ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
The Doubling - 2018 [EN, essay],
A few remarks alongside the art of drawing
Unable to draw, predisposed to blindness and only gaining a modicum of sight at an advanced age, it is with great hesitation that I proffer these remarks about the world of drawing. I have but one excuse for such insolence: my ability to string words into a sentence. Skilled draughtsmen often lack this capacity, undoubtedly because no one is ever perfect, but also because we don’t want to add to God’s unbearable loneliness by depriving Him or Her of the ultimate consolation (the knowledge of being the only perfect being). We do not forget, however, that we know little or nothing, and we write in full awareness of our ignorance, our principal driving force’.
Drawing, as experience teaches us, is first and foremost a form of notation. It is no coincidence that the origins of our alphabets lie in drawings, both in the West, where the L originated from the depiction of a similarly shaped heel (called ‘lamed’ in Phoenician), and in the East, where words are stylized images even today.
Everything that is noted first has to be seen, experienced or thought. This is why drawing teaches us to look, to experience and to think. And why drawing is a form of looking, of experiencing and of thinking. Ultimately, drawing is also a form of action. Summarised as such, this might all seem rather superficial. But the objective of this preamble is to provide an overview of what will follow: a paced elaboration on the art of drawing, with examples taken from life.
The earliest form of notation, we suspect, was the footprint. Followed by the curved line that we scored in the sand or in snow with our foot or a stick, so that we were somehow guarded. A boundary was drawn.
The next form of notation might have been an indication of a direction or a goal. After this, a man, an animal, a tree, a mountain or the course of a river could have been depicted. Later still, we would witness the apparition of rivers, skies, mountains and trees in each other’s faces, in each other’s bodies, in flowers, in bark, in cloud formations and boulders.
More often than not, we write things down without even thinking, as if our hand does nothing but obey the laws of the body, which itself is subjected to states of pressure belonging to the greater world. Some are inclined to believe that similar pressures steer the progression of so-called rational thought, in ways akin to the lawful obedience of communicating vessels.
Learning to look
Buried in the unpublished notes bequeathed by the nineteenth-century wanderer and thinker Fredo Nietzsche, we found an expression of his bewilderment at man’s ability to recognize a ‘forest’ out of an immense tangle of atoms. This reflection corresponds to Nietzsche’s awkwardly named concept of ‘the will to power’, which merely conveys the observation that everything seeks more economic modes of existence, as well as new ways of being perceived by potential mating partners. As beings, we have evolved towards the light, and this applies to single-celled organisms and trees as much to humans. Nietzsche writes: ‘Outcasts will be the ones who will not, or do not wish, to recognize a forest… and will stubbornly persist in going their own way.’ And in this thought, we recognise the oblique trajectory of an artist’s life, of the man who does not wish to conform to the existing norms and provisions, but who claims the right to look at things in a different way, to experience and order them differently, to differ, to be different and to act differently.
I once read an exchange of letters between two island-dwelling sages, Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan, in which they violently disagreed on the question of whether blind and sighted persons have inherently different worldviews. Martin Milligan, blind from the age of nineteen months, had no visual memory, no understanding of what it meant to see. To Bryan Magee’s dismay, Milligan immediately stated that he considered the faculty of sight to be grossly overrated.
‘We deal with the world through a series of phrasings,’ he said, ‘and even though I see nothing, I still think I can understand all these phrasings and use them like sighted people.’
I must confess that my sympathy goes out to Milligan, simply because he suspected, but could not prove, that the majority of people rarely use their eyes to discover things for which they do not have a name. They never truly look, in fact, but are imprisoned within a world of second-hand images. This is demonstrated by the fact that very few people are able, without a degree of practice, to draw a bicycle with wheels that might actually turn, handlebars that are not affixed to the front wheel and a saddle that doesn’t hover in a void. Or with pedals that are correctly attached to the frame and genuinely connected to the rear wheel by means of sprockets and chain.
We read that the twentieth-century sculptor Henry Moore, during his brief foray into teaching, invited his students, as a preliminary exercise, to draw the view through their bedroom window from memory. They soon realised the difficulty of the task. We move through life as though in a dream, a reverie in which we can visualise the Parthenon (to borrow an example from a French writer of fiction) but cannot count it’s columns.
