Beards: the grain of the face

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 2, 19th March 2021

by Krzysztof Fijałkowski

For many men, every morning’s soap opera rehearsed in the mirror on the skin around the chin is a tussle between culture and nature. To shave or to let grow, to assert or to accept: ticklish decisions guided by history, fashion and self-image, each new day’s re-recognised reflection throwing back the realisation that from one sunrise to the next, change sprouts relentlessly as a natural outgrowth defies the visage of our smoothed-out world. Matted into the fibres of the beard lies a web of intricate, hushed questions around the presentation of the self and its teeming otherness. While many of these might equally be expressed in cultivations such as hairstyles, pubic hair, hair from moles or on the toes (and here reluctantly leaving aside the nuanced problems of the moustache), perspectives that could of course overcome the gender limitations of the matter, none of these have quite the unsettled character of the beard: as public as can be yet marginal at the same time, proclaiming difference, pushing out in the unexpected place as dune grass sprouts from shifting sand to announce a transition. With the beard, the delicate aesthetics of self-presentation and identity, focused above all around the facial features, is both extended and threatened by the disorder of its growth.

Nothing shows this better, perhaps, than early photographic portraits of bearded men, the new medium picking out every bristle and snip: from the faces in endless images of stern, self-assertive and magnificently still gentlemen or labourers twist a hundred opulent styles of facial hair, jutting into the spaces beyond the jaw. If the nineteenth century, as Walter Benjamin argued in his Arcades Project, is the age when the ornament and excess of interior design become institutionalised, then this was also the era when beards – whose style in previous eras had been dictated by stricter fashions – morph into furniture for the head. Phantasmagoria of the face: sproutings, tufts, bibs and flanges of hair line the margins where physiognomy turns to fantasy.

The opulent growths sported by members and contestants in today’s beard and moustache clubs or championships attest to the continued fascination of extravagant facial hair, but in many contexts (except in those instances where it may carry religious significance), the workaday contemporary beard leads a marginal, ambivalent existence. (I remember hearing long ago – it scarcely matters if the rumour is true or not – that in socialist Albania it was illegal to sport a beard; I pictured dissidents in deep hiding, covertly cultivating whiskers and sideburns, and wondered at what point 5 o’clock shadow became a matter for the secret police.) For the adult male, a beard is perhaps the single most visible marker of sexual difference; but as well as gender, issues of class, social standing, working practice and taste are all reflected in both the design and the taboos around beards. A sign of maturity, beards have long been associated with dignity, knowledge and insight, and the choices of the late Classical world – a beard for the philosopher, a clean-shaven face for the soldier, the flowering of the intellect versus the discipline of the limbs – continues today in a world where facial hair is often the prerogative of specific subcultural domains. As though to guarantee the beard’s ambiguous status, however, in Western cultural conventions it is also saturated with very different values. The pirate, the circus strongman, the farmer: beards as untrammelled bodily power, as virility, as a force of nature and a disdain for the preened identity. Then there are the outsiders’ beards, the unkempt beards of outcasts, hermits, tramps and visionaries, the desperate beards of incarceration and alienation…

For popular representations, above all since the 1950s, certain styles of beard have also come to signal the fervour of ideas, radical passion, revolutionary commitment. Jazz beards; Beat beards. Images of the melancholy Russian beard – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, bristling with an intensity bordering on madness – prepare for the great pantheon of revolutionary beards: Lenin’s seditionary Van Dyke, Trotsky’s fanatical goatee, the brooding wisps of Che Guevara and Castro, and towering over them the magnificent, rampant chin-manes of Marx and Engels. This strand of political beards signals credentials and commitment, gravitas and utopian futures. (By corollary the clean-shaven jaw, the face of business, the obsessive control and suppression of nature’s will by the razor becomes the face of capitalism, where to shave means a desperate attempt to sculpt the self, to put the irrational soul to the blade: an incision between vulnerable ego and grubby world.) This delicate visual language is crudely primitivised in today’s mass media caricatures contrasting clean-shaven Western political leaders with their designated opponents. Here, in implicitly racist terms, the swarthily hirsute face signals the terrorist, fanatic, vagabond or bandit as though letting grow a beard betrays some uncontrolled or unknowable excrescence bursting from the head, an unreason beneath the seat of reason, the barbe in barbarian. In a society dominated by flattened-out images, facial hair sprouts outwards against the paper, itches the pixels.

All of these representations feed the widespread belief that the beard represents a mask, beyond the licensed surface of the public self of an identity card picture, at the very spot that must be most ethical: a duplicity (some double-ness of the self). Unchecked in a primal return of Mr Hyde, it inches out from the smooth skin that differentiates us from the bestial and covers the public face as though in a curse, like Sleeping Beauty hidden behind the forest of thorns. In vintage photographs or website thumbnails, facial hair seems a scribble on the chin, a de-facing. More than a mask, a masquerade: facial hair plays at reversals of identity, watches them grow from within, tracked each morning at the edges of the mirror. Gathering around the mouth, nose and ears, at the intersection of the senses, it is easy to mistake the beard as muffling messages, adding unfamiliar accents to language: an interference. More than this, however, the beard sketches a fanning out of sensory mechanisms, above all a projection of oration as it gradually extends the body: the beard is a language curling towards its secret destiny from follicles deep within the tissues, a tiny crystalisation of the breath or the utterance, just as at the other extreme of change stalactites secrete the whispered water-borne words of the earth into the void.

Thus, with a nod to Roland Barthes, we might characterise these hairy forms as the Grain of the Face: an élan where some intangible part of identity becomes material, speech to be grasped, twisted or stroked. In this moment, in a world where idealised body representations would turn individuals into ever more bland and indistinguishable images, the problem of stubble – of that slow emergence where one thing turns to another, not yet beard, no longer just face – is one moment when the self starts to sing a song with a texture unmistakably its own.

Edmund Płoski, early Polish socialist activist exiled in 1885 for 16 years of hard labour on Sakhalin Island; the author’s maternal great-grandfather.

Krzysztof Fijałkowski is a lecturer, writer and artist with a long-standing interest in the history and ideas of the international surrealist movement, and teaches on the BA Fine Art programme at Norwich University of the Arts (UK). Recent publications have included contributions to The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism (joint editor and author, 2019), Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924–Today (2019) and The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook (2020). He has also published and exhibited with international contemporary surrealist groups.