Portrait, Lyric, Code: Reading the Face Before and After Laura Riding Jackson’s Body’s Head

By | 1 June 2022


It is fair to say her head itself is famous. It is, some have said, ‘the most visited’ and most ‘sung about’ head in the world.1 Her renowned head has not always been met with adoration. Her head has not always been so renowned. It has been protested, spat on, spray painted and cut with razor blades. Her head has been stolen, plagiarised, and dislodged. Once, someone even headbutted her head. Some years ago, a Russian woman who was frustrated at being denied French nationality, hurled a ceramic mug at the head itself. Nationalism threatened the head in a single swift toss of the arm. Her head is also responsible for disagreement and confusion. An authentically controversial and confusing head. For centuries art historians have debated the head’s identity. Some connect it with Renaissance political figure Isabella d’Este, while others claim it belongs to the Italian ruler Costanza d’Avalos. It is probably, they say, Lisa Gherardini’s noble, magnanimous head. Some say it used to be bigger, a little longer. Twelve centimetres, to be exact. But where it truly begins, and where it ends, we hardly know. Sfumato. Vanished or evaporated. A head of transitions between light and shade. Where everything is blended, ‘without borders, in the manner of smoke.’ Invisible, as it were, to the naked eye. Oil on poplar panel. The entire history of portraiture afterwards depends on her. It depends on her delicate, remarkable head.

If it were set anywhere else but so,
Rolling in its private exact socket
Like the sun set in a joint on a mountain,
I think I should not love it half as much.
But here, waving and blowing on my neck,
Of no particular kind of shape or geometry,
Its own original,
Flying my hair like a field of corn-silk
Tangled on the neglected side of a hill,
My head is at the top of me2

‘DALL·E 2 is a new AI system that can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language.’3

  1. John Lichfield, ‘The Moving of the Mona Lisa.’ The Independent, London (2005)
  2. Jackson, ‘Head Itself.’ Poetry (1925), 60.
  3. DALL·E 2 OpenAI, online.
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