Why noses?

“500 Noses are more beautiful than one nose.”
Yoko Ono, from Let’s Piece I, 1960

Tristram has his nose violently squashed flat and his dick cut off.

The eponymous hero of Laurence Stern’s 18th Century comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman is pulled from his mother’s womb by forceps. In the process, as he reports, “I was doom’d …to have my nose squeez’d as flat to my face, as if the destinies had actually spun me without one.” Piling up the misfortunes, at the age of 5, the flat-faced protagonist goes to pee out of the window in the middle of the night; the sash falls and he is accidentally castrated. These two injuries become synonymous with his tribulations. In contrast, “the long-nosed stranger of Strasburg”, a mysterious figure in a narrative sub-plot (illustrated here by George Cruikshank) has a particularly prominent member that gives rise to a series of thinly veiled double entendre.

The nose is many things: comic, lewd, symbolic, the subject of a plethora of English idioms, the site of racial profiling; it is also, often, missing.

Despite being bang slap in the middle of our faces, as the subject of cultural production and interpretation, the nose is often overlooked. There are odes to beautiful eyes, sonnets on the perfect shape of lips, hair practically has a strand of literature to itself. The nose, however, is often cut off.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is an art museum in the centre of Copenhagen famous for rooms which display marbles from antiquity. Wandering through the orthogonal displays of heads, one thing strikes you: noses are remarkably absent.

Restoration of antiquities is an ever-evolving discipline. The rights and wrongs alter with vicissitudes of curatorial approach and the archaeological record. Many of the faces in Glyptotek that do actually have a nose, are the result of restorations, of replacements that someone (often an important artist of their day) have made many hundreds of years after the original was lost. At Glyptotek, the nosejobs that have survived are left ‘obviously’ stuck on, without attempting to disguise the fracture, in order that we can recognise that they are replacements.

Up until the middle of the 20th Century the fashion was to restore ancient marbles. Complete pieces were considered more aesthetically pleasing, and were worth a lot more money. Arms, legs, and many noses, were carved as replacements. Ideas changed, and ‘authenticity’ at all costs, meant undoing a lot of the work of previous restoration teams.

At Glyptotek, one of restorers was instructed to remove the noses (several ears and a few locks of hair) from a range of busts. This he duly did, and he stuck up the noses he had removed to the wall of his workshop. Seeing this collection of disembodied appendages, the curator couldn’t resist putting them on display. And so the Nasotek entered the halls of Glyptotek.

Like the nose that left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov in Gogol’s famous short story, they have left the face of their former masters.

Amazingly, there are TWO Nasoteks with less than an hour’s journey between them. “Specially deserving” individuals are given the honour of having their nose cast and installed in a wood panelled frame at the Lund University Nasotek, on the other side of the Øresund Bridge in Sweden, opened in 1987 by comedian Hasse Alfredson.

Hasse’s original idea for the Nasotek was much more ambitious. In 1986 he described imagining the noses fixed to the ceiling of the Small Hall of the University, where they gradually would form a stalactite cave.

On the one hand the Nasotek is grand in a wonderfully ridiculous way, and on the other, it’s just on the wall in the student café, opposite the kitchen hatch.

The settings themselves are, however, very well designed. Nose casts are displayed in angled mirrored frames so that you can see the profile of the nose as well as the front. The designation of being “specially deserving” of this honour, is made by the Academic Society, Nasal Committee.

I collect false noses. I have hundreds of them. My preference is for human noses, but I also have witch noses, clown noses, animal noses, and other oddities. I even have a plug nose and a socket nose. In 2013 I showed a series of 452 self-portraits wearing my false noses at the Wellcome Collection in London.

The thing about this collection is that there is a rapidly decreasing pool of noses to collect. Dressing up has become big business. People now buy the whole ‘Batman’, ‘Bo Peep’, or ‘Shaun the Sheep’ costume. The false nose, alas, has probably seen its day.

In an effort to try and add to my own collection, I have started making false noses myself. I have taken this single form – the nose – and pushed it through a range of different materials, as a way, in part of exploring those materials, and also as a way of exploring the boundaries of the form of the nose. I have painted noses, sculpted noses, carved noses, and cast noses. I have polished and vacuum formed. I have worked with London’s oldest wig maker to knot a nose wig from my mother’s hair. I even made a gold nose of the CEO of Channel 4 television! Some of these I post to Instagram as a series of Nosegrams, where I have also been exploring what AI generation can do to expand the collection.

One of these noses is Nares Hornimani, a false nose and moustache, with Papilio hornimani nose ring, cast from the John Wenlock Rollins bust of Frederick John Horniman founder of Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Horniman was a Victorian tea trader, philanthropist, and obsessive collector. He first opened his collections to the public in 1890, later giving it them London County Council in perpetuity for the enjoyment and education of the people.

Nares Hornimani is a cast of the nose and moustache from the Rollins bronze, electroformed in copper and plated in gold. It references the miscellany of world masks in the Horniman collection. The collector now becomes the collected.

There are several species to which Horniman lent his name. Perhaps the most beautiful is the ‘Horniman Swallowtail’, Papilio hornimani, known only from the northern forests of Tanzania and the southern hills of Kenya. It was identified by Victorian entomologist W L Distant in 1879, when he was looking through Horniman’s vast collection of butterflies. The species to which Horniman lends his name now adorns his nose, a gentle commentary on the way in which the natural world becomes positioned as exotic objects in the museum context.

Nares Hornimani was one of a series of noses made in response to the collections of the Horniman Museum. The nose has also been front and centre of Nose to See You, a pop-up salon where you could have a false nose made of your own nose, and Gold Nose of Green Ginger where you could wish on a gold nose said to have magical properties.

When Michelangelo painted his epic fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he made a rookie error. He makes it about fingers. But that is wrong. It’s about noses. (‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’) Don’t lose sight of the nose.

First Image: From George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Plate IV: The long-nosed Stranger of Strasburg. This edition: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, with illustrations by George Cruikshank. London: Hutchinson & Co, Paternoster Row, 1906.

Last Image: Nares Hornimani by Joshua Sofaer, 2017 (gold-plated copper, gold-plated stainless steel, silk 105x80x35mm). Photograph by Hugo Glendinning, 2019.

All other images © Joshua Sofaer.