Beatriz Olabarrieta, New Clear Family, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin

“I grant you that in Fum-Fudge the greatness of a lion is in proportion to
the size of his proboscis–but, good heavens! there is no competing with
a lion who has no proboscis at all”
– Edgar Allan Poe, Lionizing

When lacking any other visual information but its protuberances, the outline of a face viewed from the side simply seems like an abstract line, whose ascendant and descendant parcours could emulate a mountain range. These mountain peaks known by some as facial protuberances – such as the nose, the mouth, or the chin– are known by others as Nasion, Pronasale Columela and Glabella. Meaningful patterns can be traced by connecting the points those names represent, and thus, a lateral face profile is not just a mere random line, but a set of landmarks aspiring to harmoniously connect.

The nose’s end, its highest peak, is not just a nose peak, but the cephalometric point Pronasale. In one of a million relationalities, Pronanasale is virtually linked to the most prominent point of the chin’s softest tissue, called Pogonion. The upper lip’s summit is not merely a sensual protuberance, but Labrale Superius, which almost kisses the imaginary line connecting Subnasal and Pogonion. Considering the whole head and, if there was a line cutting it in two, both sections above and underneath must match in order to be constitutive of a balanced face.

Orthodontist Viken Sassouni – among other Scientific luminaries – devoted his life to drawing these lines and curves, and to naming these points. With compasses and rulers, crossing out heads reduced to their outline, depicted through radiographies, Sassouni developed metric systems to be utilized in the judgement of how a pleasing anatomy should appear. The harmony imagined was based on equal proportions and matching sections, and thus the virtual line connecting the Pogonion with Pronasale would determine how many degrees distanced an individual from normality. Like the stars in the sky which form Andromeda or Aquarius, those landmarks can be grouped and connected, revealing a certain reality of a person’s morphology and its concord with an aesthetic establishment. A lot can be told by a head’s mere contour, by an ultimate reduction of such a complex group of features which are the face!

Prior to the advent of photography, and much prior to the advent of radiography, head profile cuts from black cards appeared as a cost effective way to record a person´s appearance. These simplified forms of portraiture concealing the ornamental forms omnipresent in painting and sculpture, became popular in eighteenth century French society. Because of their simplicity and lack of visual details, these outlined shapes filled in with dark colours were reproduced and collected on a mass scale and viewed as a viable form of entertainment.

After landing in this eighteenth century French society from Biarritz, his Basque name Zilhoeta – an area full of chasms and caves– was Francisized to Chevalier Arnaud de Silhouette, which better fit in the snobby noble context of the time. And so, Zilhoeta became Silhouette, and his son became finance Minister under King Louis XV’s. His goal in politics was to balance society’s wealth, but his strict approach was seen as stingy by the nobles, and his name found colloquial use as a designation for cheapness and lack of distinctive features, by saying “ faire de quelque chose à silhouette”. In those days, it was considered that a face’s outline provided no relevant visual information regarding the subject’s features. Therefore, due to their cheaper price and supposed incapacity to provide any meaningful information, these black portraits outlining the face’s contour became what we all know today as silhouettes.

originally published at