• Arthur Bruso

"The Poet," etched and published by John Hamilton Mortimer, May 20, 1775, etching, Plate: 15 11/16"h x 12 11/16"w, sheet (edges folded under): 21 5/16"h x 13 11/16"w

John Hamilton Mortimer’s Poet etching.

"The Poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rowling,

Doth glance from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the Poet's pen

Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name."

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream, act 5, scene 1

Our face can be our fortune, as well as tell our fortune. As a highly social species, humans exchange a great quantity of information through our faces. It is one of the richest and one of the most powerful tools we have for communication. Since humans lack the superior senses of hearing and smell of some other animals, we generally use sight as our main sensory collector. We can become adept at visual cues that send information to our brain which tell us enormous amounts of information upon meeting another individual. We look to our extraordinarily expressive faces to read the true nature of the other. We do this instinctively. We learn from babies to understand the non-verbal communication from our mothers, then from our family and so out into the world.

Just because we have learned the language of the face since birth does not mean that we are always correct in our assumptions about another. As we often misspeak when we talk, our non-verbal communications can also be misconstrued or masked – which is why we can be fooled by actors. Still, we believe our accuracy is high enough that we convince ourselves that any miscommunication in understanding a person’s facial expression is outweighed by our moments of true insight. Our face reading gets better the closer the bond and the longer the cohabitation. We can often tell when a partner or a child is ill, angry, happy, withdrawn or dozens of other emotional states, just by looking at them. And as, much we may want to be an enigma to our peers, we are often grateful when they understand our distress, our love, or our joy without having to put it into words.

Physiognomy, or the concept of reading the face has been practiced since the dawn of man. The Chinese had a system of physiognomy called mian xiang (meaning “face study” or appearance), going back to 2700 BC. Ancient India used Samudrika Shastra (meaning “knowledge of body features”) to analyzes the entire body, including reading the face. The impulse to understand the hidden aspects of humans and how they affect a person’s destiny has been a long-held interest. It was formally recognized in the west in the 5th century BC. It was first mentioned in a dialogue by the Greek philosopher Phaedo of Elis. In the dialog, Zopryus, a renowned magician who was visiting Athens, was also considered a master at physiognomy. Unfortunately, when put to the test, Zopryus did not live up to the high praise of his abilities. Encouraged by the students of Socrates to read Socrates face, Zopryus read the traits in the philosopher’s face all wrong. He claimed that Socrates was stupid and thick witted because he didn’t have hollows above the collar bone. He also declared that he was addicted to women though Socrates was well known for his admiration of beautiful boys. Graciously, Socrates gave Zopryus a honorable out and allowed him to retain his reputation by claiming to have conquered those ill divined traits. By the 4th century, a follower of Aristotle wrote Physiognomonica, a treatise that describes a system that enables one to deduce the correspondences between human form and character.

Michael Scot in Bodleian " De physionomiae", MS. Canon. Misc. 555, fol. 059r

Much later in the 13th century, Michael Scot wrote the Liber Physiognomiae, a book that concerns physiognomy, along with the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), dream interpretation, and auguries. His physiognomy was based largely on the follower of Aristotle’s Physiognomonica, which he translated from Arabic copies and made available to Western scholars. Scot was considered the greatest public intellectual of his time. Originally, he was an ordained priest and wandering scholar. At around 1225, when he was about 50 years old, he accepted a position in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. His writing and his knowledge on a range of scientific and esoteric subjects gained him the popular reputation of being a magician who could see the future, command spirits, and conjure up the Devil. This reputation of sorcery also contributed to the popular understanding that physiognomy was a method born of magic and psychic ability.

Widely accepted in the Middle Ages as a valid science, physiognomy was taught in European universities until about 1530. At that time, Henry VIII outlawed face reading or “fisnamy” as it became known, along with palmistry in England because it had been taken up by con-men and swindlers to take advantage of the ignorant and naïve. After 1530, physiognomy fell into disrepute because of Henry VIII’s condemnation.


Giambattista Della Porta, “De Humana Physiognomonia” Libri iiii, page 60

By the 1600’s physiognomy was relegated to the arcane and occult sciences because of its connection to Michael Scot’s persistent reputation as a magician. The system attracted Giambattista Della Porta, a gentleman, alchemist, and scientist, who had a deep interest in the occult and natural anomalies. He became aware of the practice through Scot’s translation of Physiognomonica. In 1586 after studying prisoners, he wrote his own treatise De Humana Physiogonomonia. In his book he compares the sympathies of humans with those of animals. He found connections and determined interpretations between a person’s features and the animals they resembled. He determined that if you looked like a lion, you would have a personality like a lion; outgoing and regal, and so with all manner of human facial and animal resemblances.

It was not until the mid 1700s that physiognomy became popular with the general public again through Johann Kaspar Lavater. Lavater published Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, his deluxe book on physiognomy. It became a best seller of its time due more to its expensive binding and lavish illustrations rather than its content. Greatly influenced by Della Porta’s studies in the field. Lavater had the idea that facial characteristics were related to specific personality traits, rather than Della Porta’s assertion that general appearances had associations with animal behaviors. Lavater’s ideas on physiognomy became the basis of the western system in use today.

