it was with the Kōshirōs V and VI.

Below is one of my favorite prints, by one of my favorite artists, Kuniyoshi. It comes from his graffiti series from 1847. It shows the younger Kōshirō front and center. His nose makes his identification undeniable.

MFA_Kuniyoshi_grafitti_print_with_Koshiro_VI_7b      MFA_Kuniyoshi_grafitti_print_with_Koshiro_VI_7_detail

Notice the dark spot above his eyebrow – In this Toyokuni III (aka Kunisada) print from 1863 there is a spot above the Kōshirō V’s eyebrow. This is not a flaw in the print or a speck which was added later. It is an intentional part of the actor’s makeup. Also, it should be noted that this print illustrates a performance Kunisada had seen decades before. Sebastian Izzard wrote: “In his old age Kunisada planned a series of one hundred and fifty large-head portraits of actors past and present which were intended to serve as  a monument to his career. Only the most expensive materials and the finest engravers and printers were to be used.” Only 72 of this series were completed and some were drawn by Yoshitora although all of the prints carry Kunisada’s name.

Arendie and Henk Herwig wrote about this print: “The actor Matsumoto Kōshirō V as the wicked magician Nikki Danjō. The actor performed this role at the Nakamura-za from 1/1836. The mole above his left eyebrow is a make-up detail that was introduced by the actor, and subsequently adopted by other actors.”

TNM_Koshiro_V_2   Tokyo National Museum

This got me to thinking about applied moles and Madame du Barry. I don’t know if she really set a fashion trend for both men and women, but I do know that in modern times since the birth of the cinema actresses like Theda Bara (seen below) have applied these beauty spots to enhance their allure on the screen. Allure for whom? Not I, but then again I don’t claim to be a great arbiter of what passes for beautiful. In her case, Bara’s that is, one was not enough, I guess.


Of course, we had our own hanatakas – First there was ‘The Schnoz’, the much beloved Jimmy Durante, the ‘inka-dinka-doo’ and ‘Good Night Mrs. Calabash wherever you are’ Jimmy Durante. Below is a picture of him posted at Flickr by pds209. I trimmed it down somewhat.


And then there was Bob Hope, ten years younger than Durante, but equally popular if not more so – if that is possible. The image I have chosen is from a caricature  of Hope drawn by Al Hirschfeld and posted at Flicrk by Cliff. I have chosen this image rather than that of a photography to show the presentation of a large proboscis has not been lost as an art form. Besides, there was no photography at the time of Kōshirō V.


Proof of exacting portraiture – Don’t get me wrong. I know that there were precisely drawn paintings done of prominent Japanese figures centuries before woodblock prints became an art form. In fact, there is a realistic scroll painting of Gonzō (勤操: 758–827) an important Buddhist priest. Robert Treat Paine in The Art and Architecture of Japan wrote: “The greatest painter of the first half of the ninth century, Kudara Kawanari, whose work is known only from literary records, was famous for his portraits. The painting of Gonzō which was done during the artist’s lifetime is sufficient proof of the contemporary excellence of and taste for exacting portraiture.”


It took almost another thousand years before woodblock prints caught up with painting – as far as the sense of realism was concerned – The glory days – my opinion – of ukiyo-e began with the astonishing prints of Suzuki Harunobu in the 1760s. He was the first artist to produce prints published in multiple colors, nishiki-e. Prior to his brilliant work prints were hand-colored or at most printed with just a couple of colors. Now they had come alive. Their effect on the public and the marketplace must have been astounding. However, Harunobu’s images generally have a personal visual vocabulary. The facial features were simple and, what I would call, sweet. Not one of his figures could be identified as being a true portrait of any of his contemporaries. They were generic. Not only that, it would take a true aficionado of Japanese woodblock prints to tell the young men from the young women. They all look very much alike. They all have an androgynous look to them. Scholars and experts, of course, can tell the difference by the hair and clothing styles and whether or not the young man is wearing a sword or not. Other than that determining the sex at first glance can be a bit daunting.

