Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/Exaggeration as an Aesthetic Factor



EXAGGERATION is a natural tendency of our minds, and the fact is recognized by every psychologist. Yet, when we study human thought and action, we forget the propensity to exaggeration and exercise our ingenuity in accounting for seemingly odd social facts which could be readily explained by applying this principle. There are not, perhaps, any branches of human activity in which the tendency to exaggerate is not marked. We might observe its effects in all branches of science if we should bring them up one by one. In history, persecutions and revolutionary disturbances have resulted from the exaggeration of an idea which may have been just in itself, but, taking possession of the mind, it assumes an absolute character, while nothing intervenes to counterbalance it; and, acting under the domination of an exclusive preoccupation, men commit deeds of a most astonishing character. In linguistics, the influence of the same principle may be seen in the transformation of languages, through the prevalence in certain classes of society of the affectation of peculiar pronunciations. So the investigator, having discovered and proved a fact, tries to generalize it and magnify its importance; and sometimes he is able to make his contemporaries participate in the error. Yet the exaggeration is occasionally justified, and then occurs one of those great discoveries that mark new eras.

I shall not go into all these questions, but shall examine simply the part played by exaggeration in our idea of the beautiful; nor shall I consider whether, as some philosophers believe, there is an ideal of beauty—a beau ideal—outside of and above us, but shall confine myself to the illustration of the conceptions of beauty exhibited in the customs of the various races of men.

When we look at the ornamentation of costumes, for instance, and at devices for enhancing personal appearance, we find that they have been carried so far as to provoke mutilations. The negroes of Africa, strongly differentiated as they are from other races, are prone to exaggerate the peculiarities of their physiognomy. With lips already thick, some tribes stick thorns into them to provoke irritation and cause them to swell out still farther. The Wolowe women of the Senegal have learned to increase the prognathism or projection forward of the upper jaw. According to Faidherbe's description of the process, "as soon as the girl child's first incisors have appeared, they are extracted with a pair of pincers, and when the second begin to come out they are forced by a continual action of the lower incisors and the tongue into a forward direction." The negro women of the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to make their breasts larger, cause them to be stung by ants. The women of the Assinians of Guinea are, according to Mondière, still more ingenious. It is a sign of beauty among them, he says, to have the largest possible nipples; and "children of five years, as well as larger ones, may be seen hunting the nymphæ of the Myrmidus fornarius and pulling at their breasts while the insects bite them, to make them swell more quickly."

The negroes are also proud of their woolly hair, and some of them go so far as to build an enormous structure on their heads. Travelers say that the plaited headdress of the young women at Jenna, in the valley of the Niger, looks like a dragon's crest. The same custom prevails in Oceania among the Fijians, who have woolly hair too, and wear coiffures measuring as much as about five feet in circumference.

Many peoples—Malays, Kirghis, Hottentots, Namaquas, Bushmen, Brazilian Indians, and Society Islanders—are addicted to the practice of flattening their noses, and sometimes, as in the case of the Hottentot Venus, they break the bone. On the other hand, peoples who have thin noses can never get them aquiline enough. Persians cultivate this shape by pressing the sides of the nose, and the custom existed in France in the sixteenth century.

Paint, by which the appearance of the features may be modified at the least cost, is much used by all peoples. Sometimes it is employed to extend the beard. Aino women think it a fine thing to have a mustache, and by this means give themselves a full one. Opposed to them are the American Indians, who, being almost beardless, pull out the few beard hairs they have.

Black eyes and thick eyebrows are highly esteemed in the East, and the women use kohl for the production of the desired effect. The ancient Egyptians were fond of large, almond-shaped eyes, and produced the appearance of them by painting a prolongation of the outer commissure of the eye. The custom prevailed widely, and is represented in all the sculptures. The Japanese, too, like almond eyes, but want them oblique, and secure that appearance in the same way, only giving a different direction to the stroke. This particular custom has disappeared from among other peoples, but the use of paints still continues, and we paint our lips rosy and blacken our eyebrows.

The origin of these practices is evident. There are others the motives of which are more debatable, but are elucidated on comparison with these. We mention especially the atrophy of the feet among the Chinese. Some have attributed it to the jealousy of husbands, or to regard for a queen who lived many centuries ago and was lame; but Malte-Brun and Ploss say that the Chinese naturally have small feet. Their women have sought to exaggerate this ethnic characteristic.

The object, in the examples we have cited, has been to accentuate a characteristic of the race. In other cases man exaggerates the weight or the volume of an ornament assumed originally for another purpose. According to Herbert Spencer, the ornament was primarily a sign of distinction. It was worn in a conspicuous place as a testimonial of a successful hunt or of a victory over the enemy. Savages still hang human teeth or the claws of wild beasts from their noses, lips, and ears. The Chibchas wear in this way chains formed of as many golden feathers as they have slain enemies.