Like palmistry, physiognomy or face reading does not require any psychic ability to practice. When reading the face, certain features have fixed meanings: a high forehead indicates intelligence, thin lips show avarice, blue eyes, clarity of vision. There are meanings to every facial feature and their variants. The physiognomist needs to be acquainted with all of the face’s features, their different shapes, colors (eyes, hair), and sizes and the meanings attributed to them. It can take some study to be versed in the many meanings. There is also the skill needed to take all of the individual aspects of a face, decipher their meaning and then put together a cogent narrative. It is possible for a person to have an intuitive aptitude for understanding how to read facial expressions and body language for cues to another’s emotional states. The face, like the palm or the equipment and materials used for other methods of divination, can be a focus for metaphysical energy and perhaps channel greater insight on the information that can be gathered through observational means. Frauds and swindlers take advantage when they make up information about a person by asking leading questions, and take visual cues from the subject and their companions. They often have no knowledge of the actual facial meanings of physiognomy. Their success lies in their ability to fabulate a convincing story out of an airy nothing. We often give ourselves away through innocent chatter and emotional reactions.

There is also the method where the subject’s future can be told by looking at various areas of the face that corollate with a person’s age. For instance, the area below the hairline is purported to hold the subject’s personal history from the ages of birth to twenty. The brow area would be consulted for the history of the person from age twenty-one to twenty-six, and so on down the face, with each zone representing another span of years. Ages not yet attained would be read as the future. Health can also be determined by studying distinct places on the face that are assigned to specific internal organs or organ systems. The forehead and ears foretell the health of the heart. The eyes can reveal the condition of the kidneys. All of this information would be compiled to offer a complete “reading” of a subject covering most of a person’s life, personality traits and health.

Artists have long made their living studying the face. The best portraits have always been those that reveal some of the psychology of the sitter. In order to achieve this level of connection, artists need to somehow be able to divine the interior life of their subject. In some ways, an artist may be the most sensitive of physiognomists, since their job is to translate the character of the person posing into an image the viewer can understand and relate to. If we gaze at a portrait and we come away with some bit of insight or knowledge about this person’s emotional state or their internal life, then the portrait is an achievement. The artist has been successful in their task to convey more than a likeness to the viewer.

Most practicing artists before the 20th century, with a large working studio of assistants, kept portfolios of reference drawings. The drawings covered a range of subjects that would be commonly used in the finished paintings, from trees and mountains for the backgrounds, to stock characters for incidental figures that occupy a painting. These areas of a painting were often trusted to assistants and apprentices who would use the images in the portfolios as reference material. Portrait artists, as well as other figurative painters collected and kept various studies of human faces, especially those who’s particular continence or situation appealed to their sensibility. They would collect studies of interesting dispositions to fill in the faces of stock characters and incidental figures of religious subjects and history paintings. Many artists were fond of collecting the grotesque in humanity. This was not because they had an interest in exploiting a particular individual’s extraordinary human burden, but more because when you are commissioned to idealize the beauty of your patron or the perfection of a god or nymph, the bald reality of nature becomes more interesting than cosmetic prettiness. At a time when art was focused on the perfection of human form, it brought the realities of life back into perspective. In the northern European countries, ugliness was considered a trait of sin. Often the depictions of people mocking Christ, or those damned to hell were portrayed in as unflattering a manner as possible to drive the point of the immorality home. Just as in a group of smooth stones, the rough one catches your eye. In nature, one becomes interested in the anomaly, rather than the regularity. Sameness is boring.


Leonardo da Vinci, Study Of Five Grotesque Heads, 1493, Ink on paper, 10.26” h x 8.11” w, Royal Collection Trust, London

Leonardo da Vinci was particularly interested in collecting interesting faces. He drew pages of them. Most of them seem to be created for the joy of drawing and capture the endless variety of human features. Others may be complete caprices pulled from his imagination and scientific studies rather than true portraits. Some seem to have found their way into unfinished works like his Adoration of the Magi and St. Jerome. But the bulk of his “grotesques,” were not used as the basis of any known art works. He created them to understand and admire the great variety and ingenuity of the hand of God on the faces of humanity.

Quentin Matsys, a Flemish painter who lived between 1466 and 1530, based much of his oeuvre on the character study or the grotesque portrait. His painting Ill-Matched Marriage of 1525 is typical of his subject. It depicts an older woman proposing to a young man. Surrounding what was considered an improbable couple is a burlesque cast of dubious characters, each bringing their own questionable traits to the scene. Wickedness and transgression seem to surround the atmosphere of the engagement party. Their less than admirable motives toward this pairing are reflected in their faces.

Quentin Matsys, 1525–1530, Oil on panel, 21" h × 35" w, São Paulo Museum of Art, Brazil

A host of other artists delighted in rendering the grotesque in its human form: Durer, Bruegel Tiepolo among them. Tiepolo even manages to transform his characters into diabolical satyrs and devils.


