“The face is our most potent symbol of personality,” wrote Mina Loy in the opening to her 1919 feminist manifesto Auto-Facial-Construction. For Loy and her fellow modernists, the face was an object of intense creative and theoretical interest, as much as it was an agonizing symbol for the crisis of the human condition. But whose face was it? Who (or what) is the face of modernist literature, if such a sweeping overstatement might warrant our consideration?

For many readers, abstracted or alienated faces are perhaps the first to come to mind. Faces that are “Petals on a wet, black bough” as Pound wrote them or, more menacingly, the face of H.D.’s “Eurydice,” where subject and object collapse, and image and narrative dissolve, under the crystalline power of the gaze:

What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.

Put side by side, what Pound and H.D. together convey is that many modernist writers were far less interested in describing the face (its features, its expressions, its shape, its hues) than they were in evoking its psychological, affective and aesthetic force. This impulse is the focus of Georg Simmel’s 1901 essay “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face,” in which he argues that of all the parts of the body, the face has the highest degree of inner unity, a unity achieved out of the face’s “singular malleability” which makes it the “geometric locus … of inner personality.”

But not all writers accounted for modernity through a necessarily aesthetic attention to the face. For some novelists especially, the universality of facial expression became a contested point as new technologies for recording, representing and “reading” the face threw into question preexisting methods for understanding and writing interiority. In the work of Virginia Woolf, for instance, a face (or a look shared between two people) is often the catalyst for powerful, albeit discursive, introspection; sometimes, an entire scene. Consider a moment in To the Lighthouse where Woolf captures Mrs. Ramsay’s elated response to the emanating beacon of light through an intersubjective encounter with the spectre of Mrs. Ramsay’s own face:

She looked up over her knitting and met the third stoke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie.

Here, as we frequently find in Woolf’s novels, faces are invoked not for the intricacies of their external signifiers per se, but rather as fleshy canvasses that set the mind in motion; an “objective correlative” for life and the mind itself. So, while the turn of the twentieth century ushered in the alienated, depersonalized face, the face of analytical cubism, the impersonal face that Eliot told us there would be “time to prepare,” the face of H.D.’s imagism and the contorted face of Munch’s The Scream, it also returned the face to its most enduring ontological state: at the paradoxical border between interior and exterior worlds.

This second volume of essays takes up this paradox through the work of modernists who are significantly less known than those just mentioned. In a collaboration between Lost Modernists and Literature and the Face: A Critical History, the authors consider the shifts in form, function and representation that took place as the human face entered into a new relationship with aesthetic value, identity and culture in the context of literary modernism.

In the first essay, Anna Learn draws on Namwali Serpell’s theorisation of the erotic potential of the face in Stranger Faces (2020) to examine Indian writer Rashid Jahan’s 1937 short story “Woh” with an attention to the ethical and political implications of facial disfigurement. In a persuasive close reading of gendered and homoerotic narrative encounters, Learn’s essay poses a critical question not just for Jahan’s role as a key feminist figure in the Progressive Writers’ Movement of India but for studies of gender and the face more broadly: “Why is it so crucial to stress the face as the site of social, moral, or political danger in the story, instead of the female body more generally?”

Continuing the volume’s interest in faciality and gender, Laura Hartmann-Villalta explores the portraiture experiments of Hungarian-born Mexican photojournalist and surrealist photographer Kati Horna (1912-2000). By drawing attention to Horna’s habit of capturing subjects who are at once universal and yet resist easy interpretation, the essay shows how her works complicate critical understandings of modernism by revealing the inextricability of Surrealism and portraiture as a site of feminist experimentation.

Ryan O’Shea’s essay then takes the cluster in an unexpected direction by turning to what he calls ‘scenes of nose consciousness’ in modernist writing. Focusing on French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), O’Shea shows how, due to its prominence on the face and its “demand for maintenance,” the nose is often read as the locus for modernist questions of identity and “emplacement in the world.” The essay’s lively theorizations conclude with attention to Japanese writer Ryūnnosuke Akutagawa’s 1920 satirical short story “The Nose,” which charts a Buddhist monk’s obsessive attempts to come to terms with “reconstituting acts of perception.”

Turning from the recognizability of the nose to faces that offer an uncanny reminder of faces one “fears recognizing,” Guy Webster’s eloquent essay explores the ‘dead face’ in the work of British suffragette and writer May Sinclair. Focusing on representations of the face in death in Sinclair’s Imagist verse novel The Dark Night (1924), the essay shows how Sinclair uses the face in her work to problematize subjectivity as well as “to connect her aesthetic interests with an affective experience indebted to the Gothic genre.”

Concluding the cluster, I consider the fragmented face in the poetry of Laura Riding Jackson, an enigmatic figure known for her close literary partnership with Robert Graves and as editor of Epilogue. In Jackson’s work the face appears as a deeply contested, intensely imagistic and intellectually obsessive motif where themes of “love, death, existence, and accuracy are staged on a grand and mythologizing scale.” Through a brief reading of the face’ poems contained in The Close Chaplet (1926), I consider how, for Riding Jackson, the face is a site through which hermeneutics are most incisively explored, exploded and mocked.  

Across all five essays, the face is read as a site of negotiation, contestation, celebration, elation and terror through which the theoretical dilemmas of literary modernism are played out. The authors consider, too, how modernist techniques of writing (imagism, stream of consciousness, ekphrasis, fragmentation) are tested and reconceptualized through the face in ways that offered new approaches for understanding identity, subjectivity and personal expression. The cluster shows in no uncertain terms how, if modernism signaled a conscious break with the past, the faces that it took into the future were nothing if not intensely, evocatively and paradoxically, historical.

Tyne Daile Sumner

Research Fellow

The University of Melbourne

April 18, 2023

Tyne Daile Sumner is a Research Fellow in English in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research expertise is in C20th American poetry, lyric studies, surveillance, digital humanities and cultural data. She is author of Lyric Eye: The Poetics of Twentieth-Century Surveillance (Routledge 2021) and has published and forthcoming articles in Antipodes, Gender & History, Australian Literary Studies, Journal of Intercultural Studies and others. Together with Professor Stephanie Trigg, Dr Joe Hughes and Professor Guillemette Bolens, Tyne is part of the ARC-funded project Literature and the Face: A Critical History, based at the University of Melbourne.