Certain people will always be the exception to this rule, because they are better able to see things, because they have a greater facility for remembering images, proportions, shapes, colours and shadows, because they can swivel an object in their mind’s eye, or because they are simply able to draw. They might occasionally be able to do all these things at once, like the eighteen-year-old artist Panamarenko who, when asked during a job interview at a telephone company if he knew what a relay switch was, naively drew three different views of a multiple switch and from various spatial perspectives. Astonished, the engineers hired him immediately. Three decades later, when we asked Panamarenko to make drawings of about thirty of his sculptures, we noticed he could do so from every conceivable angle upon demand.
Drawing from life is an exploration of space: the objects moving within it, and the way in which light, shadows and the different values of a single tone lend these things their spatial appearance. The more we draw, the more we see. There are certain people who, over time, are able to remember the most complicated foreshortened postures and can conjure them of their own accord, without any need of an example. But there are few who possess this ability.
The nineteenth century bore witness to an exceptional drawing teacher, Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, a man who developed exercises to help his students remember shapes and colours. Commencing from simple forms or juxtapositions of complementary colours, the students learned to recall the look of certain objects or paintings, such as still lifes, simply by drawing and mixing colours. With practice, they were so adept at remembering the effects of light and shade, postures, patterns and hues that they could reproduce their observations with ever increasing ease. This was put to the test in an actual drawing competition, in which De Boisbaudran’s pupils triumphed over a host of gifted draughtsmen. De Boisbaudran counted Henri Fantin-Latour and Auguste Rodin amongst his students, the latter of whom was perpetually annoyed by the hackneyed poses of models. For this reason, at some point in his life, he surrounded himself with naked men and women in his studio and allowed them to do whatever they pleased. If he saw a posture that he liked he would tell the person to hold the pose, capturing it quickly in a clay model, a watercolour or a drawing. And because he knew in advance what he would see, he could also isolate what set the posture apart.
The thinking body
In a recent book by the mountain-dwelling sinologist and philosopher Jean François Billeter, one can read a description of what actually happens when someone tries to hammer a nail into a wall. One hand holds the nail against the wall, the other grasps the tool. Eye, hand, posture and brain work in unison to gauge the distance the hammer will travel, initially in an arc, later in a horizontal movement. The position of the feet and the body’s innate equilibrium participate in the calculations. Finally, the hammer sets itself in motion. But what drives it? Is it really our brain? Is there an ‘I’, pulling all the right strings from some kind of cockpit? Who actually decided to hammer a nail into the wall? At that exact spot? What considerations prompted this? And from where did they spring?
Billeter lends credence to the notion that ‘real thinking’ only occurs when we make room within ourselves for the possible formation of a new thought. It is analogous to how we stop our thoughts when striving to recall a name that escapes us, only for it to surface a few seconds later. But how does this happen, given that the information cannot be summoned consciously or directly? One can only deduce from such an experience that the body is thinking on our behalf. We can observe this, but certainly cannot steer the process.
Thinking through drawing
These considerations are worth mentioning, because they clarify how drawing can be a form of thinking and inventing.
That we do not think in words or images is common knowledge. Our thought processes do not align with language and cannot be captured in tangible images. Except, of course, for our ‘apparent thinking’: this strange, alienated application of ready-made statements and established rules, all those banal interpretations, thoughtlessly repeated, ruminated upon, utilised and imposed. A lifeless network of superficial meanings and worn-out images that is convenient for the life of an automaton, but which remains a disturbing veil between the living, moving world and the curious artist, scientist or thinker.
How, then, can drawing be a form of thinking? Well, the movement of a hand, the associations evoked by a line, a spot or a point, this brisk and unpredictable act of living and taking action, can trigger things that require a new name. They surprise and escape us, they give shape to something new, or evoke its possibility in our hands or minds.
In such a case, of course, the body is not solely hammering a nail into the wall, but it is certainly at work. It concocts fantasies, premonitions, presuppositions or fresh possibilities, all of which are embraced or rejected by our ‘eagerly projecting brain’ (Nietzsche).