Albrecht Dürer, "Head of a man in profile to left," 1505, ink on paper, 8.19" h x 5.8" w

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, "Heads of Satyrs and other Grotesque Heads," 1774, Etching, Plate: 2 5/8"h × 10 11/16"w, Sheet: 4 11/16" h × 12 15/16" w  

The character study became so popular that some artists began to produce works for sale that catered to the collectors of the genre. In 1775 the artist John Hamilton Mortimer

John Hamilton Mortimer, "Self-portrait, head and shoulders, wearing a turban," late 18th century, pen and ink, 14.25"h x 11.75"w

embarked upon a series of etchings of Shakespearean characters that incorporated his own enthusiasm for the character study. They were also designed to profit from the great interest in Shakespeare’s plays which were having a surge of bardolatry at the time. The etchings, which would number twelve in total, were sold by subscription in sets of six, published a year apart. Mortimer married the same year as he began the etchings. The timing makes it difficult not to access that the publishing of this suite of prints was not an obviously calculated action on his part to prove his financial prospects and make himself more attractive as a partner to his new bride.

John Hamilton Mortimer was born in 1740 in the southern coastal town of Eastbourne, England. His father was a comfortably middle-class customs officer and miller. By the time Mortimer was 17, his father was able to send him to the Duke of Richmond’s Academy in London to study art. As a youth in London, Mortimer was more interested in living an artist’s Bohemian lifestyle than in making art. As his self-portrait shows, Mortimer romanticized the Italian banditti as an antihero. His life was marked by “shipwrecks narrowly avoided, a tussle in which a sword stroke nearly cost him a hand, and various feats of strenuous athleticism interspersed with equally strenuous bouts of drunkenness” (Royal Collection Trust). Mortimer first established himself as a portrait painter but aspired to be a history painter. In the hierarchy of the day, history painting was the epitome of artistic expression and gained the greatest adulation from the national academies. Despite this youthful ambition, by the time he was 30, Mortimer had struck out in a new direction, choosing to depict the most extreme aspects of human nature, fitting with his excessive and adventurous lifestyle. A more practical reason for Mortimer’s shift in artistic interest, was that he soon realized that while admired and lauded by the art establishment, history painting was not as lucrative a genre financially. Character portraits and etchings attracted much interest and were widely collected. An image etched onto a metal plate could be printed and sold multiple times. Selling subscriptions meant that the artist could be paid in advance for work yet to be produced, while the size of the edition would be determined by the popularity of the subscription. Moreover, Mortimer found that portraiture required a certain ability to flatter and cajole a sitter. Not all artists had the patience or fortitude to indulge in the fancies and whims of their patrons and Mortimer discovered that his constitution was ill suited for the part of flatterer.

Mortimer’s suite of Shakespeare Characters allowed the artist to employ his powers of observation, his love of expressive features, as well as his celebrated draftsmanship, to produce 12 imaginary personalities of exaggerated and theatrical emotional states. It is not chance that led him to choose 12 of Shakespeare’s most stereotypical and caricatured stage personas. Depicting characters such as: Bardolph the thief from Henry IV who is defined by his large, swollen nose; Edgar the heir to the throne in King Lear disguised as a mad beggar; and Caliban the half man, half monster from The Tempest, Mortimer’s choices each have some extreme physical or visual trait that the artist found made the character interesting or entertaining to depict and fit his sensibilities. His choice of The Poet as part of this suite is curious since he is not even a true character. The Poet is a stereotype of the creative mind, as expressed by Theseus the Duke of Athens to his betrothed Hippolyta the queen of the Amazons in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Hippolyta mentions how strangely lovers talk (Theseus and Hippolyta are entering into a political marriage), Theseus responds by comparing lovers to lunatics and poets who see devils and monsters everywhere. Mortimer has chosen this speech as an opportunity to portray an artist in the perennially enigmatic moment of inspiration. The poet, who is defined by the laurel chaplet he wears on his head and his Gypsy earring, is paused in the act of writing as if listening to a mysterious voice. He looks over his shoulder in the direction of the sound, the light of revelation hot upon his cheek. His eye rolls and pops with astonishment as understanding and insight dawn on him. It is the dramatic way we all seem to want creative inspiration to happen.

While Mortimer gets the grotesquerie of the moment right, on closer inspection an observer may wonder about the anatomy of the arm supporting the hand with the pen. The awkward positioning begs the question of just how is it attached to the body? And that eye! As expressive and important as it is to convey the wonderment of the heavenly dictation, do human eyes really have that stalked, lizard like, twisting ability?

Even so, Mortimer is adept with his craft and exploits the unique qualities of the etching. The background tone is electrified with a visual static noise that adds an optical aurality. The hard, theatrical light on the face sets the right mood of otherworldly intervention. The sparse drawing of the shoulder provides enough information to define the anatomy and provide the effect of it thrusting into space yet allows all of the visual interest to rest on the expression of the face.

