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Study information

The Face

Module titleThe Face
Module codeAHV3003
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Melissa Percival (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Why has the face so often been represented across times and different media? Can an image of the face ever fully recreate the real person? In what circumstances might the face be regarded as dangerous? What happens when the face is a site of (re)creation or alteration through surgery?

We consider representations of the face in the early modern and modern periods- in painting, sculpture, film, photography, skype, social media, facial recognition and surgical software.

A prior interest in visual arts or visual media is desirable.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module is taught by members of staff who have published and are still actively engaged in research on the face. It aims to introduce you to a range of representations of the face from different historical periods and across a variety of media. Using a thematic approach, it juxtaposes materials from different periods and in different media in order to tease out commonalities and differences. It aims to stimulate informed enquiry into the historical, cultural and technological determination of such representations and to integrate your independent research into this enquiry. You will be encouraged to consider the interdisciplinary apprehension of the face as it arises from the arts, medicine and everyday technology.

A ‘hands on’ awareness of specific artefacts will be developed via the resources of RAMM, the Bill Douglas Centre and medical software. The module seeks to engender a familiarity with technology and artefacts as well as advanced analysis of cultural discourses of the face and its visual representations.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. critically evaluate some of the dominant concepts, methods and debates concerning the face in the early modern and modern periods
  • 2. analyse coherently the role of different media in the representation of the face across the period

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. research, present and evaluate relevant visual materials
  • 4. make thematic connections between representations of the face in different media and relate them to the wider context of cultural and intellectual history

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. through writing and project assessments, demonstrate good research and bibliographic skills, an informed capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument, and a capacity to write clear and correct prose
  • 6. through project work, demonstrate the ability to work collaboratively orally and/or in written form, and in teams towards the development, research, organisation, and expression of ideas under pressure of time

Syllabus plan

The module addresses the following interlinked topic areas: 

The Face and Memory: The face stands in place of an absent loved one, eg in sarcophagi, tombs, memorials, portraits, miniatures, photography. What is the status of such representations, and what is the role of the face within them? How are such representations modified by present-day technologies of the face, and the visualisation of the other in Skype?

The Face as Icon: The power of the face to inspire reverence, adulation and command authority is considered from religious icons to the faces of celebrity culture. Iconographic representation is rooted in the face of Christ, but also gives rise to contemporary ‘icons’ (rulers, dictators, film and pop stars). Yet because of its power the icon can also provoke a violent urge to destroy and suppress, ie. iconoclasm.

The Changing Face: Change is a problem for a static medium such as painting or sculpture, since the image cannot account for changes in facial expression and also the effects of aging. The moving image allows much greater potential for the portrayal of facial movement but is subject to other constraints. This discussion is underpinned by a number of historical sources on pathognomy, the ‘science’ of the moving face.

The Legible Face: Many theorists have viewed the face semiotically, arguing that it offers a set of clearly legible signs to be decoded by the viewer. For artists and teachers such as Charles Le Brun, understanding the language of expression is key to the emotional force of the art work – the modern equivalent is emoticons. More controversially Johann Caspar Lavater claimed to have invented the ‘science’ of physiognomy, from which no person could hide. We will compare these historical models with the possibilities and limitations of facial recognition software in the present day.

The Illegible Face: A face that does not emote effectively, whose characteristics are hard to ‘read’ or whose movements seem uncoordinated and misleading, poses a fundamental challenge to both physiognomic and pathognomic discourses. We will consider case studies of such faces and their social implications within representative films, photography, and other media.

Self-Expression and the Face: Since the early modern period understandings of the face have been bound up with theories of facial expression as revealing an inner self, whether in terms of criminality, sentiment and sensibility or genius. We consider contemporary ideas of identity construction via photography, including in social media (Facebook), and self-portraiture.

The Beautiful Face: The face is the privileged location for ideas of beauty and ugliness, and a prime site of cosmetic surgery from the nineteenth century onwards. We examine skin and cosmetics, blushing, pallor, wigs and hair and their relation to aesthetic and surgical practices.

Concealing the Face: The act of concealing the face originates in culturally and religiously determined contexts (the veil, or hijab) and in response to cultures of surveillance (the mask and the hoodie). Facial concealment and aversion are related to concealment of emotion, conformity and its resistance, through seduction and play.

The Injured Face: Facial disfigurement remains a cause of social marginalisation and prejudice, despite its protection under the 2010 Equality Act. Facial reconstructive surgery has been carried out since medieval times, but rose to prominence in the west during and immediately after WWI. Due to the unprecedented level of facial injury seen during WWI innovative techniques were carried out by surgeons in the UK and France, in dialogue with artists who both painted those undergoing surgery and played a role in the creation of ‘portrait masks’.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching11Lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching11Seminars. These will be led by the tutor. You will need to prepare for the topic and present on a given topic on at least one occasion
Guided independent study128Private study

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Mini-essay750 words1-5Feedback sheet with opportunity for individual follow-up

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay903000 words1-5Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Participation and engagement10Five short reflective pieces1-5Oral

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-5Refer/Defer period
ParticipationMitigation/repeat study1-5

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Balazs, Bela, Bela Balazs: Early Film Theory (2011)
  • Belting, Hans, Face and Mask: A Double History (2017)
  • Biernoff, Suzannah, ‘Flesh Poems’
  • Coates, Paul, Screening the Face (2012)
  • Delaporte, François, Anatomy of the Passions (2008)
  • Gates, Kelly, Our Biometric Future and the Culture of Surveillance (2011)
  • Gehrhardt, Marjorie, ‘Gueules Cassées: The Men Behind the Masks, Journal of War and Culture Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, 2013, 267-281
  • Gilman, Sander, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (2000)
  • Percival, Melissa, The Appearance of Character: Physiognomy and Facial Expression in Eighteenth-Century France (1999)
  • Pointon, Marcia, Portrayal and the Search for Identity (2013)
  • Terada, Rei, Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the ‘Death of the Subject’ (2003)
  • West, Shearer, Portraiture (2004)
  • Woodall, Joanna, Portraiture: Facing the Subject (1997)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Face, portrait, photography, painting, film, new media, interdisciplinary, surgery

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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Available as distance learning?


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