Tête-à-Tête by Diana Matar
In May 2019, I was offered an artist’s residency at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, which holds an extensive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. This came at a time when I had been thinking about some of the ideas that were put forth by a group of European philosophers at the end of World War II. They suggested that the face is the point where two people connect and, as such, the place where justice might be possible between human beings. I was particularly interested in Emmanuel Levinas’s suggestion that a true encounter between two people is how we can hope to understand one another’s particular uniqueness in the world. It led me to ask what it actually means to see one another?
The day I arrived in Naples, there was a demonstration. Neapolitans and immigrants gathered under the rain to protest against the inhumane treatment of foreigners arriving to Italian shores. They filled Piazza del Gesù, the square in the historic district where I was staying. I dropped off my bag and went in among the crowds. After an hour or so I left the protest and walked up the hill to the museum. I was given a card that allowed me to enter the museum at all times, even when it was closed. And, in the preceding weeks, I went there every day.
I looked at the work of artists who, centuries earlier, had studied the human form. They sometimes aimed to exalt and idealize, but more often than not they sought to execute a likeness. I looked at faces on ancient coins, in delicate mosaics that had been carefully excavated from the ruins of Pompei, and the faces of warriors in the midst of battle on the Darius Vase (340-320BC). But mostly I returned to the sculptures. I found myself circling around them, staring into their eyes. The features and expressions of these classical faces were uncannily familiar. They were mirrors of the faces I had seen at the protest in Piazza del Gesù. They revealed that the classical face, often spoken of in terms of an idealized representation, was in fact anything but uniform: it was African, European and Arab; it was sometimes heroic, but often times immersed in private feelings or thoughts, as though caught unawares.
As I studied the collection more closely, I was surprised to find that, even though the sculptures were made of stone, they were dynamic; that if one attended to them, they responded. Through the camera I saw personalities displaying unique psychologies and imperfections, individuals with scars, physical deformities and emotional complexities. I saw the man on the street corner, the woman in the shop, the boy who had left his family to cross the sea. Face to face, these ancient human likenesses were animated and poignantly contemporary. In one of the grand halls, there were several busts of Marcus Aurelius, each by a different artist and executed many years apart. There were also sculptures of Claudius, Tiberius, Hadrian and Caesar. But it was the modest bust of an unknown boy that interested me most. I looked through my lens and he seemed to be returning my gaze. He was open and available. Perhaps it was his anonymity that allowed me to see him clearly. It was then that I started to approach these sculptures as individuals, even when they were of the same historical figure, as in the case of Aurelius. By looking closely at them I felt they were collaborating with me in the creation of a portrait. And I gradually began to approach these encounters in the same way I normally would a portrait of a living person.
Portraiture, which although I do not practice often, I have had a relationship with for over two decades, has its unique characteristics. I have often observed, for example, that when the sitter has an idea of how they want to project themselves, the portrait most often fails. Equally, when I have a preconceived idea of what I want to communicate, the photograph almost always lacks life and authenticity. It is only when both the subject and I forget what each of us wants that there is a chance of producing a truthful portrait. This was true also with the sculptures. It is why I call the work Tête-à-Tête. In French the phrase means something slightly different from the English ‘face to face’. Tête-à-Tête implies an exchange of confidences and a state of mutual sympathy. In the month that I spent at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, this was what I felt was passing between me and the unique and vivid personalities captured in these stone figures.