The birth of an image
Some ten years ago, during the installation of a major exhibition in our country, we witnessed the American artist Paul McCarthy embark on a seemingly unending quest. While an impressive team of assistants transformed the entire museum into a three-dimensional dream space, we watched the artist spend three weeks busying himself with the hang of a single room, the gallery in which drawings, sculptures and photographs of the work Michael and Bubbles would be exhibited. When we asked him what he found so difficult, the artist replied that he was trying to make the drawings more present, so that they would be perceived as works that were as important as the sculptures.
When we finally saw the finished installation, we were instantly transfixed by the long line of drawings, which we began to study one by one, as though mesmerised. Suddenly, we noticed that the depiction of Michael and Bubbles in the drawings sometimes turned into a mother with a Marilyn Monroe hairstyle and a bearded child on her lap. It was a moving moment. Just like the chimpanzee or the child perched on Michael Jackson’s lap, the little Paul is unable to escape the suffocating grip of his mother, we thought.
Perhaps the most beautiful and moving thing about McCarthy’s work is the knowledge that the Michael and Bubbles sculpture is not the product of, and cannot be traced back to, a specific childhood memory. The insight about the mother is not the source of the work but the fruit of the patient superimposing of images, one over the other, until an exceptional pattern emerges.
Artists create and shift images in order to look, think and feel, not to ‘explain’ or ‘interpret’ something. They make things in order to see them. And sometimes they discover what prompted them to make those things.
It is not without wonder and admiration that we look at Chinese painting, an art form that can seem almost ‘bodyless’ at times. Not ‘bodyless’ in terms of its genesis, of course (since it possesses far more substance than our own thinking and calculating way of drawing), but ‘bodyless’ in relation to the depiction of objects and creatures, which resemble invisible swellings between living lines – like an animate presence we can feel, but never really pinpoint – or as beautiful, atmospheric evocations of misty, rainy worlds in which we once again feel an intangible depth, as if this art were based on a refusal to accept the existence of finite matter. We subsequently consider the painting of signs on hot rocks to be of the very highest order, whereas these futile traces will instantly evaporate in an exemplary fashion.
This is very different to the stolid, convulsive world of the West, where people want to know what is real and what is not, what exists and what does not, and what is big and what is small. They have forgotten that everything great is also small, when seen from somewhere else, and that all endeavour is futile, because the end coincides with the beginning. Here, rays of light collide with objects that seem to resist; and light turns into a futile, radiant caress of an immovable, measurable world. A world so fixed that only the absurd juxtapositions of Breughel or the Surrealists seem to offer a kind of liberation or enlightenment.
And yet both approaches, for all their differences, lead to the same fleeting certainty that is the artwork: undeniably present, but at the same time elusive in its so-called meaning, in its value and in its ability to evoke images, stories, thoughts and feelings. They are traces, indeed, but of whom? And to what end?
Through a glass, darkly
Not only does the light collide, but also the artist’s gaze. His or her drawings seem to report on this skirmish, like the sketches of Frank Auerbach, or more intensely still, those of Alberto Giacometti, whereby an attempt is made to depict the matter beneath the ‘eagerly projected’ image that we have draped across someone’s countenance.
The art lover Ronny Van de Velde once told us that Clément Pansaers, the Belgian Dadaist poet, also made sculptures. He would take a lump of clay, sit in a darkened room and knead it tenderly until the work was judged complete. Then he would switch on the light, gaze at the artefact and bestow a title upon it that reflected what he saw, such as ‘Spinning Cat’ or ‘Enamoured Spouses’. Humour aside, this practice refers to our ability to project images, a feat that allows us to recognize a forest, to make friends with someone who will resemble our father in thirty years’ time, or to identify the equivalent forces that, in combination, will form a law of nature.
Harnessing this ability, the learned poet-painters of the land of China spent 1,800 years gazing at rocks shaped by water, always different under the ever-changing light, and in which they never failed to discern new narratives.
