Faces from the Past

Their faces are familiar from idealized iconic renditions, or, at best, from faded black-and-white photographs.

Faces from the Past

But Russia's rulers, from Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II, come into three-dimensional life at a new exhibition at the Biological Museum that showcases the work of a Soviet pioneer in facial reconstruction.

The exhibition, titled "The Faces of Ruling Dynasties," shows sculptural portraits created by Mikhail Gerasimov, a Soviet anthropologist and forensic scientist, and his students. Seeking to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and the desire for sensory perception, he founded an "anthropological laboratory" in 1950 where he and his researchers reconstructed the faces of the dead through studying their skulls.

His research was put to practical use in criminology and the study of prehistoric man, but also allowed him to recreate the faces of celebrities throughout the ages. The life-size plaster busts on display show the progression of Russia's ruling lineages, starting with a young Scythian noble and ending with the haunting likenesses of the last Romanovs.


"We were interested in attracting attention to the work of Gerasimov and his students. Of course, the most effective way to do this is to display reconstructions of our rulers," Alexandra Archukova, the exhibition's curator, said in a recent interview. Exhibitions of facial reconstruction have become a tradition at the museum, where Gerasimov, who died in 1970, was a trustee.

"There is just something so innately pleasurable about being able to see one's ancestors. People just respond to it," said Galina Lebedinskaya, one of Gerasimov's former students whose work is also featured in the exhibition. "This way of viewing history can almost be regarded as populist," she added, "but that does not mean that our methodology is less rigorous or scientifically objective."

Some of the reconstructions, such as that of Ivan the Terrible, are accompanied by depictions of the ruler in icon paintings. The comparison highlights not only the similarities between a modern reconstruction and contemporary depictions of the ruler, but also the superior detail achieved by Gerasimov's scientific approach.

Sergei Nikitin, who created the reconstructions of the last Romanovs and is also a former student of Gerasimov, said in a recent interview that such reconstructions are 80 percent science and 20 percent art. The science involves examining the relationship between bone structure and the soft facial tissues, he said. For example, Gerasimov discovered that the shape of nasal cartilage is almost exactly a mirror image of the bones surrounding the nasal cavity, and therefore a nose can be reconstructed.

Since the early years of this school of reconstruction, Gerasimov's method has been applied both to anthropology and forensic medicine. X-rays and ultrasound technology have been used to measure the relationship between bone and tissue with greater precision.

In spite of the scientific rigor with which they approach their work, both Nikitin and Lebedinskaya can't help but describe a reconstruction as an artistic endeavor.

"I can't say exactly how long one works on a reconstruction. Everything depends on inspiration. Think back to Alexander Ivanov's 'The Appearance of Christ to the People.' He worked on that painting for 20 years. On average, a sculptural reconstruction takes about three to five months," Nikitin said.



Lebedinskaya also talked of the importance of inspiration. "Various qualities of the skin, the hair, and most of all the overall harmony of the face are elements that require an artistic intuition," she said.

In July, a group of amateur history enthusiasts in Yekaterinburg uncovered what are believed to be the remains of Alexei and Maria Romanov. The majority of the Romanov remains were excavated in 1991, but the bones of the prince and Grand Duchess Maria had been separated from the rest of their family. Among reconstruction specialists, this discovery sparked hopes of reuniting the family.

So far though, too few skull fragments have been found to create a reconstruction, Nikitin said. "There were only three small fragments of the skull remaining and unless they uncover something more, it will be impossible to recreate their likenesses."

Unlike genetic analysis, the method of sculptural reconstruction is limited by the necessity for a substantial amount of biological material from the subject.

"Maybe in the future, when we are able to clone a long-deceased ancestor, reconstruction will become obsolete," Nikitin conceded. "As it stands, reconstruction is the best way for us to see, here and now, people who are long gone."

Moscow Times

Last Mod: 09 Eylül 2007, 15:17
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