These etchings would be the apex and summation of Mortimer’s career. He would complete another suite of 15 etchings of allegories, banditti and various sea monsters that were dedicated to Joshua Reynolds. These were not as financially successful as the Shakespeare Characters and not as finely imagined. The subject matter of these final etchings had little to do with Reynolds work as a painter, but Reynolds was the founder and president of the Royal Academy. He influenced Mortimer’s election to the Academy in November of 1778. Mortimer dedicated his final etchings to Reynolds as an appreciation of the honor. Unfortunately, Mortimer would not fully exploit his membership to the Royal Academy, for three months later he died of a fever at age 39. His dissolute youth having caught up with him.

I had not been aware of the artist John Hamilton Mortimer until I saw his print of The Poet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition About Face: Human Expression on Paper. About Face was an entire exhibition devoted to character studies and the ways artists collect and depict human emotion for use in their studio practice. It included mostly works on paper and spanned Western art from the 16th -19th centuries. Of all the objects assembled, it was the etching of The Poet that stopped me and drew me to a closer viewing. Perhaps it was because that as an artist, the question of inspiration has become so hackneyed. For non-artists, inspiration seems to be the most perplexing and fascinating part of the creative process. For me, The Poet captured the myth of creativity perfectly. It was equally snide, and persuasive at the same time. It offered the non-artist the answer they expected, but also poked fun at their ignorance too. I chuckled at the image and determined to find out more about the artist.

In my research on Mortimer, his etching, and the art of the character study, it became clear that as with most art, there was not a single path to and from the genre of the grotesque. The artist’s practice is not merely reporting on what he sees. Instead, the best of art is an interpretation of the world through all of the artist’s senses. The act of singling out the extraordinary in humanity as something to share has associations with an artist’s interest in portraying the grotesque. To turn repugnance and ugliness around and embrace it can be considered subversive. The artist shows us with his insight and craft how to put our fears and our obsolete cultural biases aside to see the beauty in difference. The grotesque is not necessarily a mocking of another person’s misfortune. It is not a statement of, ‘I am blessed, but he is not.’ Instead, it is a celebration of the acceptance and the acknowledgement of the dignity inherent in all human form and the character that pervades all human faces.


Arthur Bruso © 2020


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  • Arthur Bruso

Updated: Apr 25


FIGURINE HEAD FRAGMENT, Central Mexico, Formative period, circa B.C. 1500 - A.D. 1 (Olmec Early-Middle Formative B.C.1500-400), Material: Clay, Dimensions: L: 2.76” W: 2.76” D: 1.18”

Olmec Pottery Head Fragment


In a world of nearly 7.8 billion people, it might be difficult to understand why the birth of more children adding to the population of an Earth choking from pollution and in the midst of unpredictable climate change would be looked upon as an event to be treasured and celebrated. Yet, universally, in every culture, the baby is a treasured symbol of regeneration and the future. All cultures have rituals and customs that ensure the fertility of both men and women. Conception, birth and healthy children are the necessary components for the perpetuation of the community. Without births and children, societies would disappear. While the reasons for marriage can be argued and can be different from one culture to the next, the conception and birth of children within a culture has always been looked upon as joyous occasion – despite modern personal or political beliefs. The rituals to aid conception can vary from dancing around maypoles (male virility), to eating pomegranates (female fertility), or sleeping under hawthorn trees (sympathetic magic because of the scent of the flowers). These and similar symbolic actions set the tone ensuring that the prospective parents are psychologically preparing themselves for parenthood even if it is performed under the guise of magic.

For most of human history, infant mortality has been high. The potential risks that can befall a child preventing them from surviving into adulthood have been many. For this reason, many rituals have been devised to protect children from whatever malevolent, supernatural evil may be lurking about, waiting to snuff out the vitality of youth. Hanging fennel over the crib (the pleasant scent of fennel is thought to be repellant to the devil) or placing a string of red coral beads around the child’s neck (the red color of the coral and coral’s associations with the animal, vegetable, and mineral energies led people to believe it attracted the life force) were popular at different times. Italians would hang a cross over the bed (as a Christian invocation to Christ for protection) or hang a horn (a replica of the devil’s horn would fool the devil into believing that the soul of the wearer is already corrupted) around the neck of the child. All of these had the same intention, to protect the child from harm; be it disease, physical misfortune or spiritual attack. During times of high infant mortality or child death, and a lack of understanding of why these calamities would happen, these actions were considered necessary and vital to protect the promise of the future.

Shortly after the onset of their civilization, one ancient society faced a perplexing and difficult situation regarding fertility, childbirth and the future of their nascent society. Olmec women were experiencing an unnatural increase in miscarriages. Infants were dying at an alarming rate. Concentrated in the present day central, coastal Gulf of Mexico states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec people emerged as a civilization around 1500 BC. They were the earliest major civilization in Mesoamerica. As a possible response to their dire predicament, the Olmec conceived a genre of baby-faced, figurative sculpture within their complex visual iconography. These have been termed by archaeologists as “the hollow baby figures” and may have been devised as protective magic to combat the miscarriages and infant deaths that had been plaguing their civilization.

