For Victory Day, Vladimir Putin put on make-up in the manner of Sarkozy – who had a make-up artist on the payroll – although it was not enough to hide the swelling on his face. “Cortisone”, some supposed; “parkinson”, “visits to the oncologist”, the most daring. But why the hell would a guy like him, a bare-chested trout fisherman, sambo fighter, and expert marksman who has unleashed peace in Europe, sit with a blanket draped over his legs? In front of the coffins of those who died at his whim, the post-Marxist czar, who walks with clenched fists in the style of warlords, shamelessly showed a hint of vulnerability. He seemed to be cold, unlike the elderly veterans sitting next to him. And we all wondered what he was hiding under his blanket when, knowing he was being watched closely, he broke his concentrated seriousness and smiled as he bid farewell to his devoted audience.
Before the corners of Putin it happens the same as with the Mona Lisa: the first time you look at it, you manage to see a smile; at the second, doubts, and at the third you think that his rictus hides a bitter melancholy. The dictator's gaze is sharp, but his lips insist on stretching, reproducing that universal gesture that softens the gravity of existence. They are those moments in which, as Simone Weil pointed out in Gravity and Grace, there is a brief flash that makes one forget the load, and the smile turns into a happy start.
“When we are asked to smile on camera, we act bravely. But if the process is delayed, it only takes a fraction of a second for our smiles to turn into awkward grimaces. (...) A smile is like a blush: a response, not an expression in itself”, writes Nicholas Jeeves in his essay The Smile in the Portrait. The Cambridge art professor explains why the characters did not smile in paintings until the Renaissance, when they began to show their teeth, because before it was a sign of vulgarity and bad taste – they used to be black. Only the drunken, the miserable, the lewd and, of course, the innocent were allowed to laugh at works of art.
Today, when we remove our masks, we run into smiles again. The fake and the real. It was the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who found the real one, the one that occurs due to the contraction of the zygomatic muscles, which arch our lips while the orbicularis muscle raises the cheeks, forming those recognizable wrinkles of happiness around the eyes that reveal their sincerity. But Duchenne's smile is scarce in our social theater no matter how much advertising, with its constant promise of paradise, certified his hegemony. So much so that a new genre was lavished: the poisoned smile like Putin's, which threatens discomfort and contempt.
In his painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the pointillist George Seurat paints eight boats, three dogs and about fifty Parisians that do not glow with the same effervescence as the landscape. They look like statues. Nobody smiles. Perhaps the answer lies with the photographer Peter Lindbergh, refined contemporary esthete, who affirmed that before the portrait of someone who is smiling, you only see the smile while in the one who does not smile, you can see everything else. Almost every smile always contains a certain melancholy due to its evanescence, but in the case of Putin, his intolerable grimace borders on pornography.