Scholarly article on topic 'The Thatcherisation of faces'

The Thatcherisation of faces Academic research paper on "Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music)"

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Academic research paper on topic "The Thatcherisation of faces"

Perception, 2008, volume 37, pages 807-810 doi:10.1068/p3706ed

Guest editorial essay

The Thatcherisation of faces

Peter Thompson's delightful manipulation of a Conservative Party poster depicting a smiling Margaret Thatcher (Thompson 1980) has spawned a mini-industry! Inverting the eyes and mouth while maintaining the upright orientation of the head has a profound effect on the appearance of the face which is not matched by inverting the whole configuration. The disruptive effects of inverting a whole face had long been known, but this partial inversion was a novelty, and one that has been imposed on most heads of state since 1980! Computer graphics have rendered such transformations seamless in contrast to the literal cutting and pasting of the original.

Pictorial satire of politicians is likely to be as old as its literary twin, and it has been the object of similar censure by those in power. A good example of their combination is the fine imposed on Le Charivari in the 1830s for the portrayals of Louis-Philippe as a pear: 'poire' meant more than the fruit as it was slang for 'fathead', too (Childs 1992; Rhodes 1997). The royal opprobrium led to further perceptual indignity as the artist, Charles Philipon (1800-1862), posed the pictorial puzzle of defining where the personage ceased and the pear began (figure 1). The courts could not decide

Figure 1. Les Poires by Charles Philipon, derived from an illustration in Le Charivari.

where the transition took place and so banned images of pears, displaying at a stroke the power of perception and the poverty of censorship. Caricature continues to intrigue the unprejudiced eye and to provoke those portrayed.

The 'poires' saga highlights the difficulty of defining the constituent parts of faces and the limits of the marks required for their depiction. The point had been even more starkly presented in the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 -1593). His faces were compiled from pictorial elements that bore little relation to their surface properties—flowers, feathers, and fruit were arranged to be recognised as pictures of faces. He even represented practitioners of professions, like lawyers and librarians, using items involved in their endeavours; he was kinder to librarians than to lawyers! Moreover, some of his portrayals were intended to be seen upright or inverted. The centrality of the eyes in combinations of upright and inverted portraits can be seen in figure 2, which is derived from a self-portrait by Arcimboldo.

Figure 2. [In colour online, see] Arcimboldover by NicholasWade. Arcimboldo's self-portrait has been manipulated to amplify the symmetry of the eyes, which are shared in the upright and inverted faces.

Most of Arcimboldo's fascinating faces were painted in profile. In this way, the dominant nose could be more readily alluded to, as could the chin. This in turn related to even earlier manipulations of face recognition, and ones that are involved in the Thatcher illusion. There is a second-century Roman beaker with upright and inverted models of heads sharing the same eyes (Wade et al 2003) as well as old engravings which use the effect for humour or satire (Wade 2007; Wade and Nekes 2005). Pictures combining both an upright and inverted face demonstrate the significance of orientation of the eyes and mouth in recognition. They have tended to use either the mouth or the eyes as the symmetrical axis for the inversion. A rule of thumb appears to be that upright/inverted faces shown in profile tend to use the mouth as the axis of inversion, whereas those showing more frontal views are more likely to use the eyes as the common features (figure 3). The paradox of face recognition research is that the features shown to be so important (eyes and mouth) are those that are most mobile and therefore the most difficult to capture pictorially.

Figure 3. Profile and frontal upright/inverted faces showing the mouth or eyes as the common features (derived from Pfeiffer 1993). The profile, of a Lutheran and a jester, is from around 1520) and the frontal view, depicting the good life and its consequences, is from the second half of the seventeenth century.

Margaret Thatcher was not the first politician to be warranted partial pictorial disfigurement. A Norwegian artist, Kjartan Slettemark, applied similar sleight of scissor to posters of Richard Nixon. I came across Slettemark's work at an art gallery in Bergen, and figure 4 shows a rather poor photograph taken of sixteen such selective scissorings. One inverted the eyes alone, but none inverted eyes and mouth in the manner of Thompson's Thatcher illusion, and none inverted the whole face while retaining the upright orientation of eyes and mouth. A wider range of variations can be seen on Slettemark's webpage ( by selecting first 'Art' and then 'nixonVisions'.

Some of Slettemark's Nixon pictures achieved particular notoriety after they had been purchased by the Norwegian Parliament and hung in the meeting room of the foreign-affairs committee. In 2004 they were removed because they were considered to convey an inappropriate political message! It is heartening to learn that power still resides in perception rather than politics.

Acknowledgments. I am most grateful to Werner Nekes for directing me towards Pfeiffer's book and to Peter Thompson for comments on an earlier version.

Nicholas J Wade

University of Dundee, Dundee DDI 4HN, Scotland; e-mail:

Figure 4. [In colour online.] A photograph of Kjarstan Slettemark's Nixon Visions (1971 - 1973). References

Childs E C, 1992 "Big trouble: Daumier, Gargantua, and the censorship of political caricature'' Art Journal 51 26 - 37

Pfeiffer H, 1993 Wende-Köpfe. Von der Kunst der drehbaren Bilder (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag) Rhodes G, 1997 Superportraits. Caricatures and Recognition (Hove, E. Sussex: Psychology Press) Thompson P, 1980 "Margaret Thatcher: a new illusion'' Perception 9 483-484 Wade N J, 2007 "Artful visions'' Spatial Vision 21 27-53

Wade N J, Nekes W, 2005 "The two faces of Rex Whistler (1905- 1944)'' Perception 34 639 - 644 Wade N J, Kovacs G, Vidnyanszky Z, 2003 "Inverted faces'' Perception 32 1-6

2008 a Pion publication