The faceless portraits of Gideon Rubin

In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche repeatedly insists on the ‘primacy of aesthetic over moral criteria’ grounded in the ‘art for art’s sake movement’ in which external pressures collate to create material art, through often tragic processes[1]. Much as Nietzsche’s work sought, as dictated by his very title, to consider the origins and roots of tragedy, so too was he concerned with making it relevant to his contemporary world. In a similar manner, Gideon Rubin asks what it means to be a contemporary painter: he tests his chosen medium, its possibilities and limitations’[2]. Much like Nietzsche, or any tragic playwright, Rubin positions himself as an artist, and as a channel for tragic release that must find expression through his struggles to create work that is relevant to his age. This lexicon of ‘possibilities and limitations’ brings into focus the omnipresent concerns of art that is tragic: how to be categorised as such, and to what extent a felt experience can be transcribed into the chosen medium, be that paper, the stage, or in Rubin’s case, linen and stretched canvas. As with any mode of tragic expression, critics and audience alike seek to pinpoint the cause of the trouble, seeing diverse tragic experience as a chronological trajectory that fits into a linear cause and effect movement. Notwithstanding that tragedy never moves in such unidirectional narratives, there is benefit in contextualising an artist’s motivations and triggers, as they, in turn, offer some enlightenment as to the results and hopes they aim to provoke through their art. As Karle Heinz Bohrer identifies: ‘any such concentration on the tragic as an art form always requires us to respond eventually to a specific objection: that we are dealing only with impact and effect, not with the thing itself’[3]. Rubin was born in Tel Aviv, and while he is currently based in London, his work of the past three years (in which he discovers and depicts the faceless subject) has attracted attention from sponsors in his homeland who have tempted him back to create work inspired by the tragic space and performance that is political and military warfare. Prior to his faceless series, Rubin self-identified as a ‘realist’: someone who sought to capture the flare of a nostril, or the shard of light through an iris. It was his first-hand experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, witnessed from a friend’s rooftop on 10th Street and Broadway, that triggered his move into broken and blank characterisations of his portrait subjects. Of this experience he recalls: ‘watching the events unfold […] was probably the most surreal and terrible thing I’ve ever experienced. After seeing that tragedy unfold before my eyes, I knew I couldn’t paint what I was painting before […] I had to communicate in a more direct style’[4]. Few can argue that the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers was a tragedy. ‘Tragedy’ has, however, become the lexical equivalent of a dead metaphor, used to scope out teenage registers to signify homework overload, as well as seeming misappropriations in every other Daily Mail headline. Notwithstanding this troubled semantic field, what seems most identifiably tragic in Rubin’s account is his recognition that the importantly visual experience of events represented human against human, and, potentially of a jihadist punishment from higher powers, resulting in death, destruction, and erasure of history through eruptive damage. This acknowledgement that his eyes were witness, and in some way accomplice to this ‘tragedy’ is intriguing in prompting the query of why Rubin’s tragic subjects do not see, either through choice or through disability. Regarding his own work, Rubin identifies his hopes in a manner rarely so ‘directly’ articulated among his literary predecessors: ‘I’d like to think the figures in my paintings remind the viewer of certain people or evoke memories rather then portray specific identities’[5].

