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  • Rainey Knudson

Our Tender Pates: Notes on the God's-Eye View (375 words)

The human head can be a comical thing. Many words for it are old-fashioned, evoking nursery rhymes and fairy tales: pate, crown, noggin. Or architectural: the belfry, upstairs, the dome. Or food references: bean, nut, noodle, gourd. (More obscurely, costard, a once-popular apple species that has gone extinct.) Jack fell down and broke his crown.


The head can be funny, but of course all comedy springs from something serious. The top of our head is the first part of our bodies to touch the air of this world when we are born. It’s vulnerable. We arrive as newborns with our heads in literal pieces that take several years to fuse completely into a hard skull.

We also instinctively sense our head’s proximity to the heavens. Most world religions have some tradition of covering the head, either to show our modesty to God (up there, looking down on us), or to keep our souls from flying out too early. Or both. Shiva is often depicted with the river Ganges spouting from his head. The Buddha has his enlightenment bump up there.


But our faces being so much more interesting, you rarely see artists giving attention to the top of the head. However, right now at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, you can see two portraits from this view: Cara de niño (Concentración) (1939) by David Siquieros, the Mexican muralist, and a 2005 self-portrait by the Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert2, who died last year.


These two artists, whose images often howled at the human predicament and the injustice of the world, here turn their attention to the part of the body we never really look at, the one that is perhaps the most disconnected from our main sensory organs. We can’t touch or smell or hear or see with the top of our head. We can’t even feel it, in the way we can feel our limbs or our innards. And yet there’s an undeniable pathos in looking at it. The Tolbert portrait signals resignation and despair, and the Siquieros, a certain inchoate rage. It’s almost as if the artists are showing us the top of the head in the wish that we, God, someone, anyone, could tenderly kiss it and make it all better.




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