Aristotle in Prior Analytics stated: “it is possible to infer character from features.” Since then, year after year, people tried to find access to the inner character of an individual based on the head shape, the eyes and facial features. It is a great puzzle – how much you can tell from just looking at a person.
Last summer when travelling through Poland, we visited Krakow. The day was scorching and finding refuge in the air-conditioned National Museum was welcome. The museum, among the vast collection of art, has one extraordinary piece – Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. It is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, painted around 1490. She was of stunning beauty. She wrote poetry, delivered speeches, and soon, with no surprise, attracted the eye of Ludovico Sforza – Duke of Milan. At the time, arranged marriages were common and Ludovico had been contracted to marry Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara since she was five years old. For Cecilia, a marriage contract with Giovanni Visconti was a done deal. Still, Ludovico was not able to resist beautiful Cecilia. Cecilia had become his mistress at the time when Leonardo painted her.
The painting is rather small, 53cm x 39cm and the room where it hangs—after conquering the long lineup and trying to find a decent spot— is dark. Frankly, it is tough to appreciate how exquisite this painting is. You have to spend time with this masterpiece, and what a masterpiece it is. It is painted on walnut board, a similar surface to what the Mona Lisa is painted on. It is a remarkable example of the approach Aristotle suggested. Leonardo, when he got the commission to paint Cecilia, was at the peak of his interest in how the brain works. In his work, da Vinci was always trying to tell a story rather than just paint the subject. For Leonardo, it was his first commission for painting since his arrival in Milan seven years ago.He used all of his concepts in this work, breaking many existing rules. To begin, Cecilia is presented in a three-quarters view (a profile view was a standard) turning left, but at the same time, her head turns right as if someone has attracted her attention. Another clue that indeed, something is going on which we can’t see, is the pose of the ermine in her arms – alert and looking in the same direction. Many historians have suggested that perhaps it was Ludovico that she is looking at. Her eyes are a bit sad and she has the same, mysterious smile that made Mona Lisa famous. Walter Isaacson in Leonardo da Vinci wrote “… it captures the sense of an inner mind at work. Her emotions seem to be revealed, or at least hinted at, by the look in her eyes, the enigma of her smile, and the erotic way she clutches and caresses the ermine. As Leonardo portrayed the motions of her mind and soul, he played with our own inner thoughts in a way that no portrait had done it before.”
Initially, Leonardo rejected the idea of inferring the inner character from features as, in his mind, it lacked scientific reasoning. However, he remained under a strong influence by the concepts presented by Leon Battista Alberti, who stressed the importance of anatomical knowledge. It is anatomical that allows painting “from the inside out” rather than just capturing what is visible. It seems that Leonardo aspired with great success to present both, the physical and psychological characteristics of his subjects. He wrote several times that to paint a portrait, the painter needs to spend time with the subject. To observe the movements, expressions, and social interactions.
Is it possible to infer Cecilia’s character from this portrait? For sure, Leonardo intended to tell her story. He was a phenomenal storyteller. How much can we decipher from the face, the eyes, and the way her body twists in anticipation? Was she stubborn, or gentle? Curious and eager to challenge her views in conversation? Was she a quick learner, a perfectionist?
Is the time the artist spends with the subject before a portrait is really the key to capturing the character? How can a character be revealed through precise representation and to what extent is artistic deformation, that we see in the work produced 400 years later, and even now describe people? Let’s look at the work of Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian painter and sculptor known for nudes and portraits done in expressionist, modern style. Pablo Picasso in 1937 painted a portrait of a young photographer Dora Maar. The portrait, despite being transformed through Cubist style, captures striking resemblance (according to the people who knew her) resulted in something that is “truer than life.” Through the prism of Cubist synthesis, we see someone who is curious, full of energy but at the same time a bit distant wrapped in her own world. I think, as much as it reveals about Dora, it also tells how Picasso saw her, which is always the case when you try to understand a portrait.
Again, it’s about the time. Dora Maar was intimately involved with Picasso, so were the models sitting for Modigliani or Kees Van Dongen, another painter famous for his portraits. Time allowed them to absorb their subject’s character and express it in their work. How much time do we have now with our digital cameras? Of course, serious photographers still spend time with their model. It is not a secret that you should research their interests, and engage in a conversation picking up the topics that have a strong emotional aspect and then click the shutter. Only then.
So how does this relate to skills? When you apply for a job these days, probably close to 80% of applications will be machine processed. Keywords and phrases will be picked up regarding the job description. In many cases, the applicants are discouraged from attaching their photos to exclude the bias and focus on skills and competencies only. An extreme example of this is the process of getting a position in an orchestra. Quite often, the applicant is asked to play behind the curtain, so the judging commission relies only on the quality of the music knowing the applicants only by the listing number.
When we remove the portrait or the photo, and we remove names to conceal other pieces of information, what is left to look at? A timeline describing professional career. A list of jobs or roles, employers and certificates. Is this enough to “see the person.” At TeamFit, we believe it is not. A skill map, however, will provide a much broader representation of who the candidate is. Skills and the relationship between them, arranged in a unique composition is not as good as Leonardo’s storytelling technique, but it is much better than a dry description or a quick photograph that shows up in a micro scale on your LinkedIn profile. I have to admit, listing those amazing artists in the same article with TeamFit was a bold move. So here is another bold concept – I think they would not mind. We find inspiration in so many places, and as long as it advances us in our journey, it’s okay to make connections even in high places.
Two thousand eighteen will end soon, and I think this is probably my last post this year. Thank you for reading — Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Wesołych Świąt.
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