Reading the Body: Johann Caspar Lavater and the Tradition of Physiognomy

Date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2008 – 09:00 to Monday, March 31, 2008 – 17:00
Location: 
Osler Library, McGill University
Organized by Interacting with Print

In his Essays on Physiognomy, Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801) defines physiognomy as “the Science of discovering the relation between the exterior and the interior.” The Swiss pastor proposes no less than “to decipher the original language of Nature, written on the face of Man, and on the whole of his Exterior” and “to trace a few of the Characters of that divine Alphabet.” This practice of reading the body, of interpreting facial features and expressions as signs to be decoded, draws on a long tradition, which begins with Aristotle and continues to inform modern sciences such as Emotion Psychology and Physical Anthropology.

As this exhibition wants to show, both the elaboration and the distribution of this physiognomic knowledge depended heavily on media other than the human body. Manuscripts and printed texts and especially images were called upon to render the body legible by illustrating the hidden relations between human physical features, character, moral disposition, animal traits, ethnicity, cosmic order, and divine providence. However, what qualified as signs, how these signs were to be decoded to count as evidence, and who was entitled to interpret them, depended on which scientific methods and cultural techniques were considered to best “promote the knowledge and the love of mankind.” Condemned in Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie as an “imaginary science” and praised by Lavater as the “science of sciences,” the history of physiognomy — and its deployment through the medium of the illustrated book — has much to tell us about the intersecting fields of science and art in the eighteenth century and their mutual quest for a universal legibility, whether of books, bodies, or images.

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