These naturalistic, life-sized figures were fashioned from fired clay. They can be recognized by their infant-like bodies, a neonatal face, down-turned mouth and slit-like eyes. The heads are always large in proportion to the bodies. They are always nude except for (occasionally) a tight-fitting cap, but despite their nudity, they are not gender specific. The cap could have been a protection for the delicate infant skull, or it could be a depiction of the apparatus used to reform of the skull into a high, domed pear shape, since the Olmec practiced artificial cranial deformation.

The American Museum of Natural History has on display a fragment of a hollow baby sculpture. It shows just the nose, mouth and chin of the face. It is apparent from the extraordinary naturalism of this fragment that the modeling on these sculptures can be very subtle and skillful. The close observation of the lips, nose and the delicate detail of the emerging baby tooth all indicate a high degree of command in sculpting and in the ceramic firing process. In extant examples of these sculptures, it becomes apparent that the visual emphasis is always on the face. This pronounced attention to the modeling of the face is common in most Olmec figurative sculptural forms. For the Olmec, it indicates that a person’s greatest area of identity is concentrated nearly solely in their facial features. The attention to detail and interest in anatomical accuracy diminishes the further from the head the modeling proceeds. Often the toes and fingers are indicated with only the most rudimentary modeling or even just incised strokes.

The Olmec created a highly developed sculptural tradition in addition to the hollow babies. They were very adept in fashioning exceptionally hard stone such as jade and basalt into masterful works of monumental mien. There was also a strong convention of clay and ceramic sculpture that depict a range of subject matter from masks, small figurines, and genre figures, as well as creating monumental gods and altars that obviously took a cooperative community to carve and erect. What sets the clay baby sculptures apart from all other Olmec sculpture are their hollow construction. Their hollowness was achieved by wrapping sheets of clay around a combustible core. The various parts of the body were sculpted separately around the core. The separate parts were then fused together after completion to construct the whole figure. To construct the figures with a hollow interior, a greater understanding of ceramic construction, and forethought in firing was needed to keep them from exploding in the kiln. This skill-intensive method of manufacture indicates that a higher caliber of facility would have been necessary to construct these sculptures. The care and detail in crafting these objects suggests that they were held in high esteem by a culture who would readily pay the cost for such craftsmanship. Examples are also scarce by comparison to other solid ceramic artifacts. The few that have been found in situ have been discovered in large storage pits with other upper-class items, such as carved jade, and in the context of dwellings inhabited by aristocrats.

All of the figures are covered with white slip, regardless of the color of the clay used for construction. This is apparent, on the American Museum of Natural History’s fragment, where the white slip has chipped off exposing the brown clay underneath. Whiteness is an important indicator of the spiritual nature of these figures. It sets them apart from other objects by indicating the purity, cleanness or virginity of the objects. White is an indication to the spirits (and gods) that this object is ritually clean, renewed and proper for the ritual. The symbolic purity of white is believed to be an attractor to positive energy, and an announcement that the ritual object has been made acceptable for the magic.

Since it was difficult and time consuming to create them, the hollowness must have had a purpose. Was a hollow interior necessary so that the magic, the spirit, or the energy that was needed to animate the figure could live inside? Was an interior space required to contain the invisible essence of the person or entity they were intended for? The baby sculptures could have been used to attract the positive energy of fertility. If a woman or a couple wanted help in conceiving, the couple could commission one of these baby images and fill it with the magic of fruitfulness using the proper spell.

The Olmec babies figures may have been used for a variety of reasons beside for granting fertility: if a baby was sick, the figure could trap the bad energy of the sickness; if the child had died, the figure could hold the spirit of the dead child until certain rituals were performed to send the soul of the child onto its journey to the underworld. If the child was stillborn, the sculpture might have been used to contain the evil that caused the stillbirth. If a pregnancy miscarried, the baby figure could have been used as a spiritual way to complete the interrupted cycle, or to offer a way for the distraught mother to channel her grief and the negative spirits that took away the developing child. These sculptures and rituals could have been a way to find closure and acceptance at the end of hope and promise.

In magic rituals, determining identity is often required. If the magic is for an individual, having an image of the head or face of the recipient of the magic is usual. Without a portrait or image of the intended recipient, a physical piece of the person (hair, nail clippings, saliva, blood) or something the person wore or owned helps to focus the magic. Just a name can be used if nothing else can be obtained. The image, personal item or a person’s name all carry the spiritual energy or a bit of the soul of the subject. This is why some people believe that to photograph them is a means of capturing a part of their soul and fear that the image might be used for bad magic. The Olmec baby faces are both individuated and generic the same time. Some hold toys, some have features that look specific enough to be portraits, while some look more generalized. This may be because, depending on the circumstances of the magic, some were used for specific individuals, or some were used as an all-purpose child stand in. Clothing the baby figure physically transforms it to a magical being that is more personal, or more receptive to the intended ritual. The lack of gender indicators suggests that the figures may have been dressed in items and clothing that may have been or could be used by the child. This would strengthen the attraction or connection between the effigy and the soul or spirit. Since the genitals would be covered or hidden when clothed, they would not be necessary to include.