But, as I said, they are genuinely sweet. That is why I have chosen to illustrate at least three of them so you can see for yourselves what I mean. My first choice comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is entitled “On the Subject of Chrysanthemums”. David Waterhouse has written brilliantly about this print. “It is night, and a girl wearing a furisode with a pattern of snow-covered bamboo holds a hand-lantern, as her boy-friend stealthily bends forward to pluck a chrysanthemum which is growing in a carefully tended bed protected by a roof and sun-blinds. He glances back at her for re-assurance that he is not doing something wrong.” The poem above, written by Tameatsu reads:

At evening too, when
I feel unable to wait
for her whom I seek,
the white chrysanthemum blooms
take on the hues of her sleeve.


Just to make my point a little more clearly, here is another print from the same collection showing a young man lifting a young woman so she can pick some persimmons.


Now I am not completely naive or misinformed. I know that there are Harunobu prints which show men who are unmistakably drawn as men with beards or bald pates, but they are few and far between compared to those effeminate looking young gallants.

So who was the first woodblock print artist who drew faces which were easily recognizable? Well that depends on who you are talking to or reading. 

Donald Jenkins wrote: “Bunchō’s portrait [of Arashi Otohachi I as Numatarō] illustrates another way in which prints produced after 1765 differ from earlier ones: it is truly a portrait. Bunchō has carefully delineated all the features that gave Otohachi, a well-known comic actor, his distinctive appearance – his broad forehead, widely separated eyebrowsn prominent cheekbones, and narrow chin. No one could possibly mistake this portrayal of Otohachi I for one of Bunchō’s portraits of Nakamura Nakazō… say, or Matsumoto Kōshirō III. Earlier actor prints purported to depict specific actors in specific performances, but in fact within the oeuvre of each artist the faces of the actors were indistinguishable from one another and all but interchangeable.” Below is the print Jenkins was talking about. It is from the collection of the Art Institute in Chicago and dates from 1766.

AIC_Buncho_Otohachi_I_7b   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

There is a print in the Musée Guimet which is attributed to Shunshō, Bunchō’s contemporary. It, too, represents Otohachi, but here he is performing his final role in 1768. His facial features are truly distinct. Something must have snapped in the minds of these artists because now their audience would know just exactly who they were looking at.

Guimet_Shunsho_Otohachi_7c    Musée Guimet

Two Twentieth Century Examples – Before I leave the subject of woodblock prints and portraiture I thought I should show you a couple of prints, very remarkable prints, by two different artists from the last century. The first one is a portrait of Nakamura Utaemon V as Yodogimi. It dates from around 1926. I once sold a copy of it and remember the numerous comments made about it that it was ‘a face only a mother could love.’ The one to the right of it is of Sadanji III by Ota Masamitsu from 1955. The differences between these and the eighteenth and nineteenth century prints are remarkable.

Natori_Shunsen_Utaemon_V_7b         1955_Ota_Masamitsu_Sadanji_III_Lyon_Collection_7c

A striking resemblance: The Albrecht Dürer Bob Hope Altarpiece – Many of us inherit visual physical from our parents and sometimes even from our ancestors – although those are more difficult to track down or prove. However, years ago I was studying the Landauer Altarpiece which is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna and notice that the detail figure of the donor, kneeling in his finest armor, bore a striking resemblance to Bob Hope. An ancestor perhaps? You tell me. Below is the altarpiece followed by the detail I am talking about.

Adoration_of_the_Trinity_by_Durer_Vienna_7b           Adoration_of_the_Trinity_by_Durer_Vienna_7b_detail2     Kunsthistorishe Museum, Vienna

What about the evolution of portraiture in the West? How did we get from here to there? Perception, perception, perception. How in the hell did we get from early Cycladic images of women with only the barest of details shown in ca. 2800 B.C. to perfection by the time of Hadrian in the 2nd century A.D.? [This question is rhetorical. Back off Jack!] Below on the left is a Cycladic sculpture in the Louvre shown in profile. To the right of that is a detail of the head of Antinous, the emperor Hadrian’s young male love interest. It is now in the Vatican Museum. Look at the differences. Amazing. Both make their points. Both are recognizable for what they are, but obviously it is by degrees. Also, keep in mind that there are nearly 3,000 years difference between the two.

Louvre_Cycladic_head_in_profile_7     Antinous_Vatican_Museum_7_head


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

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