The new face of Simón Bolívar: Hyper-realism or distortion?
During the last three years a new image of Simón Bolívar's face has been promoted – first in Venezuela and then internationally – that was obtained by using advanced techniques of 3D facial reconstruction, as requested by the late president Hugo Chávez.
The image, that undoubtedly shows an extraordinary realism, has been the focus of debates that transcend the technical field, to fall in the already overheated political atmosphere of Venezuela today.
Is this new reconstruction closer to the real face of Simón Bolívar?
The purpose of this analysis is to help those who want to understand and take position with respect to this controversy, for which we will use an excellent starting point:
All parties agree that the new image does not look like the previous ones.
We invite you to make your own conclusions.
What are the most common objections against the “New Bolívar”?
Two types of objections have emerged after presentation of the new image:
First, there are technical arguments that highlight the open contradiction between the new image and the vast and existing descriptions and iconography. It is important to emphasize that the differences are not perceived only by those who object to the new image. The differences are present for everyone to examine and can be examined separately.
Second, in the already overheated Venezuelan political atmosphere, there is the suspicion that the new image as a whole does not pretend to represent the real face of Bolívar, but rather it intends to create an icon framed by the imagery of the ruling party.
In any case, it is very important to address with seriousness the analysis of that image, not only to give it the proportional value of its historical veracity, but also to balance its political use, which, without any doubt, will bring irreversible consequences to the Venezuelan social imaginary.
How was the “New face of Bolívar” made?
In the early hours of Friday, July 16th 2010, the remains of the Liberator Simón Bolívar ‐ which were placed in the National Pantheon of Caracas ‐ were exhumed. According to the Venezuelan government, this procedure was made to establish the authenticity of the remains and to determine the cause of death. Afterwards, it was decided to make a 3D image of his face by using forensic technology of facial reconstruction. The work was carried out by Philippe Froesch in the Forensic Visual Laboratory of Barcelona, Spain. A complete report of the procedure can be obtained from: http://bolivar.gob.ve.
The final result of the facial reconstruction was presented by the then President Hugo Chávez on July 24, 2012, in a nationwide simultaneous radio/tv broadcast, in order to commemorate the birthday of the Liberator.
What do we know about the real face of the Liberator?
There is an extensive heritage regarding the physiognomy of Simón Bolivar, derived not only from portraits but also from various descriptions of his contemporaries.
A couple of years ago, lawyer Diego Bustillos Beiner published “El rostro de Bolívar” (“Bolívar’s face”) an excellent book that can be read on http://elrostrodebolivar.com. In his work, Bustillos shows the principal portraits made by several painters and compiles, in a meticulous way, all descriptions made of Bolívar’s physiognomy based on letters and other kinds of documents.
Among the several portraits showed in Bustillos Beiner’s book, are the works of José Gil de Castro (Peruvian), Francois Desiré Roulin (French), Antonio Meucci (Italian), José María Espinosa (Colombian) and several works of anonymous painters, including one that Bustillos Beiner considers the most important: “El Retrato del Pintor Anónimo de 1826” (“The Portrait of the Anonymous Painter of 1826”).
According to Diego Bustillos Beiner, the most exact descriptions of Bolivar’s face were made by Perú de Lacroix, Daniel Florencio O´Leary, and Francois Desiré Roulin, for the following reasons:
… in the first place, because the features of Bolívar described by them fit admirably well with the majority of life portraits made in that period, and secondly, for the following reasons: The description of Perú de Lacroix, because with absolute certainty his memory was not disrupted by passage of time. As it is known, it was written on April 27, 1828, as part of a journal that he kept during his two‐month stay with the Liberator near Bucaramanga, Colombia. Furthermore, the description of O’Leary, because it was written by a person who as his aide‐de‐camp accompanied the Liberator for many years and could have a most vivid impression of his appearance than those who only knew him briefly; Finally, the description of Roulin, because it was written with the clinical eye of one anatomist who had the opportunity to paint a life drawing of the Liberator…
In one chapter of this interesting book, the author, Diego Bustillos, summarizes physical characteristics such as: height, body, head, forehead, skin complexion, eyes, hair, face, eyebrows, nose, mouth, cheekbones, cheeks, teeth, chin, ears and voice in addition to all and each of the forty compiled descriptions that are shown in detailed form.
With all this information, Bustillos Beiner hired the English sculptor Stuart Williamson to make a clay bust of Bolívar that would fulfill the all accumulated information of Bolivar’s characteristics. Once finished, they proceeded to construct a full size waxwork of Simón Bolívar’s entire body – reproduced here as contrast to the work made by the Venezuelan government.
Can Simón Bolívar’s face be the one presented by Venezuelan government?
Certainly, none of us knew Bolívar directly. For that reason, in order to answer that question we have to consult the existing data with a bit of common sense.
Let’s see both images placed side by side.
Following a summary of the “New Bolívar[‘s]” characteristics versus written and iconographic evidence based on Bustillos Beiner book:
New image: White and slightly pink.
Bustillos Beiner: According to portraits and descriptions, Bolívar had citrine or light brown skin, either because it was his natural skin color or because it was obtained as a result of an outdoors life
New image: Egg-shaped face, relatively full of flesh, vigorous and rounded at lower jaw and chin.
Bustillos Beiner: Portraits of the Liberator and descriptions of his contemporaries agree on his long shaped face, but wide in the upper part and very sharp in the lower one, prominent cheekbones and emaciated cheeks, depressed temples and sharp or acute chin.