Yet as much as Rubin claims that his paintings are not designed to characterise specific beings, they and their tragic mode are fundamentally about roots: empirical, genetic and historical. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Rubin began a series of rapid-fire paintings using thick and energetic oil daubs of imploded dolls and distorted toys: broken time capsules of a city and time that had become bygone – literally overnight. From here he began to look at old anonymous family photographs and draw from them in a manner that ‘reads’ to a viewer like the tracing of a lost past or unearthing of forgotten histories. Rubin stumbled across these anonymous photographs with no prior intention of seeking them out, so in this manner, his self-conscious distancing from identifying himself with the figures is credible, but it is unarguably an innate human impulse to relate to another and consider their own stories and histories. At this point we turn to consider Rubin’s ‘Family Portrait’ in which the interlocking hands offer a visual association and lineage articulated in spaces of dance and theatre through touch, costuming, and in music through harmonization or the carol form. His source photographs were frequently from the turn of the century and Rubin selects characters and scenes from them to convey onto his chosen material, in a manner that overlaps the triggers of Victorian and Edwardian histories, as well as the trauma of New Yorkers of the new millennia. Beverley Knowles comments: ‘Gideon Rubin’s paintings are largely figures and group scenes, underpinned by an atmosphere of elusive narrative’[6]. ‘Elusive narrative’ both identifies the generic difficulties in finding a verbal story within the meshwork of painting, while ‘narrative’ pinpoints a determinant of the tragic experience for both the original subject and all who encounter the received reproduction. The blank faces of Rubin’s portraits demand a looking, an active searching, into and through history to ask why these faces are blank and, indeed, to identify the tragic circumstances that inspire Rubin’s work. ‘Class of 1947’ a series of female faces found in a high school yearbook depicts busts of women wearing identical clothes, only distinguishable by a slight tilt of the face or curling hairstyle. One must question the artistic attraction Rubin feels for his subject matter. Surely it is the tragic potential in these stranger’s stories that attracts him, and, indeed, the potential to create a narrative for them. He says ‘[I love] the anonymity of the subjects. On the one hand, these people had nothing to do with me—unlike my earlier paintings, which were of myself, my family, and my friends; on the other hand, it was as if each of these people was holding a key to a story, a history that I was trying to tap into. This thread of history—of style, people, fashion, et cetera—and storytelling is, in many ways, what I’m still trying to paint today’[7]. The metaphor of history as a ‘thread’ is fascinating, as this allusion situates us within the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which the backward movement, feeling one’s way along a length of silken thread, promises both escape from the linearity of time and experience, as well as a return to a place before tragedy. Pertinent here is Beth Greenacre’s assertion that the painting process, like these Classical allusions is akin to ‘the memory of something that’s at the point of fading completely, or remembering a history that you were told about but never actually experienced first hand’[8]. This observation captures the fluid nature of Classical tragedy that occupies a hinterland between reality and fantasy, mortal and immortal, much as Rubin’s portraits both re-write (through painting) as well as seem to capture the stories of his subjects. Interestingly, the figures in ‘Class of 1947’ have some suggestion of ears, so these beings act as vessels that absorb and hear experience but have no means of expressing themselves, comparable to the most repressed and frustrated of tragic characters, from the literal and metaphorical gagging and silencing in Shakespeare through Aeschylus. Meanwhile, in ‘Family Portrait’ the blank face persists across the siblings, suggesting that this anonymity is a trait, once again filtering into the tragic role of family and relations. However, it is important not merely to consider Rubin’s art at face value: it is not ‘art for art’s sake’. The tragic significance of his work importantly, lies, as Jennifer Wallace remarks, ‘less in the physical depiction itself than in the knowledge of the context, either of its original composition or of its subsequent interpretation’[9].