I once witnessed an eminent artist capture my own likeness in a sketch. First, he scribbled back and forth, his pencil skimming across the sheet of paper, creating a random nest of twisting lines. Pausing for a minute, hands and head utterly still, he stared at this tangle before starting to add emphasis to one or the other of the lines (by pressing a little harder with the pencil). Out of these thicker marks, my features emerged.
This is yet another reason why we consider artists to have a superior ability to project and, as a result, sometimes spy monsters and other imaginary things. They are also swifter at unearthing possibilities or creating new forms out of nameless matter, patterns, rhythms, reflections, shadows, words, colour combinations and Modern Technologies.
And this is why there is Elly Strik, an artist who creates even darker nests, elaborately woven nocturnal patterns that summon ghostly forms; intricate trellises that cage the image, which occasionally peeps stealthily through the grille.
Do the monsters of this world emanate from our drawings? Do the drawings come from the monsters we’ve seen? Or are we encircled by the truth and, as such, both statements are equally accurate? For it is true that we can only perceive the things that we already know, likewise that we rarely see something that isn’t already familiar. This would appear to prove that the monsters must originate from our drawings. But we also know that a new drawing only comes into being when it is allowed to go its own way and, inadvertently, evoke a new reality.
Having admitted all this, we must also acknowledge that nature works in an identical fashion, for it blindly multiplies and rearranges things. Devoid of considerations, meanings or purpose, it plays cards with chemistry and physics; bored yet obsessed, it conjures with the elements and the earth’s potential. Occasionally, this generates viable monstrosities such as feathered reptiles, heliphanti and chiravi.
And we must acknowledge, likewise, that our imagination is no different when it chances upon the geometric patterns and foregrounds and backgrounds, colour gradations and nuances of light that were already available to the eye and the brain. It is only discovering what they dictate as possibilities, albeit in a world where intersecting lines, spots, colours, words and concepts can produce an infinite number of grids, explanations and other useful nonsense.
And so, we think back to the only conceivable explanations for the similarities that exist between the world’s various mythologies, and which can be boiled down to this: on the one hand, our cognitive and perceptual processes, coupled with the elements at our disposal, only allow us to invent a limited number of stories. Certain binary concepts will always recur, such as ‘day and night’, ‘above and below’ or ‘upstream and downstream’, simply because we are unable to think without such distinctions. On the other hand, it is the surviving mythologies that saved the peoples who cherished them from destroying one other or being eradicated. Only the most effectual thoughts survived the dark primeval period and, as a result, they share many similarities.
As previously noted, the determining factor was not their truth, but their efficacity – even if the latter was solely based on the formal rhythms that ensured the division of communities into proportional groups which, through their names, customs and rituals, had more in common than they realised. (For those sets of values that survive history, the essential effect would be to ensure peace among those who cherished these ideas.)
Thus Claude Lévi-Strauss tells the miraculous story – which he presents to us as a possibility and not as a truth – of two related peoples, one community that perpetuated the balance between the privileged and exploited classes by killing all of the children (except when two infants from the respective classes were born at the same time, in which case both would be raised as privileged twins), thereby keeping the population afloat by stealing children and creating a society full of strangers.
The second community, however, the Caduveo, strove for equilibrium by painting the faces of their women with asymmetrical, mirrored patterns – which reminded the famous entropologist of playing cards – and thereby achieved a workable spiritual and social balance.
At this juncture, we must mention the proliferation of rabbits and hares in countless mythologies, and the peculiar fact that the latter are often associated with twins. This, in turn, prompts us to seek possible reasons for the survival of these strange thoughts, associated with furry, leaping animals and difficult births.
For the rabbit is an animal of both the night and the earth, that we know, because it lives in burrows and ventures forth at dusk. At the same time, it is also a creature of the sky, the heavens, the light and the sun, because it jumps and has a shimmering, warm coat. Consequently, there were never any grave disputes within a community that had split into a clan of rabbits and one of owls. This was because they knew of an owl that nested in a rabbit hole, which made it synonymous with the heavy earth, and because owls, with their large, round eyes, nocturnal vision and amazing ability to fly, are creatures of both the light and the air.
