Unreal Nature

July 2, 2012

The Actual Threads

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:03 am

… an outline is made and we are told that what’s inside is a man.

… “That clear perpetual outline of face and limb is but an image of ours, … a design in a web the actual threads of which pass out beyond it.”

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Recent Drawings, USA’ first published in 1956:

… In past times, when artists were working from nature, an exhibition of drawings would have felt different. While, in the process or drawing, the artist’s eye was fed by the visible world, there occurred an almost automatic translation, like a conversion of energy, by which the action of seeing became a movement on paper. The drawing took shape almost unchecked by the artist’s eyes, which were too closely engaged in the visual field to take much time out for looking down at the page. The result was often a witty elision, and a constant discovering that more could be done with less.

At the Museum show [of modern drawing], the artist’s eyes are riveted to the sheet, and the hand is employed in subdividing and articulating the forms already found in the large. With the  world shut out, or only dimly remembered, the artist seems closeted with his drawing; and whenever inspiration lets up, the recourse is to repetitive ornamentation and patterning. In fact, one of the charms which one traditionally associates with drawings is made very little of in this show — the darting spontaneity, the reflex to a sudden observation, impulse, or thought.

Perhaps this is because these virtues of immediacy have lately migrated into easel painting. Most modern painters do their working out on the canvas itself, so that errors, feints, jilted alternatives, and false starts build up into a layered and historiated surface. The one-time excursions into separate sheets are telescoped upon one and the same canvas, whose upper skin comes to be charged with the record of displaced possibilities. As a result, the drawing as study no longer has meaning, and, like printmaking, draughtsmanship survives only as a self-fulfilling art.

… numerous figure drawings in the show strive for fullness, yet achieve only a superficial resemblance to older drawings. Those that use heavy chiaroscuro do of course evoke some illusion of volume, for the method is fairly foolproof. But I am now thinking of line alone, and I observe that the linear description of plasticity seems to be beyond the power of those who attempt it.

Now the evocation of volume through line is a feat which, during four hundred hears, most self-respecting artists of the West could take for granted. When a Renaissance draughtsman, or even a Baroque master like Rubens, drew the contour of, say, a man’s shoulder, he conceived it as a localized, small-scale horizon, which made an apparent line only because his vision was not periscopic. But he knew that this edge he was drawing was not a thing, that it stood for a process, for the event of a curvature turning out of his sight. And he symbolized this event by the dark trace of his medium, even though nothing dark showed at the contour observed.

by Hans Holbein [image from Wikipedia]

In the drawing of contours as such there is of course nothing remarkable. Comics are drawn the same way; an outline is made and we are told that what’s inside is a man. To which we assent from sheer habit.

But the miracle of great draughtsmanship in the past was not its conventional use of outlines, but what it compelled us to read around and between the lines. Whether or not shading was used, the contour itself was tensed in a transverse direction — like the edge of a full-bellied sail with the wind sitting in it. Where no mark was made on the paper, precisely there the form swelled to its summit. The drawn line, passing through thick and thin, pressing down heavy or light, sometimes breaking and leaping and doubling, became prodigiously descriptive. So that a Holbein could draw one faint, tremulous horizontal to the south of a nose, and from above and below, flourishing lips would bear down upon it. Surely this is as close as man can come to spontaneous creation, or even to wonder-working.

by Hans Holbein [image from Wikipedia]

… In the realistic figure drawing now shown at the Modern, the forms even when coaxed with elaborate shading, remain unachieved. Outlines are traced, but with no lateral span, and the paper won’t rise in response. The indicated solids lack the expanding pressure. Somehow the wind has died in the sail, and the sheet is becalmed. What was common possession when it was part of a vigorous style seems now beyond reach.

But why should this be? Perhaps because it is possible, and at times necessary, to see the linear contour in a different light. It then appears that the contour intellectualizes what is given to sense. It evades the blunt bulk of a thing to flirt with its margin. It describes, implies, goes around it. It is, as the mystics say of rational thinking, knowledge about, not of a thing. It was Holbein’s and Ingres’ way, but as new aims were envisioned it had to be dropped.

by Delacroix 

You can see it happening in Delacroix who could, when he wanted to, draw as suggestive a contour as Ingres. But in his pen drawings of riders and lion hunters he prefers to take the full brunt of a form. Instead of trapping its substance in the outer fence of its edges, he likes to meet it head-on, where its mass has most density. He hatches away at the first fronting plane, then claws the averted planes with graining striations. He seems to grapple his forms in a close scuffle and only loosens his grip here and there to let the light in. Compared to him the classicists work with a hands-off gentility.

by Delacroix

Van Gogh goes a step further. His later imagery is immersed in universal mottling, hatching and reticulation. One is reminded of Walter Pater: “That clear perpetual outline of face and limb is but an image of ours, … a design in a web the actual threads of which pass out beyond it.” Sometimes Van Gogh does confirm his outlines with deliberately crude, heavy strokes, but then they are schematically superimposed on a system whose real existence is without them. More often, his contours become incidental; and they suffer all kinds of distortion, for instead of containing their mass they are tossed by volcanic pressures.

In many more recent works the line of the draughtsman withdraws altogether from the surface of forms (which alone can yield contours). Now it identifies itself with the nerve of a thing, then with its inner construction, or with the strain of an action. The drawn line becomes vector. And then a form does not stop where its spurs are, but where its effectiveness is — far out into space. And that space must be shaped, being unique to each action.

What I am trying to say is that modern art has gained certain valid insights into an order of reality, and that those insights cannot be ignored when that same reality is under discussion. The reality of a closed solid in a passive space has been too intelligently challenged in recent art to be simply reaffirmed in the old terms by the old methods of delineation. If it is to be reaffirmed — as I imagine it will be, since it answers to a common human experience — it will be done only with new insight and a new passion for form.

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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