Essay about hidden faces in Visual Culture

Back in 2013, while I was doing an editorial minor, I noticed that faceless creatures were dominating the fields of fashion, photography and art. Driven by the desire to explore where this trend originates, I wrote an essay about hiding the face as an artistic expression. Today I rediscovered this essay and I found it even more relevant. I invite you to read along my quest to unveil what is behind the concept of veiled identities.

Madame Peripetie Dream Sequences

Madame Peripetie

I started my research towards the phenomena of hidden faces in fashion, photography and art, with the history of masquerades. However, I soon noticed a discrepancy between traditional masquerades and the way in which the face is hidden today. Masquerades always speak of taking on another identity, something that cannot be said of hiding behind a sculptural creation from your own hair or adding an abstract layer of paint on top of a self-portrait. These props do not transform you into someone else, they transform the body into an object, an idea that has its roots in Surrealism.

Surrealism deals with the blurring of two opposite states such as: dream and reality, material and immaterial and alive and lifeless. The confusion between things which are normally considered to be opposites creates an unearthly and alienating sensation or seeks to uncover a hidden reality. An artist who separates the body from its context and transforms it into a sculpture by combining the living and breathing body with indefinable objects, is the 33 years old surrealist photographer Madame Peripetie.

Madame Peripetie works from a surrealist perspective as a comment on our inability to loose ourselves in an unreal and creative world and the absence of visual intelligence. We’re brainwashed with documentations of people’s private life on social media platforms. But what these images often lack is the element of uncertainty and mystery. “Everything is thrown on the plate for everyone to see without engrossing and challenging the viewer. Do you remember when you were mesmerized by something lately and why?” thus Madame Peripetie.

The work of Madame Peripetie can be compared to renowned surrealist Renée Magritte (1898-1967). Hiding the face is a clear motif in his work. ‘The son of man’ (1964), a self-portrait in which his face is covered by an apple, speaks about an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. “This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present” thus Magritte.

By veiling the visible and understandable and replacing it with incomprehensible and mysterious content, Madame Peripitie adresses this inner conflict as well. It is her aim to make you rethink the conventions, confronting yourself with your own reality and your ability to pereceive what is real. “The unseen and the mysterious is captivating and intangible evoking curiosity and fueling intellectual visual language” Madame Peripetie enthused.


According to Madame Peripetie defacing means having power over a body by taking away its human aspect and transforming it into an object of desire. This idea of fetishization has its roots in Freudian psychology and is a frequently used strategy in surrealism, creating fragmented distorted and eroticized bodies.

Sigmund Freud, who’s psychoanalyses inspired the surrealist movement (1856-1939), explains fetishism as the unconscious youth trauma of the little boy who discovers that his mother doesn’t have a penis. Terrified for his own castration this trauma can result in a fixation on the last things the boy sees before the revelation of his mother’s genitals. The things he sees while he still has hope that his mother does have a penis. Looking at his mother from the ground up he could find replacement of the phallus in her feet, underwear (which can result in a silk fetish) or pubic hair (which can result in a fur or velvet fetish).

Manon Kundig

Manon Kündig

A fashion designer who defaces, as a form of fetishism today is Manon Kündig. The 29 year old graduate from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Art covers the entire body, including the face with prints she created out of stolen Google images. The idea of the face scarf is derived from a silk fetish community she discovered on Flickr. Remarkable, however, is that it is the male body, which is transformed into an object of desire, while according to Freud it is not possible for women to suffer from fetishes. Would Manon Kündig fetishize the male body out of a phallic envy, to make a feminist statement? She explains the reason for dehumanizing the male body herself with the metaphor of the bowerbird, which functioned as the muse of this collection. Of this peculiar bird species the male seduces the female by building an ingenious bower, using shimmering materials and eye-catching objects in the decoration. The female chooses her partner based on his craftsmanship and the objects he collected, while the male hides his physical appearance behind his bower. Manon Kündig recognizes the behavior of this bird in the art of self-branding and self-presentation today, through which we carefully construct our image, veiling our true identity. Could it be that we mask the face in art to confront society with the fact that everyone wears masks in everyday life?


When Magritte painted the “Son of Man”, the apple was not the only mask he wore. The bowler hat and the suit gave him a sober anonymity and allowed him to dissolve with the masses. Magritte did not feel at ease in society and found comfort in hiding behind the identity of the everyman.

Alma Haser

Alma Haser

An artist today who enjoys the sensation of anonymity is the 24 years old photographer Alma Haser. Not to dissolve with society, however, but to stand out from the violence of self-indulgence and the overkill of selfies on social media platforms. My question is, however, to what extent can you speak of anonymity, once the face is hidden? Does our body language, the way we adorn our body, the objects we hide our face with and the behavior we show not say anything about our identity at all? Art critics suggest that the motif of the absent faces in Magritte’s work, actually reveals very personal information about him. They detected a relation between the veiled and hidden faces and how Magritte witnessed his mother’s lifeless body being pulled out of the river, naked with her nightgown covering her head. Magritte denies such interpretations saying: “When one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

Madame Peripitie does suggest that the objects with which she hides the face have a deeper symbolic meaning. However, she is careful not to reveal the mystery with imposing information about this on the viewer, leaving it open for numerous interpretations. But her explanation about the images she created for the duo from BOO design (portraits covered by masks of animal organs) is not as vague: “These are the portraits of the designers themselves who decided to stay veiled and avert the audience from the “me factor” (the actual “persona” and “the creator”) and focusing its attention on the work itself– demonstrating their playfulness and affinity to colour, texture and nature-inspired shapes. They possess something raw, animalistic and ancient.” Madame Peripetie masked the outside of the portrayed with the inside, reveiling more identity than a smile or a wink could ever show.

Alma Haser questions the idea of anonymity in the work “10 seconds”, based on the believe of children that they are not present once their face is hidden even though their feet stick out from under the curtains. In “10 seconds” Alma Haser directs herself in a game of hide and seek, giving herself ten seconds to try and hide or make her body as small as possible, before the camera goes off on self-timer. When Alma hides her adult body squeezed into confined spaces, she remains clearly visible, but her face never shows.

Alma Haser suggests that speaking of the absence of presence once the face is hidden is just as absurd as speaking of an absence of identity. About ‘Cosmic Surgery’ in which she hides faces with an origami construction Alma Haser says: “In absence of the face the other little nuances become more significant. You start to notice the ribbon in her hair, the tattoo on her arm, the illustration on his shirt, the way she shrugs her shoulders.”

Perhaps my assumption that we hide the face as a representation of our masked society or out of a desire to stay anonymous is wrong. Perhaps we are doing the contrary. We are showing who we really are and what we really stand for by concealing the obscene distracting face. In an era in which we are overexposed to private life, intimacy does not provoke anymore. Therefore we are looking for alternative ways to introduce ourselves, opting for a more intriguing and mesmerizing manner. We are revealing by veiling.

Words by Juliette Sijnja