Class of 1947

Gideon Rubin’s paintings are pervaded by dichotomy. Their subject matter is unapologetically nostalgic, with a self-conscious over-lapping of Rubin’s own experiences with those of the figures he paints. As will be further explored, it is paramount that his subjects are without eyes or mouths, and are, therefore, fundamentally different from the physical status of Gideon Rubin who both saw and watched 9/11 open-mouthed. But of course, this is just speculation. Perhaps he wanted to shut his eyes, to stopper his mouth, or acknowledge a silent scream. Perhaps now, through his art, he puts on a mask, or blanks out these organs of experience, precisely so that tragedy cannot exist for his painted figures. However, this is troubled as we are aware that these figures are drawn from actual photographs, so this erasure of their physical features almost traps their tragic experience within them. In a rather anachronistic, but useful analogy, it is akin to the sadistic creation of a swimming pool in the popular computer game ‘The Sims’ only to bulldoze the stepladder while your family are happily swimming away, trapping them until they ultimately drown because they cannot escape, and their screams go unanswered[10]. This erasure seems to be the reverse action of putting on a mask, which covers the face and, therefore, traps the true identity of the actor behind it, but it is temporary. Rubin may argue that he can always edit in facial features, much as a mask can be applied and removed, so it is this charged potentiality of masking that is of interest here. Turning our attention to Rubin’s ‘Boy Wearing Gas Mask’ and ‘Girl Wearing Gas Mask’ and one can see that the positioning of a facial gas mask serves to give them features, much as the multi-coloured grotesque masks of Classical comedy did. However, the Classical masks of tragedy were blank, designed to sweep everyone with the same, levelling, neutralising brushstroke. This is important, because, on closer observation, one realises that the faces behind the gas masks in ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl Wearing Gasmask’ are still featureless: there are no blinking eyes behind the sight-giving aperture. This sense of ‘sight-giving’ inspired by the function of the glass opening of the aperture not only highlights the impotence of this feature, but also suggests an active agency in these faceless figures. Simon Goldhill remarks: ‘“Classics” is not a single block of cultural knowledge […] With each of these pictures the position of the viewer […] is integral to the process of reception. […] With a recognition of the role of the viewer at the scene of reception, we pay due regard to the performativity of the artwork’[11]. Taking up Goldhill’s phrase the ‘performativity of the artwork’ it is important to note that Classical tragedy rarely puts the mutated, disabled victim centre-stage. Of course, death and disabilities are seen as in Oedipus’ blindness and Polyneices’ lameness, but relatively, wounds are slight or they are immediately fatal. The viewer is troubled by the faceless figures of ‘Class of 1947’ and ‘Family Portrait’ amongst others as one questions whether they are perpetually disabled, or whether this state is reversible, or, perhaps is not one of deficiency, but is a position of superiority in having evolved so as to escape the horrors of tragic experience. Turning once again to the ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’, the sense of wounding is paraded on a sharper knife-edge, as, like Classical tragic masks with their gaping mouths and hollowed out eyes, there is a layering of able-bodiedness, which seems to be destroyed through these empty holes. This idea of flux and fragility is a tragic issue relevant to the many forms and genres of tragedy. As Wallace elucidates: ‘not only does it [art] successfully represent the internal, fragile life of the subject but it is also in a constant state of change, from liquefaction to solidification and vice versa. We witness the making and unmaking of art, which seems to replicate the human, mortal condition. Some artists recently have explored the possibility of art which depicts the processes of weariness and decay’[12].


Boy wearing a gas mask

If the face is blank, then Rubin’s subjects are not looking outward. This troubles our certainty in how we are to visually and emotionally engage and empathise with beings who are unreceptive to our voyeuristic gaze. As has been recognised, Rubin’s characters (subjects) are anonymous which seems paradoxical to the characters of Renaissance tragic drama. However, surely Rubin acts as representative for the uncharacterised figures of some fifth-century tragedies, such as Aeschylus’ named but colourless characters. But if Rubin’s figures are nameless, as well as faceless, (as is the case with the majority of his titles, in which the oeuvre is labelled only by gender or source material) it is hard for historical or social focus to be pinned onto them (unlike the figure of a spectator) and for them to be anatomically and culturally culpable for the rise and fall of an identifiable tragic hero. Rubin’s figures are, then, at once tragic in the conventional sense, and at the same time not tragic. His figures are watertight; they have no visible, sensual apertures – they are two-dimensional beings. The multifarious ways of viewing tragic performance (be that within the space of art, music or theatre) are called into play, as one questions whether the viewer projects their own stories metaphorically and pictorially onto the inaccessible and in so doing realise the hidden self. Rubin’s paintings are distinguishable for their disturbing narratives, or the seemingly disturbing narratives that are suggested through forms that are reduced to a few sure brushstrokes that suggest rather than describe a figure or landscape’[13]. Rubin suggests that ‘it is impossible to directly identify with the characters in my paintings rather I want to offer alternative ways of viewing the figures, where the viewer is also involved in completing a narrative or scene’[14]. As with any tragic artist, there is evidence of contention and paradox at the very heart of the experience. What the tragedian intends, and what actually results from the work are often distinct things. Returning to the introduction, and Rubin described his desire to ‘communicate in a more direct style’. Yet here he claims that his work cannot be received directly, which suggests that he too, through the creative process, has been forced to acknowledge the multidirectional and chaotic potential of tragic experience and narrative. We, and Rubin, are alerted to the fact that tragedy can be experienced not only through a ‘meta’ form of looking at art but also of the sense of being observed, of being heard and listened to, of feeling and being felt. Wallace identifies ‘the emphasis in tragic drama has repeatedly been upon seeing things. Again and again, the playwright demands that we bear witness to the tragic climactic moment, whether it be the vision of Oedipus emerging from the palace blinded or Lear returning to the stage with Cordelia in his arms. These are iconic moments in theatre. And yet icons within visual culture are rarely considered for their tragic significance by academic critics’[15]. Of course, as has been identified, the visual is important in affecting tragic results, but this experience is holistic and illimitable, impacted by so much more than the material or the visual.