The next step is to increase the volume and weight of the ornaments. Under the spur of emulation the ear lobe, for example, is loaded down with trinkets till it is stretched so as to touch the shoulder. The enlargement of the ear lobe then becomes the desirable thing to the savage, and his chief effort is to bring it about. Under a like perversion of taste, similar effects are produced with the stick inserted into the thick of the lips. In this way some peculiar features of mutilation hitherto obscure to ethnologists are reasonably explained—deformations practiced in all the quarters of the world by diverse peoples in no way related to one another, but urged by the same thought arising spontaneously in their minds. The value of the object inserted in the ear, lips, or nose varies according to the wealth of the wearer. The rich use something that is considered precious, as alabaster, rock crystal, or ivory among-different African tribes; while a poor man contents himself with a disk of horn or metal, or even a simple rolled leaf. The more wealthy he is, the heavier is the ornament and the more accentuated the deformation. While attention has not been particularly directed to this point, some travelers have noticed that the degree of mutilation varies in the same people according to the coquetry, wealth, or rank of the person. Sometimes the fancy runs to enormous bracelets and rings, the Bongo women wearing such ornaments weighing twenty-five kilogrammes. These shackles of enormous weight have been interpreted by some sociologists as reminiscences of slavery; Park Harrison supposed that the enlargement of the ear lobe was an offspring of sun worship; and other authors have invented a desire to resemble venerated animals as the prompting motive for mutilations.

Of kindred character with the deformations already described are those due to a desire to show that the subject is not obliged to work for his living. The mandarins and literati in Annam and China let their finger nails grow long and inclose them in sheaths. A similar custom exists in Polynesia and some parts of Africa. Fatness is a mark of woman's beauty and signifies ease and wealth in Uganda and among the Tuaregs. In contrast to these, the Javanese are proud of extreme thinness, and eat clay to produce it. This is an exaggeration of a characteristic of their race, for they are naturally slender.

Whatever is the fashion comes from the principle of exaggeration, and our clothes are shaped according to the same law. It is not more ridiculous to stretch the ear lobe till it lies on the shoulders than, as was done at the end of the fourteenth century, to wear shoes with toes so long that the ends of them were tied to the knee; or to wear the enormous ruffs of the reign of Henry III of France, and those structures which nearly doubled the height; or the headdresses of the time of Louis XIV, or the extravagant crinolines of thirty years ago.

We look upon the ways of our ancestors as ridiculous and incomprehensible, without considering that we are acting very much like them. We often meet at parties and balls persons who go beyond the present fashion, some exposing more of the shoulders, and some wearing more pointed shoes. A fashion modest in the beginning is made absurd by a continued course of exaggeration. We never reach the most extravagant form in the beginning, but it is the culmination of a series of modifications becoming progressively more accentuated. Thus, the long-toed shoes were the growth of more than a century. The point began about the middle of the thirteenth century, reached its longest at the end of the fourteenth century, and disappeared all at once in 1420, when it gave way to the square-toed shoe.

The influence of exaggeration in forming the ideal of beauty is illustrated, too, in the art of different peoples. One of the elements of a Siamese woman's beauty is, according to M. Léon Rosny, an arched shape of the eyebrows, causing them to resemble crescents; and if we examine photographs of these women we shall find that the curvature of the eyebrows is indeed more marked in them than in their neighbors, the Annamites and Burmese. This feature is much exaggerated in their statues, and is most strongly indicated in the Buddhas in the Musée Guimets. The Hindus are even more slender and tall than Europeans, and admire a full pelvic development in women. While we have tightened our corsets to increase the appearance of slenderness and heighten the contrast between the waist and the hips, our admiration for classic art has prevented our carrying these exaggerations into statuary; but the Hindus have not refrained, and their works therefore have a very peculiar character.

The Siamese and Hindus, however, are not highly esteemed as artists. We will now, therefore, take some examples from a people in whom the high excellence of this faculty is undisputed—the Japanese. While their designs are usually very various, when they come to depict feminine beauty they exhibit a single type, which we find identical on all the "Kakemono." It is a strange kind of beauty, with the face greatly elongated, the nose continuing the profile of the forehead, and the eyes excessively oblique; a beauty rare enough in Japan, where the plebeian woman's face is short and round, but which may be found in the patricians and in the courtesans of high rank. We can prove the exaggeration here by figures. In the Japanese photographs the line of the eyes forms an angle of from two to seven degrees with the horizontal. This is said by some authors to be only in appearance, but M. Regalia has proved its reality by measurements of the cranial orbits. In the Japanese drawings the line makes an angle of from thirty-five to forty-four degrees. A comparison of these with old drawings of the eighteenth century will show that the exaggeration has become much more marked in the present century.

The Grecian portrait seems the perfection of the human type to us, and artists copy it, although it is actually rare. In it the line of the nose is more or less perfectly the prolongation of the line of the forehead. The hollow at the root of the nose is almost effaced, and the prominence of the nose is softened. The absolute Grecian profile would therefore be represented in a drawing by a single continuous line for the forehead and nose. Yet another condition is essential for obtaining the fine Grecian profile. The forehead should not be receding. This marks the distinction between the Grecian and the Egyptian profile. The artists who lived under the Theban dynasties represented the human profile by a single line for the forehead and nose; but the line was oblique, making the nose prominent and the forehead retreating. They simply exaggerated a race characteristic—as may be shown by examining the mummies or the fellahs of the present time.

