Thursday, March 25, 2010

About Face Follow-Up

Carol's post on Sunday had me pulling books off my shelves for hours! I sat down and read through James Elkin's The Object Stares Back (especially the chapter titled What Is a Face?) and at Daniel McNeill's The Face. I looked up one of Oliver Sacks' cases (described in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) where Sacks describes a man whose visual agnosia allowed him to see a nose, an ear, a chin, an eye, but not see the "face," not understand the face as a whole.The idea of not being able to determine that a set of discrete elements (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.) when put together make a face is really disturbing. Of course, we "see" (we interpret) with our brains, not with our eyes (which is why book design appeals not only to the eyes but to something subliminal. ) I started wondering about book covers that show only one element of a face.

Kevin Hawkes' cover illustration for Nikolai Gogol's story The Nose stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I saw it. I couldn't decide if it was brilliant or disgusting. I've come down on the side of brilliant - how often do you see a nose wearing a hat, and how often do you find an illustrator willing to put something like that on the cover of a book?

The cover of Robert Groebel Intrater's Two Eyes, A Nose and a Mouth, on the other hand, is accidentally eeire - the discrete pieces of the face are fine when looked at individually, but when you pull your vision back and look at the "face" on the right (small eyes, large mouth) it makes you squirm.

Despite what seems like a facial feature ripe for cover art, I didn't find much in the way of weird-and-wonderful images of isolated eyes on kids' fiction. I saw lots of covered eyes - sunglasses seem to be a big deal on covers.  But designers and illustrators must think that if there are eyes, there should be faces. This non-fiction book, however, has a definite weird-and-wonderful ewww factor. Now that is seriously unpleasant.

As for entire faces, here is one of my favorites
(maybe because it reminds me of Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill - "Oh, no!!") 
Big Mouth by Deborah Halvorsen: 

And I like this one, too, though it's not a kids' book:
Kissing the Mask by William t. Vollmann

And here, for your religious edification, are images of simulacra, as Carol talked about it last Sunday (thanks, Carol, for letting me piggy-back on your post):

(Madonna of the Cheese Sandwich, Jesus in a Banana, Jesus of the Maple Tree)


  1. Wow-- Someone turned "The Nose" into a picture book?! It's brilliant, and one of Gogol's best works, but the story is a bit deranged (even by Russian literature standards). Given the right illustrator, though, I could see where this could work...

  2. You're right, Opera Geek - someone with a passion was behind The Nose (which is a strange place to be.) I understand the illustrator getting there, but convincing an editor? I wonder how that book did.

  3. I remember finding that book on the shelf when I worked in the children's library one night years ago and thinking what in the world is happening to children's books? I didn't know about Gogol at the time. Still, I wonder who was the intended audience.

  4. Julie - Love the nose book! I ran across this blog a while back - it had me seeing skulls (faces without the skin ;-) everywhere

  5. Oops! The link doesn't seem to work - here it is:

  6. I just fell into for the last hour - what fun! Thanks to Jacket Whys for the link.