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Human, All Too Human 1

12 December 2011

In 2009 the Natural History Museum mounted a temporary exhibition entitled After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions which sought to present “a range of modern cultural viewpoints based on [Charles] Darwin’s [published] observations on the expressions of the emotions” and to encourage the visitor to “reconsider human relationships to nature, and in particular to our closest [evolutionary] relatives”.1 Its “most moving contribution”, according to one reviewer, was “a set of brief and brilliant stories by the novelist Mark Haddon”2 entitled 24 Emotions, and written to accompany two dozen photographs and etchings of the human face first assembled by Darwin to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Four of the illustrations featured in 24 Emotions were of a French psychiatric patient, unsympathetically described by his doctor as “an old, toothless man…whose features, without being absolutely ugly, approached ordinary triviality and whose facial expression was in perfect agreement with his inoffensive character and his restricted intelligence.”3 In a set of extraordinary experiments, this doctor – Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne – applied direct electrical stimulation to the facial muscles of this patient to produce expressions reminiscent of fear, horror, astonishment and ‘high spirits’ inter alia,4 photographed the results, published them and at length passed them to Darwin for use in his book.

Today, almost 150 years after their first publication, these “chilling, horrific images”5 are being revisited and (as it were) reclaimed by Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project.

[ to be continued ]


Photographic plate from Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions showing 'surprise' and 'distress' (the latter one of Duchenne's photographs)

Wellcome Library, London

1 Bergit Arends (ed.), Expressions: From Darwin to Contemporary Arts, London: Natural History Museum, 2009), pp. 27,29.

2 Laura Cumming, Take that look off your face… The Observer on Sunday, 26 July 2009.

3 Phillip Prodger, P., ‘Photography and The Expression of the Emotions’, in Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Anniversary Edition) (London: Harper Perennial, 2009), p. 405.

4 Arends, op. cit., pp. 44, 51-52.

5 Prodger, op. cit., p. 405.

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