Man, woman, child, grandparent; all are capable of responding to Rubin, just as, by extension, he was originally able to relate to the collective suffering of those who caused and those who lost during the 9/11 attacks. The agency of ‘attack’ identifies the destructive potential of tragic circumstances and the effects that result, but Rubin’s art serves to destroy the hypothesis that tragedy can only be understood or represented through a clearly defined set of narrative orders. It is the questions – the unanswered and sceptical questions, posed in any tragic medium that elevate Rubin’s work to the status of tragic. Thomas Rosenmeyer points out that ‘the greatness of [a play / artwork / creative performance] can be measured in part by the questions, profound or superficial, which it provokes in the minds of those who love it’[16]. Rubin’s subjects do not have lips nor mouths to shape and frame these questions but they do not need them. Rubin acts as the vessel through which their voices are heard on canvas, albeit voices that are confusingly pictorially stifled and silenced. This aesthetic potential of art that transcends the accusation of ‘art for art’s sake’ derives as early as Aeschylus in his self-referential poetic form. ‘The terror of tragedy as an imaginative medium of artistic representation […] has lost none of its relevance’[17]. In Rubin’s faceless works, as in any tragic material, it is the tension between the appalling visual or interpretative content and the recorded history (through poetry, or, in this case, through Rubin’s interviews with the media and personal accounts) that characterises tragic expression and ‘defines the paradox of tragedy beyond modern interpretation’[18].



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: A New Translation by Douglas Smith, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. viii

[2] Beth Greenacre, ‘Spotlight on Gideon Rubin’ in Rokeby Gallery <; [accessed Monday 24 November]

[3] Karle Heinz Bohrer, ‘The Tragic: A Question of Art, not Philosophy of History’ in New Literary History, Volume 41, 1 (2010), The John Hopkins University Press, p. 45

[4] Alex Greenberger, ‘Gideon Rubin on the Tragic Origin of His Faceless Portraits’ in Artspace: Insider Access to the World’s Best Art <; [accessed Saturday 22 November]

[5] Gideon Rubin, ‘Artist Gideon Rubin on how he paints’ in The Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009 <; [accessed Monday 24 November]

[6] ‘Good Things about Damien Hirst’s Latest’ in Diary of a Thirty-Something Art Dealer <; [accessed Friday 21 November]

[7] Alex Greenberger, ‘Gideon Rubin on the Tragic Origin of His Faceless Portraits’ in Artspace: Insider Access to the World’s Best Art <; [accessed Saturday 22 November]

[8] ‘Spotlight on Gideon Rubin’ in Rokeby Gallery <; [accessed Monday 24 November]

[9] Jennifer Wallace, The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007), p. 159

[10] please don’t judge me. It was common practice amongst morbid-minded 11 year olds!

[11] Simon Goldhill, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction and the Proclamation of Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 63-4

[12] The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007), p. 162

[13] Gideon Rubin, ‘Biography’ in Hosfelt Gallery <; [accessed Saturday 22 November]

[14] Gideon Rubin, ‘Artist Gideon Rubin on how he paints’ in The Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009 <; [accessed Monday 24 November]

[15] The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007), p. 158

[16] Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas (Austin: Texas Press, 1963), p. x

[17] Karle Heinz Bohrer, ‘The Tragic: A Question of Art, not Philosophy of History’ in New Literary History, Volume 41, 1 (2010), The John Hopkins University Press, p. 49

[18] Karle Heinz Bohrer, ‘The Tragic: A Question of Art, not Philosophy of History’ in New Literary History, Volume 41, 1 (2010), The John Hopkins University Press, p. 49

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