It seems perplexing that none of the hollow babies that have come to light thus far have been found whole. Most have been found broken or even fragmented, as if the breakage was intentional. This can be seen in the extensively fractured figure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This figure looks as if had been totally crushed, like an eggshell, seemingly by a blow just above the belly by a two-pronged tool. The most intact baby figure is held at the University of Texas at Austin. Even this one has a fracture under the neck that suggests the head may have been knocked off intentionally.

At the end of the ritual or at the end of the usefulness of the object, the magic had to be returned to the universe to complete the cycle and prevent the spirit from becoming trapped, or the residual magic might cause something bad to happen to the individual or community. Breaking the figures after the ritual would dissipate the contained energy and send it away. The final breaking does not have to be done immediately but could happen later under other ritualistic circumstances where the negative energy would be neutralized. This ritual breaking of a clay figure has parallels in other ancient Mexican cultures, especially the Colima culture. The Colima would place a clay figure at the entrance to their grave sites and break it to release the guardian spirit that they had trapped inside it.

University of Texas at Austin Hollow Baby Figurine

While the creation of the hollow baby genre may have been initiated by an increase in miscarriages among the Olmec, what was the cause behind the miscarriages? The Olmec baby sculpture genre is associated only with the early part of the Olmec civilization when the Olmec civilization was just coalescing from a group of forest villages. During this period of 1500 – 900 BC., as they culturally unified and transitioned into an agrarian society, they adopted corn as their main food crop. Corn as a staple food, does not provide all of the nutritional needs for complete human health and this could have been the culprit to the health problems of the Olmec and the invisible harbinger that inspired the hollow baby figures.

Corn became a food crop through hundreds of years of selective breeding and hybridization by an Archaic people who occupied the El Salvatore-Guatemala boarder. It was these people who first began cultivating a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte is the ancestor of modern maize. It is not precisely known why this unassuming plant attracted the notice of the Archaic boarder people. Weedy, tall, with unruly branching, it bears seeds that are teeth breakingly hard and nearly inedible in its natural state. It is an unlikely ancestor for the food crop that eventually became a staple and worshiped as a god for all of the Mesoamerican people. Teosinte does have one remarkable attribute, the seeds, when heated, pop. It could be that the explosive sound and projectile movement produced through the transformative action of heat on the seeds may have influenced the people to believe the plant contained a magical property. Also, the popping, while a remarkable and perhaps an entertaining event in itself, did make the seed soft and edible. Yet, whatever the fascination teosinte had for these ancient people, they began to grow it and through domestication and selective breeding, began to change it from an unruly weed to the straight, unbranched, unified, uniform modern maize that we know today. It was modified into a perfectly tamed, crop that fits exactly with our monocultural agriculture and is dependent on humans to cultivate it because it cannot propagate on its own.

Teosinte compared with modern maize.

Through interaction with the border peoples of El Salvatore-Guatemala, the Olmec adopted corn as their staple crop as well. By the time of the baby sculptures, maize was higher yielding and had developed the cob as the structure on which the seeds formed. The seeds were still too hard and unchewable, so the corn needed to be ground or popped to be eaten. Ground corn is labor intensive to produce and when consumed as a staple food, it is not a good source of available niacin. Niacin or vitamin B3 is a necessary nutrient for human health. Lack of it will cause a fatal condition called pellagra. Corn does contain sufficient quantities of vitamin B3 in its seed in its natural state, but it is not available in a form that is useable to the human body. However, when dry corn is processed with lime (calcium oxide), the niacin contained in the kernel becomes available for absorption by the human body. This process of adding lime to the corn is called nixtamalization. Soaking the corn in water and lime overnight, softens the tough outer pericarp of the corn enough to allow the corn to be kneaded into a dough with the hands. This relieves the laborious process of pounding or grinding the maize.

Another common symptom of niacin deficiency and the pellagra it causes, is a high incidence of miscarriage in pregnant women. When the production of the baby figures was at its height, it is known that the early Olmecs were not aware of the importance of nixtamalization to process their corn. The resulting dietary niacin deficiency may have caused a spike in miscarriages. The increase in the occurrence of miscarriages and an already high infant mortality rate may have caused a grieving and perplexed population to try and find a way to put an end to the loss. An appeal through magic to the gods using the baby figures may have been their answer.

How nixtamalization was discovered is not known. Lime was a common material used in Mesoamerican building techniques. It can be used as vermin control when dusted on corn seed, and it will leach out of shells of shellfish when they are cooked in water. Being near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, seafood was a large part of the Olmec diet. Softening the hard kernels to make them easier to process and eat was probably more important to the Olmec than increasing the nutritional value of their corn by soaking it in lime. Still, the convenience of this method of preparing the corn was outweighed by the profound results it had in preventing miscarriages and protecting the future of their civilization. By 900 BC, the Olmec had learned about nixtamalization. At around the same time, the production of the hollow baby figures ended.

