Artist Choice: the holy face by Robyn Backen, Art and Australia vol 36 3
Backen’s Choice: The holy face or In Front of My Nose by Robyn Backen
Human Beings have all sorts of beliefs. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned arguments to blind faith. Some are based on personal experience, other on education, and others on indoctrination. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors. Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of ‘gut feelings’.
…and it was a ‘gut feeling’ that I followed seven years ago as I scanned the bookshelves of an art school library - awaiting ‘divine’ inspiration as it were. I was researching for my first public art commission, the window facade for the Casula Powerhouse. I was trying to fathom out what the solution was, how to protect those magnificent windows from the stones being thrown. My brief was to make an artwork that simultaneously addressed concerns of attraction and detraction: that is, something that attracts the eye but repels stones. I had an idea of working with an image which played with optical illusion - referencing the scientific, while carrying an intuitive substance. It was in that library I discovered a number of images but it was one in particular which, later, dominated my thoughts and continued to hover in my sub-conscious, it was the spiral, it was Christ’s nose, it was the image made up of one line, the infinite…this was the beginning of an intimate connection with this image - The holy face.
The image that I found in the library didn’t identify a maker, and over the past 5 years I have gradually discovered more about the image and its creator. In 1996, the windows completed, I received a fax from a close friend saying that she had discovered ‘the image’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The fax explained that there was a Latin text at the base of the image, this was not visible in the image reproduce in the book in the library and it was only then that I discovered the whole name of the artist, Claude Mellan born in 1598.
Then early in 1997 I was informed that The holy face was on display at the Art Gallery of NSW, in a show curated by Peter Raissis titled ‘Le Grande Siecle’. It is only then I discover that the image has been a part of the Art Gallery of NSW collection for many years but has rarely been exhibited. I didn’t have any idea that the image was so close and discovering this information was like finding a lost friend. I went to the show and stood in front of the print which slipped me back into the reverie I experienced when I first laid eyes on the reproduction. I have now had my own private viewing of the original, all of its protective layers removed no glass, no guards; the particles floated between us and I was only 350 years away from the hand that so skilfully cut the lines.
So for this piece of writing I have had the opportunity to further research the background of the maker and the image. Claude Mellan was born in Abbeville France in 1598 and died in Paris on the 9 September 1688. He was a French draughtsman, engraver and painter. He moved to Paris at a young age in 1619 and 4 years later moved to Rome where he was influenced by a number of French and Italian masters. He developed a linear style marked by simplicity of design and completely eliminating crosshatching. In Mellan’s work the calibration of thickness of line and spacing determines the illusion of form. Back in Paris in 1637 Mellan was again much in demand as a portrait artist. He drew his models from life and engraved the portraits.
I have always loved the process of engraving because of the crossing over of artist and artisan. The idea of using engraved plated to make prints from did not occur before the fifteenth century and probably began with the goldsmiths’ desire to keep records of their designs. The credit for this invention belongs to the Germans, and the earliest impressions on paper were made in 1430’s. Initially they were printed by simple rubbing the paper on the back; the roller press seems to have come in by the end of the century.
By mid 1600’s Mellan’s engraving style had reached maturity and achieved an extraordinary technical virtuosity. His most famous print, The holy face (1649) or otherwise known as The sudarium of St Veronica, was engraved with a single spiralling line that starts at the tip of the nose and thickens in places to denote tonal variations and to articulate features. This is a powerfully hypnotic work and casts the viewer into a vortex. To elaborate on the story behind the single line image of The holy head Peter Rasissis writes in the Catalogue for exhibition ‘Le Grand Siecle’.
‘While Christ was on his way to Calvary, Veronica used her veil to wipe blood and sweat from his brow, and an imprint of Christ’s visage was left on the cloth. The origin of the name Veronica - vera eikon or true image. The inscription at the bottom of the engraving, FORMATUR UNICUS UNA ALTER (uniquely formed like no other), is a dual reference to Mellan’s spiral line technique, and the miraculous impression of Christ’s face on Veronica’s cloth’
And finally, I will conclude with a wonderful quote from Bachelard’s
‘Water and Dreams’ which could well have been written about the piece. … he teaches us to read images centrifugally. He presses our interior space outward, as if moving imaginatively from the centre of a flower. Perhaps more appropriate … would be the image of ripples from a centre point, constantly expanding our way of seeing.
1 The Mind of God - Science and the Search for the Ultimate Meaning by Paul Davies
Other References: The Art of Drawing in France 1400-1900 by Per Bjurstrom pub. Philip Wilson 1987 Iconography of Religions by Albert C Moore 1977 SCM press Ltd London Prints and People by A Hyatt Mayor Princeton University Press 1971 The Dictionary of Art edited by Jane Turner Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1996 The Power of Images by David Freeberg
Christ knows by Jennifer Barrett, Casula works - Public art at the Casula Powerhouse Art Centre, 1999
Open sky by Jim Colman, Object, Spring 1992
Contemporary history in the making by Melissa Cater, Artlink, vol 14 3 Spring 1994
Public art in Sydney by Sally Couacau, Artlink, vol 14 3 Spring 1994
Nose in a window by Jackie Dunn, Object - Issue 2 1994
Casula Powerhouse Regional Art Centre by Jo Holder, Art and Australia, Spring 1995
Artist choice: the holy face by Robyn Backen, Art and Australia vol 36 3
City as artform, Sydney Morning Herald
Special thanks to John Kirkman, Susan Conroy, Peter Tonkin and Hadfield Signs.