The very fact of the portrait’s allusion to an individual human being, actually existing outside the work, defines the function of the artwork in the world and constitutes that cause of its coming into being (Brilliant, 2003:8.)
In December of 1929, anatomist and Taung fossil curator, Raymond Dart, received a holiday note from American anthropologist, Henry Field. Dart rang in his New Year with a postcard portrait of one of the Field Museum’s Neanderthal models for the then-new Hall of Prehistoric Man.
The Neanderthal portrait is an interesting moment of artistic composition, as the act of portraiture, itself, is an interaction between the viewer and the subject of the portrait. The viewer understands the ritual associated creating a portrait and the viewer knows the cultural detail that goes into the acts of situating, setting, and composing the picture. The portrait becomes a specific person in a specific moment – easily turning into archetype. Creating a portrait is a powerful way of crafting a narrative about the portrait’s subject. (Think official portraits…)
[I]n photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It falls back on a last entrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait is central to early photography. In the cult of remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty. But as the human being withdraws from the photographic image, exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to cult value. (Brilliant, 2003:108)
The Field Museum’s portrait of this Neanderthal shows an interesting interaction between the photographer (the artistic composer) and the fossil reconstruction. At first glance, we’re stuck by the “non-human” aspects of the Neanderthal in the picture. We see his nakedness and blank eyes. We see a hunching posture and an inordinately protruding browridge. And, of course, we see the trapezius muscles practically crawling out of his neck – leading us, the audience, to wonder if we've found the bouncer for the Field Museum’s Hall of Prehistoric Man.
Yet there is a subtle humanization of the subject that we also see through this three-quarters view with soft backlighting. The portrait of the Neanderthal invites us to consider the idea that the Neanderthal is participating in the human ritual of portraiture rather than merely existing in landscape photography of a diorama's scene.
Through portraiture, we are offered a much more “humanizing” story of the Neanderthal than the Field Museum might have originally realized.
Brilliant, R. (2003). Portraiture (Reaktion Books - Essays in Art and Culture)
portrait | The Chicago School of Media Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/portrait/