At the onset of their civilization, the Olmec faced a grave challenge, which they did not understand. For some reason, women were losing their babies. Along with the profound grief this caused the parents, it also put the future of the civilization at peril. There did not seem to be an understanding of what was causing this calamity, so they turned to magic to try and solve their dilemma. Without understanding the scientific cause, this may have been their only option aside from doing nothing. Doing nothing could only offer more grief and threaten the future of their new civilization. The surrogate babies they built out of clay offered a way to channel their grief and allowed hope in their despair. They furnished the people something proactive to do instead of accepting this fate or waiting for the gods to bestow their favor. Devising the baby rituals allowed the people to purge or process the psychological negative aspects of the tragedy they were living through. It provided hope that they could somehow reverse the tragic, black magic they were engulfed in. Somehow, this helped them through these difficulties. While sculpting the hollow baby figures and performing the rite associated with them, through chance or through supernatural guidance, the solution was found, and the crisis ended. The future seems unknowable and random. It is the accidental nature of what lies ahead that makes humans fearful and want to find a way to perceive it and control it in some way. It is in our nature to want to keep the bad from happening and invite the good to bless us. What draws people to magic, is the belief that there is a way to influence the future outcome by appealing to a god or to banish some negative, invisible force. Because this sometimes works, it keeps us returning.


Arthur Bruso © 2020


#arthurbruso #artessay #whatiamlookingat #olmec #mesoamericanart #hollowbaby #olmecbabyfragment #americanmuseumofnaturalhistory #magic #clayfigure #ancientmexico #ritual #tensinte #corn #maize #sculpture #sympatheticmagic #nixtamalization #nicin #vitaminb3 #miscarriages #colima

  • Arthur Bruso


The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

Emily Dickinson


I don’t remember exactly when my mother brought home the cameras. She probably bought them in a thrift shop for about a quarter. That was her favorite way of shopping and her price point at the time. There were two of them, one a cream-sickle orange and the other a creamy mint-green – both sweet confections in their coloring. The orange one went to my sister Millie. I got the green one. I probably chose, maybe because I was there first when they came home. I don’t know for certain. I do know I liked the green one best because I associated the cream-sickle orange with girls. I was six and this was my first camera. At this time, I had not thought of owning a camera. I had not asked for one, but for a near-sighted boy who was used to looking at the world narrow and close, this new toy would become a magic box that opened new ways of seeing.

Imperial Mark XII my first camera.

The camera was an Imperial Mark XII, fixed focus, point and shoot. It was not complicated, its optics were cheap, and there was no flash. As an image-maker it was limited, but I would learn intuitively to work around those confines. It took 620 roll film, which was not expensive if you stayed with black and white. It made 12 exposures to a roll of film, standard at the time and enough if you were trying to find out what a camera was good for. I was eager to get started, my sister not as much.


My family was of the belief that photographs were used to record family holidays and events. Photographers, to my family’s understanding, did not exactly fall into the category of artists. There were photographers who had portrait studios, and photographers who shot weddings. Then there were photographers for newspapers and magazines who seemed to be a different category because they were doing a job. Then there were people who took up photography as a hobby. They seemed to just amass a lot of expensive equipment but took no better pictures than anyone else. Real artists drew and painted. Photography was somehow cheating for an artist. There was an awe and magic to the skill and talent of drawing and painting “freehand”; of translating an image to paper or canvas with only your eyes, hand, and a pencil or brush. With a camera, anyone could push a button and “take” a picture. Photographs just didn’t have the authorship of art. A photograph was something a machine made. They captured identity, but had no inherent identity. While this may have been the family zeitgeist, I was not thinking about any of it. I had a new toy and I wanted to play with it.

Thacher Park is a New York State managed wild area that lies to the west of Albany, where we lived. It is named after John Boyd Thatcher, a former mayor of the city of Albany and sits upon the Helderberg Plateau. The Helderberg Plateau was once the bottom of a Devonian sea 419 million years ago. It boasts some of the richest fossil bearing limestone on the East Coast. But its fame with the locals is for the Indian Ladder Trail. The trail was once accessible only by ladders made of tree trunks and was formerly used by indigenous people as a trade and transportation route. The log ladders have long been replaced by a metal stairway and the trail is short, easy, and has been prepared for tourists. It includes caves, waterfalls, underground streams and low-hanging rock, where you must stoop or crouch to walk under. It takes less than a half hour to traverse, but for children who were raised in the city with romantic ideas about Native Americans and life long ago, the possibility of walking the same trail that strange prehistoric animals once lived on and then Indians used, was pretty exciting. My brother Michael and I loved Thacher Park. Practically any rock you picked up had some kind of shell or ancient creature fossilized in it. We would explore the creeks that abounded there as well as walk the trail. We always came back with my father’s car laden down with several fossil rocks and a toad or two in a jar. Upon arrival at home, my mother would convince me to release the toads into the back yard. Where I would be disappointed never to see them again.

