Sunday, May 18, 2008

Music and Medicine Meet at...Forensic Art?!

Who's this?

Think sheep safely grazing. Sleepers awake. Mass in B minor. It's Bach!

This is totally old news, from last February, but I just found out about it and think it's totally cooooooool. Janice Aitken and Dr. Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Forensic and Medical Art at Scotland's Dundee University recreated the face of Bach using a bronze cast of his skull and historical documents describing features such as swollen eyelids from an eye condition. Dr. Wilkinson taught Joerg Hansen, director of the Bachhaus Eisenach, something that dispelled a common myth to which I've often subscribed: the furrow over the nose bridge, and facial furrows in general, have nothing to do with personality or character or temperament but rather are determined by skull anatomy. ""If you have that type of skull you have to furrow over the nose," Hansen explained. "But I also think he looks interesting."

Who hasn't daydreamed about traveling back in time? I think it's natural to be fascinated by the possibility of knowing what someone from the distant past looked like. In the 90's National Geographic put a reconstruction of King Tut's face on its magazine cover. Although it's true that skillfully painted portraits can be almost photographic, their accuracy depends on a contemporary witness, whereas a forensic artist can create an eerily compelling likeness across time by taking actual anatomic structures to recreate a face in three dimensions, layer by layer. It's simultaneously more distant and more intimate as a technique, requiring the artist to reach across sometimes vast chasms of time but also to touch a subject's innermost structures to and make visible "flesh" out of what has been ghostly memory of muscles and skin creases for centuries.

I couldn't resist including one more example here, though of course most people wouldn't consider it valid. An information systems consultant named Sebastian Ferreyra used the mysterious image on the Shroud of Turin, believed by some (but not by most) to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, to reconstruct a "face of Jesus." He hasn't finished the computer painting yet; it depicts Christ in death, resting in peace.

Whether it's a bust of Julius Caesar or a bronze mask of Agamemnon, artistic renderings of long-lost individuals captivate us, I think, because we enjoy imagining these almost mythic human beings as real people, flesh and blood just like our next door neighbor, our teacher, our political leaders, our friends, with the same vulnerability, potential for greatness, and mortality as any others. By imagining we can see them, almost touch them, they become less remote, their stories and deeds more accessible and, perhaps, even more thought-provoking and inspiring.

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