Several theories have been offered to account for the Grecian type of profile. Its existence in the Hellenic race has been denied. The few Grecian skulls in our possession present it very rarely, but some of them incontestably approach it. It may have been more common in the aristocratic caste. We must certainly acknowledge that it was not common, but it does not follow that it did not exist. It may still be found, though not very often, at Aries and Marseilles; and I have perceived it in some profile photographs of Greeks of Asia Minor in the collection of the Société de Géographie of Paris. It has been suggested that the Grecian profile was hieratic, borrowed from the Egyptians, improved upon and transformed. It is true that the archaic Grecian sculptures, as at Mycenæ, display a profile with salient nose and retreating forehead, and that the type was persistent on many funeral vases. Grecian art may have imitated Egyptian in its beginnings, although it is believed now that the imitation did not play a very preponderant part in the matter. But when, at a later period, the artists created the special profile of their statues, they could not have been guided by reasoning alone. This would be opposed to all the observations on the subject made by other people. They may have designed it, but to do so they had to start from visual perceptions. A third supposition is that the artists exaggerated a type which they had opportunities of observing among their countrymen, especially in the aristocratic and literary classes. An examination of the ancient statues will throw light on this point. In studying the pictures of the great men of Greece reproduced in the Iconographie Grecque of Visconti, it will be remarked that a large number of them resemble the ideal type copied in the statues of the gods. In order to proceed with mathematical exactness we have measured the angle, the apex of which is the root of the nose and the sides a line drawn from that point tangent to the forehead (disregarding the projection of the sinus) and the prolongation of the line of the nose. We have applied this measurement to twenty-seven profiles of statues of celebrated men, passing by all that could not be certainly identified, and taking only those on which the name was engraved, and which bore evident resemblance to the figures on their medals. We likewise passed over mythological personages like Homer, Sappho, and others, whose existence is not fully proved, and kings whose features might have been idealized for the sake of flattery. The angle thus determined measures from seven to fifteen degrees on the master-works of ancient statuary, statues of divinities and heroes. Of the twenty-seven human statues measured, five had angles of fifteen degrees or less, seven of between fifteen and twenty degrees, eight of between twenty and thirty degrees, and seven of thirty degrees and more. A small number of these profiles, it will be observed, present angles not departing greatly from those of the statues of the gods. We do not establish a mean from these, for we recognize that the sculptor may have exaggerated in the case of subjects who presented marked profiles. It can not be objected that the artist sought to idealize these men of genius; for the purest profiles are not those of the most celebrated characters. Solon, Plato, and Socrates, who enjoyed so great fame, appear to less advantage than Hermarchus, Bias, and Epaphroditas, who were much less well known.

We can obtain a more exact conception of the special characteristic of these statues by comparing them with the figures in Visconti's Iconographie Romaine. The Romans all had a very convex nose with the root usually depressed; and a tangent could not be drawn from that point to the forehead, even if the projection of the sinus were neglected. Of fourteen persons examined, only four had that line tangent to the forehead, while it was secant on all the others. The Grecian bust, on the other hand, had it tangent, with only two exceptions. Furthermore, the angle is very open in the Roman busts, ranging from twenty-four to forty-eight degrees. It appears, then, that the Greeks, like other peoples, established their ideal type by starting with the real and exaggerating certain qualities.

In this study of exaggeration as an element of æsthetic art, I make no criticism, but rather place myself in the position of those artists who see in the ideal something beyond and above the real. This conception has been assailed. In the eyes of many, the artist should confine himself strictly to copying the real, and be nothing but the inferior rival of the photograph—or rather, perhaps, of the composite photograph, which gives the mean of the features of several persons by fixing them upon a single sensitive plate. When anthropologists recognize the merits of artists canons, they regard them as the expression of the truth, because they represent the mean proportions of a large number of individuals. The camera is doubtless useful to beginners, and helps them to avoid great errors; but the artist has nothing to do with it; he takes his inspiration from Nature, and his canon will vary according to the subject he treats. A slender and nimble runner will not have the proportions of an athlete. Furthermore, the artist will put something of his own into his subject, exaggerating, usually without thinking of it, some features that have impressed him, and ignoring others.

Such departure from truth is not necessarily wrong. Exaggeration, like all our tendencies, may have a good or a bad result, according to the use that is made of it. We reprehend it when it develops unpleasant traits into undue prominence, or when it imprisons us in inconvenient and unseemly garments. But when it emphasizes among the traits of our countenance those which are associated with intelligence, bringing out the forehead which thinks, augmenting the facial reliefs upon which emotion is expressed, and retiring the merely physical features, it offers an attractive ideal and one that should not be despised.

We are not wrong when we admire the beauty of those among us in whom the characteristics of our race are exaggerated. They possess in the highest degree those features which are in course of development, they represent the generations of the future, and are worthy, by this title, to be perpetuated.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.