Spotlight: an artistic expression of science

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By | From the Collections

Some items in our collections are intriguing because they sit on disciplinary boundaries or ‘blend’ traditionally polarised subjects such as art and science. This photograph represents a combination of the embryonic field of neurology, Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and the practice of art photography.

Figure 83: Lady Macbeth, ferocious cruelty. Artist: Adrien Tournachon (French, 1825–1903) Date: 1854–56, printed 1862 Medium: Albumen silver print from glass negative

Figure 83: Lady Macbeth, ferocious cruelty. From Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine by Duchenne, 1862. Wellcome Image no. L0040124.

The French doctor, Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne (1806–1875), wanted to determine how the muscles in the face produced facial expressions, which he believed to be directly linked to the human soul. He turned some of his patients into models, using electric shocks to stimulate the muscles and artificially create expressions; faces became the sites of experiment.

He published his findings in 1862, in the book The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy (Mecanisme de la physionomie Humaine). The book contains three sections:
1.    General Considerations,
2.    a Scientific Section, and
3.    an Aesthetic Section.

Duchenne worked with a photographer, Adrian Tournachon, and also taught himself the art of photography in order to document his experiments. Photography had only recently been invented, and Duchenne believed that only photography could accurately record the ‘truth’ of his experiments.

Duchenne’s experiments for the aesthetic section of the Mechanism included the use of performance and narratives. He believed that only with the use of electroshock in the setting of theatre performances featuring gestures could he faithfully reconstruct the complex expressions resulting from conflicting emotions. By recreating these scenes of Lady Macbeth’s character Duchenne aimed to depict the “aggressive and wicked passions of hatred, of jealousy, of cruel instincts”.

Duchenne was interested in the character that he depicted through his false facial expressions, rather than in the person behind the character, allowing him to ignore any actual feelings that his models may have had. For these images Duchenne used a partially blind young woman who he claimed “had become accustomed to the unpleasant sensation of this treatment …”. In his opinion this model was “neither pretty nor ugly, but had regular features and a non expressive face”.

His aesthetic pictures aimed to show spiritual beauty by eliciting the proper emotional expression, rather than by portraying physical beauty. He demonstrated how he was able to transform his model by dressing and posing her so she expressed an inner beauty. With his research, he also attempted to improve her condition, but his attempts to improve her vision prove unsuccessful.

Authors: Daniel Rees is an Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.
Lalita Kaplish is Assistant Web Editor at the Wellcome Library.

Danny Rees

Danny Rees

Hi, I am Danny Rees, an Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Library, one of my interests is the human face; its physiognomy, expressions and ideas about what constitutes beauty. When not at work I enjoy the Kent countryside and consider radio to be one of the best things in life.

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