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Laughing or Weeping?

Friday, July 18, 2008 - 10:00 AM

The excellent Brooklyn-based quarterly Cabinet dedicated its Spring ‘05 issue to laughter. You’re just going to have to buy a copy, because only a very small portion is available online…including this fine essay by Chris Turner on the fluid boundary between laughing and crying:

“Between the expressions of laughter and weeping there is no difference in the motion of the features,” Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his posthumously published Treatise on Painting, “either in the eyes, mouth or cheeks.” With the difference between the physical expression of emotions so subtle, artists had a challenge on their hands: How to differentially depict, in the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the “frantic joy of a Bacchante and the grief of a Mary Magdalene”?

To do so, artists relied on a staged iconography of expression and posture, codified in handbooks such as Charles Le Brun’s A Method to Learn to Design the Passions (1667), in which Le Brun adapted Descartes’s Passions of the Soul (1649) into a visual lexicon of twenty-four emotions. Here, a menacing portrayal of the laughing face immediately precedes the illustration of a crumpled, crying one, almost as if the expressions were modulations of one another, but with certain differences artificially accentuated, especially in relation to the ruffling of the brow. Thus Le Brun created a stylized, histrionic vocabulary of the passions easily recognizable as tragic or comic on both canvas and stage.

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