T he impulse to render human likenesses of one kind or another has been with us for 40,000 years, since Paleolithic people first scratched figures onto the walls of their caves. But the idea of portraying individuals was thought to be a relatively modern phenomenon until the beginning of the 20th century, when the mummy portraits of Roman Egypt were excavated in the Faiyum region just south of Cairo. "Paint the Eyes Softer," on view at the Block Museum through April 22, attempts to examine a few of these revelatory paintings not only through art-historical means but also by employing the latest imaging technology with the aim of uncovering these portraitists' working methods. Were the paintings of particular people? Were they done before or after their subjects passed? Were they meant to be seen only by close family or by a wider audience? These and other unanswerable questions are broached in this sparse yet diverting show.
The half dozen portraits that form the core of the exhibit come from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. They were all made sometime between the first and third centuries CE on wood panels with pigments suspended in beeswax. All were once attached to the linen-wrapped faces of mummies but have been most commonly displayed as stand-alone art since their discovery. This change of presentation has contributed to the ease with which the modern viewer identifies with these ancient visages. But their direct gazes and their unidealized countenances appeal to us on a more elemental level too, because they look so familiar. One wouldn't be surprised to see similar faces on the bus en route to work.
The name of the show, "Paint the Eyes Softer," comes from a written instruction discovered on the back of one of the portrait panels. Using sophisticated imaging technologies, scientists discovered several notes made by the artist, each a small clue to the wishes of whoever commissioned this portrait. There's no way to know much more definitively, but these notes prove that, at the very least, the portraits were meant to represent a specific likeness.
The same can't be said of the death masks attached to similarly consecrated bodies from just a couple hundred years earlier, discovered in the same region. The pharaohs preferred their faces to be rendered in much more idealized form. A couple of these masks are on display in the first room of the exhibit for contrast, and they effectively demonstrate the dramatically different intent of their creators. Their simplified, regular facial features may represent anyone or no one, whereas the portraits from Roman Egypt are unmistakably themselves and no one else.
Painted in careful layers on wood, these portraits lay the groundwork for the Christian icon painting that would dominate Western art for centuries. But their attention to individual physical specificity anticipates a kind of portraiture that would not be allowed again until the prohibition on nonreligious figures loosened its stranglehold on painting during the Renaissance more than a millennium later.
The last gallery presents an intact mummy of a five-year-old girl. The painted portrait is still attached to where her face used to be. This display of wrapped remains has a very different psychological and emotional effect from anything else on show. Wall labels include X-ray scans of her skeleton and other scientific analysis of both her body and the material that covers it, but none of this information can obscure the fact that one is in the presence of what's left of a person who was once alive.
Looking down at her painted face is nothing like looking at the very similarly rendered faces in the previous room. The presence of the remains of her body calls into question the propriety of presenting disinterred remains as art in ways the disembodied portraits don't. Perhaps objective-minded scientists would disagree, but I would have preferred that this dead five-year-old had been left in her resting place.
No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, it's doubtful that a device will ever be invented to explain the impulse to render the human image for posterity. The desire to make a picture in which we recognize our own faces is as basic to the human condition as the need for food or shelter. The 2,000-year-old ancestors looking out from the walls of the Block Museum are a reminder of that. Even if they were originally meant as death masks, these portraits look as alive as you or I.v