… The great draftsmen … are not content to record a movement, … but press round it, till it approaches some ideal pattern that lies at the back of the imagination.
This is the fifth installment from The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark (1956). Today’s quotes are from the chapter “Energy”:
… Clinging drapery, following a plane or a contour, emphasizes the stretch or twist of the body; floating drapery makes visible the line of movement through which it has just passed. Thus the aesthetic limitation of the nude body in action, that it is enclosed within the immediate present, is overcome. Drapery, by suggesting lines of force, indicates for each action a past and a possible future.
… in the later figures of the Parthenon [drapery] has attained a freedom and en expressive power that have never been equalled except by Leonardo da Vinci. In the so-called Iris of the west pediment, the subtle and complex drapery both reveals the nude figure and accentuates its surging movement, like ripples on a wave. … Male figures, their bodies totally undraped, were kept in motion by their flying cloaks. All through Greek art, and its post-Renaissance derivatives, this convention is used so shamelessly that we are hardly aware of it and have ceased to recognize how much the nude, as an expression of energy, depends on this artificial device.
… This ceaseless tremor, this feeling that every form is, so to say, pawing the ground in its anxiety to be gone, can make its effect only because it is confined by knowledge of anatomy, without which the winds of expressionism would blow the figures out of shape. Conversely, it is this knowledge that allows Michelangelo to take poses from antiquity and develop them to a point of expression far beyond the classic norm. An example is the athlete beside the Persian Sibyl. Strangely, his pose seems to have been suggested by an Ariadne reclining in the lap of Dionysos on a Hellenistic relief. But the muscles of his right shoulder are unlike those of any antique figure, let alone that of a woman. If we compare his back with a classical athlete — for example, the Ilioneus at Munich — we see how far Michelangelo could depart, even in 1512, from orthodox classical proportion. These immense shoulders tapering abruptly into tiny buttocks are, by any standards, a distortion. Yet we accept them because a compelling rhythmic force drives every inflection of the human body before it.
… The athletes of the Sistine confirm a statement made at the beginning of the chapter: that some degree of exaggeration is necessary to a vivid representation of movement. This accounts, in part, for the distortions in the athlete of the Persica, where the line of the thigh and back twists round with terrific emphasis and shoots forward along the upper surface of the arm. But the curious physical structure of Michelangelo’s nudes is not simply a pictorial device; it is part of the inward-looking character of his whole art. If we imagine the figures of fourth-century sculpture suddenly come to life, they would be dazzlingly beautiful men and women; but Michelangelo’s athletes exist purely as vehicles of expression. In life they would be squat and disproportionate.
Speeding through the ages, we end with Edgar Degas:
… If we allow the word “drawing” the meaning a sixteenth-century Florentine implied by the word disegno, Degas was the greatest draftsman since the Renaissance. His subject was the figure in action, his aim to communicate most vividly the idea of movement; and he felt that vividness of movement must somehow be expressed through shapes that convince us that they are complete in themselves. This is the characteristic of disegno: that it enhances the vitality of a form by our recognition of its completeness. The great draftsmen of this kind — Signorelli or Michelangelo — are not content to record a movement, as a Tiepolo might do, but press round it, till it approaches some ideal pattern that lies at the back of the imagination: hence the continual hammering at the same motive, the tracings, copies, and replicas that so astonish the profane.
[It is my intention to pair posts (either on the same day or on consecutive days) from Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) with posts from Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956). I’m doing this rather bizarre and arbitrary juxtaposition because, for me, the obvious contrasts as well as the occasional similarities make both books more interesting.] The most recent post from Walton’s book was yesterday.