New image: Very thick, a little arched and very close to one another.
Bustillos Beiner: Contemporaries of the Liberator say they were packed, but not necessarily thick. Perú de Lacroix said that they were a little arched, and Roulin that they were arched. It could be the case that because Bolívar constantly raised his eyebrows, they appeared to be arched.
New image: Very small and without brightness. Lachrymal fossa completely closed.
Bustillos Beiner: According all his portraits, Bolívar had big eyes which appear to be bigger due to his constant habit of raising his eyebrows. Eight of his contemporaries said his eyes were medium or big, but none of them said that they were small. Many of them said that his eyes were bright, alive and piercing. The last two characteristics are absent in the new interpretation of the face of Bolívar. Moreover, all the portraits of Bolívar show an open and fleshy lachrymal fossa.
New image: A little short, wide and misshapen at the level of the left nasal flange. Looking from a side, the nose is curiously long and completely straight.
Bustillos Beiner: Long nose (according Adam, Gosselman and O’Leary). Other people used expressions as “proportioned”, “perfectly eagle-type”, “well formed”, “well painted”, “correct” and “exquisitely designed”. He had a very light bridge as shown in the portraits of Roulin, Meucci and Espinosa.
New image: The distance between the nose and the end of the chin is enormous, it could be called abnormal. The upper lip is prominent with respect to the lower one.
Bustillos Beiner: The lower lip was the most prominent, as described by Perú de Lacroix, and as we can see in all the portraits of the Liberator, either profile figure or three quarter figure.
It is difficult to think that all the information compiled before June 2012 to present time is completely false. Several artists dedicated themselves to paint images that, though dissimilar from one another, attempted to represent the same personage. Likewise, it has to be explained how the face features described by many authors differ so much from those of Hugo Chávez government’s.
It is easier to think that, for some reason, the reconstructed image does not correspond to the face of the Father of the Nation.
What could be attributed to the disparity between the new image and the classical ones?
Forensic facial reconstruction is an excellent tool to obtain a first approach of the face of a person by using only his/her skull. Nevertheless, it is not possible to obtain a hundred percent reliable image using this technology alone. Factors such as the color of the hair and skin, details of the nose, but particularly the lips, cannot be surmised based on facial bones. For that reason many reconstructions of old personages have had to use ethnical data to approach such aspects.
To reconstruct a famous personage as Bolívar, details not proportioned by technology must be taken from direct observers.
It is well known that in his time, the Liberator claimed that the portrait by Gil de Castro was “the one with the greatest exactness and resemblance” ever made of him. Nevertheless, Diego Bustillos Beiner says that it is a “flattering” work to the Liberator, because in his opinion, the skin color is a little clear and many lines of his facial expression were eliminated. That could explain the fact that Bolívar experienced a logical predilection for this particular portrait.
In any case, it could be said without apprehension that the principal portraits of Simón Bolívar, those of Gil de Castro, Meucci, Roulan, José María Espinosa and many other anonymous authors, imperfectly represent the same person, while the reconstruction ordered by Venezuelan government after 2010 appears to represent someone else.
Some reasonable doubts
In an interview by the journalist Valentina Lares Martiz published by the newspaper El Tiempo, Colombia, on August 2nd, 2012, Philipe Froesch affirmed that: “… His face was compounded according to a ‘mestizo’ mixture calculated by anthropologists….”, which corroborates the assumption that the Non‐Hispanic aspect of the image was influenced by third parties.
If the ethnical calculation of the anthropologist team is correct, then the genetic heritage of the Liberator, which is well known for at least four previous generations, automatically becomes dubious. Additionally, there is no reasonable explanation to the fact that none of his portraitists could perceive such features.
In his interesting book, the author Diego Bustillos Beiner affirms, when referring to the mouth of the “new face”, that: “… the distance between the nose and the end of chin is enormous, we could say it is abnormal…”. Nevertheless, if we superpose the image of the former President Hugo Chávez with the proposed image, a perfect correlation is obtained with the position of the hairline, eyes, nose, mouth and chin.
That is to say that, the “abnormal” distance referred by Bustillos Beiner coincides with the image of Hugo Chávez and not with Bolívar’s.
More importantly, it is intriguing to observe that the “sharp chin” which uniformly appears in all descriptions and iconographies of Bolívar, is not present in the proposed image. Nevertheless, when this chin is placed at the side of the new image, they match perfectly well.
The intent of the present article is not to accuse anyone of giving orders to make an image with a prearranged pattern. However, given the evident historical incompatibility of the image, the intentionality, or at least the intention to flatter the figure of the late President Hugo Chávez, appears to be a reasonable hypothesis.
The current Venezuelan government, akin to the memory of Chávez, has invested a big amount of money to rename, not only institutions and companies within the country, but also national symbols.
This is how in the last couple of years, the banner, coat of arms, constitution, time zone, name and value of the currency have been changed. To the extent that, even the very name of the country was changed to add the word “Bolivariana” (“Bolivarian”), as a clear reference to the ruling party.
In this setting of absolute change of the country and its symbology, the appearance of this new image of the Liberator causes suspicion.
The Bolívar that has been strongly presented to social imaginary, does not appear to be a Spaniard descendant, as he really was. The new one is a ‘mestizo’, a ‘zambo’ Bolívar, contradicting portraitists and eyewitnesses, but one that is very useful to the ideological discourse of the ruling party.
By Alfredo Limongi (English translation by Carlos Ortega Montero)