Having said all this, we have not yet solved the mystery of the hare which, unlike the rabbit, does not live in a warren, but nests in a shallow depression in the ground called a ‘form’. This allows us to understand, on the one hand, the deeper significance of Dürer’s hare which, as the artist’s compatriot Julia Ballardt told us, is sitting on its nest. On the other hand, we need to seek yet another duality, the one that allowed this animal to serve, in many different worlds, as both an image for a deity and for the devil. Not unlike a double-headed coin.
It is not the hare’s ability to leap (which despite his association with the earth also makes him a creature of the air). Nor his pelt, which reminds us of Orlando’s comparison of his beloved to the shimmering fur of a fox (and which also makes the hare an animal of the light). No, the explanation is to be found in his split upper lip. A cleft that reminds us of the simultaneous presence of animality and divinity within us all, as god-fearing mammals, but also of the strange splitting of the human race into female and male beings, a fact that has not only led to a beneficial and inspiring state of alert, but also to an endless litany of unfortunate misunderstandings and obstacles.
Yet the power of this image runs ever deeper, as evidenced by a myth from the language region of the Salish, who lived in the territories that became the vast land of Canada, in which a woman is seduced by a devil and gives birth to a son, who is a mirror image of the child born to her sister, who also fell victim to a seducer’s charms. Suddenly, during one of her walks, a hare jumps from behind a tree and peeps up her skirt. These tales resemble dreams, the reveries that form the ambiguous but useful backbone of a viable civilization and, at the same time, remind us of Nietzsche’s rash statement that ‘truth is like a young gardener, whose true nature you can see if you turn him upside down’. Furthermore, and even more seriously, the terrible and dark disparity of the human world, in which object, word and image never coincide, is clearly foretold by the fake symmetry and the secretly cloven nature of our body.
The bewilderment that twins have provoked since time immemorial is also worthy of consideration. There were times when they were slaughtered at birth, times when they were elevated to the status of gods, and times when they were forced apart: one twin leading a regal, light-filled life while the other had to dwell in a dark rat-infested hole. One could write reams on this subject, because it speaks for itself that the image of twins is the catalyst for countless marvellous stories and, as such, has been endlessly deployed. Here, however, we wish to link this image with the remarkable, double desire that was identified by both Kierkegaard and Gerard Reve, namely that everyone wants to be like everybody else, that is to say grey and inconspicuous, but at the same time, as unique and radiant as the sun itself. And this is why the image of identical twins can be as comforting as it is disquieting.
As we draw to a conclusion we return, bewildered, to our point of departure, which stated that the very first drawing must have been a line that set us apart from both the others and the world, as a primary form of action and notation. Yet subsequently, and somewhat inevitably, it has become clear that the first drawing can only have been our own reflection, emerging on the surface of a puddle: the very first thing to ascend from matter, trembling in a glittering membrane, in which heaven and earth and darkness and light solemnly converge.
For there is an even greater duality, more formidable than the one between God and man, man and woman, or word and object, and that is the division between what we feel and think we are, on the one hand, and what we actually see in the mirror, on the other, because we can get lost in this diversity, searching for a personal unequivocalness. ‘For it is clear’, Claude Lévi-Strauss once remarked, ‘that I find it hard to remember my own books, because it wasn’t I who wrote them, but something else, that has thought itself within me, just as I believe that myths think themselves within us (for as long as we play with words and images).’
And that is why we stare endlessly into the depths of a pond, or a bucket, in search of a reality that transcends the muddle of transient mishaps that we seem to be, and which escapes the loop of this hellish doubling, as Marcel Broodthaers wrote. We do this in a world that is always out of reach, even though we continue to sound its depths via scribbles and scratches, juggling with words and images, praying and waiting. For in the beginning there was a line between heaven and earth, and that line was the horizon, and that line was a drawing, and that line was a thought, and that line was a word. But the line was also a scar, a gash, a secret, a narrow gate, the gap between left and right. Fortunately, it allows us to mirror the world and to play cards. For that is all we have.
Montagne de Miel, November 28th 2018
Translated by Helen Simpson