Thacher Park would be where I shot my first roll of film and Memorial Day would be my first chance to use my camera. We were going to have a family picnic. I was excited to have a chance bring along my new prize, so I asked for film so I could use it. My mother bought the film and then showed me how to thread it onto the spool to load it into the camera. The process seemed tricky, but I quickly got the knack.

With my first photograph, I naturally tried to capture the nearsighted way I was used to seeing. I wanted to photograph a close up of columbine flowers among foliage. I thought the flowers were unusual with their back swept spurs, and colorful with their red and yellow petals, which stood out from the green foliage of the brush surrounding them. However, in the resulting print, you cannot see the flowers at all. It did not register to my young mind that the film I was using was black and white. I had no experience with the way black and white film rendered the world, stripping out the color, leaving only shapes defined by their shadows and light. I also did not understand the limitations of the fixed-focus lens, or the concept of focus at all. My eyes, with the help of glasses, seamlessly adjusted to the distance I was looking at. But a camera does not have the advantage of a biological brain to make these judgments and adjustments by itself. I believed, in my youthful innocence, that what I saw would be transferred by whatever strange abilities of the camera onto the film, just as my brain made sense out of what I saw through my eyes. Not only was my new camera not good for close up images, but it necessarily reduces the real image to fit on the film. My image returned from the developer devoid of the green, red and yellow that attracted me, causing the bright colored columbine to disappear into the blurry gray of the surrounding foliage. I brought the camera closer to the subject than its lens could clearly focus on. So, there were rules and methods to learn with this new toy. Ideas would need an understanding of process to be executed. This was the first rule of art I may have learned.


A NEW WAY OF SEEING - No. 1 - First, my first photograph

My second image fared no better. It was a long view of a landscape from the top of the Indian Ladder trail. I was drawn to the white verticals of birch trees contrasting with the dark green foliage across the escarpment, but when I saw the printed photograph, the white line of the birch trees that I was so taken with were barely noticeable. And so, it was with most of the roll. Photographs with fingers poking into the frame edge, bad focusing, strange cropping, no consideration of the background and on. Now I see that each encounter with my camera was a learning experience, but at the time I may have been frustrated with some of the results. Yet, for the most part I was delighted with this magic box that captured these fleeting scenes forever. I could look back at these images and relive exactly the experience of being there. There was a wonder to this that I embraced into myself and made it part of me.


From then until now, I have not been without a camera. This became an important part of my image-making as I explored what being an artist meant to me. Since then, I have studied photography as well as other methods and means of making images and objects. I decided to look back to those first eager explorations of the camera. I wanted to see what I saw then and how I might change them now to improve (or not) what I captured at the time. Perhaps my more experienced and developed eye would better enhance the idea I was trying to convey; or even restructure the idea entirely into something different. Certainly, what fascinated me at six may not fascinate me now – unless it is true that by that age we become who we will be for the rest of our lives.

This revisiting of my juvenile work is achieved with digital prints, because following the wisdom of my mother, I threw out the negatives the day I retrieved the prints from the photo processing lab. My mother believed that the prints were what mattered, since I would not be purchasing (or she would not be funding) copies. Still, scanning the vintage prints offered more creative possibilities with reversing the ravages of time and reworking the concept of the image or the limitations of the camera. The processes are the same as I would use to approach any new work of art I were to create. Each image presented its unique possibilities to me. Some needed a fresh approach, some needed only an enhancement of contrast, others I cropped differently to make the composition work, still others I found worked best when I allowed some of the evidence of age and accident to remain. Then there were the few which I believed at the time were failures because they did not meet my expectations, were flawed, or suffered a faux pas of the shutter. These were always the most interesting to me, because they allow a different vision that I did not possess at that time.


I was told once by an instructor, that an artist should never try to revisit his earlier work. The general idea is that your concepts and skills have developed beyond that early work. Photography however has a lag time built into it that other visual media does not. It is often a two-part process, creating the image in the camera, then completing the image in the darkroom or in digital programs. The time from one step to the other can vary from seconds to years. Many photographers take years to develop finished prints from the backlog of images they have amassed. I find looking back at my juvenile interactions with the camera the same for me. I have been studying these images for many years, but now, some new vision has formed within my artist’s mind. I feel compelled to rework them and put them out in the world as new work. I see a different potential for these images than just my beginning fumblings with the camera. They make sense within my oeuvre for the first time. I am able to revisit them and bring to them some of my experience and as each age brings a different lens to the work, my hope is that how I reimagine them will still do honor to the past.


Arthur Bruso © 2019


This essay opens my book of photographs Each Age A Lens.

#eachagealens #arthurbruso #arthurbrusophotographs #photography #blackandwhitephotography #albanynewyork #thacherpark #indianladdertrail #columbineflower #anewwayofseeingno1first #juvenlia #imperialmarkxiicamera #photographs #family #landscape #nearsighted

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