A naked woman lies loosely spooned in the arms of a naked man, immoveable. Twelve people surround them at a distance, intently staring, studying every slope and peak in this fleshy mountain range, working away at their own clay version of the couple. Every so often the box on which the spooners lie is pivoted so their observers get a different view, and the process goes on for hours, days, this attempt to interpret form, to make a sculpture. But despite the teacher’s reminders to approach the pair, shyness or deep involvement with your clay keeps you away, until two days in, you walk up and look down into the gap between man and woman. You have leapt into an abyss, a gut wrenching, disorienting, terrifying fall into this gaping canyon between male belly and female back. Things seem to swirl for an instant, as if you and your unopened parachute might spiral in free fall. This is not a visual experience, or rather, it is visceral/visual, an involuntary body wrench, and you stagger back to your clay homunculi humbled, chastened, reminded that visual art, when bereft of this aspect of vision, tends toward the unfaithful. Unfaithful to how we actually live, fish in airy water, pulled by gravity, banging up against the world with more than just eyes.
I’ll never forget this almost nauseating sense of vertigo in sculpture class, dragged into the black hole between two models. Like the bug crawling to the edge of the leaf, I briefly glimpsed, or felt, the existential drop. Now, how to hang on to that experience? Rather than sleepwalking, how to awaken, to engage, to cultivate that giddy relation with space? If we hadn’t been sculpting away for days at our clay effigies, I doubt this small spatial epiphany would have occurred. We can make ourselves receptive through hard work and repetition: dogged attention must be paid! As with Jesuit exercises for spiritual meditation, God won’t casually drop by; you have to do most of the work.
Alberto Giacometti, no doubt somewhat intimidated, came to draw the aged Henri Matisse. The old master was friendly, but bemoaned the fact that no one knew how to draw any more. Alberto agreed. They were both men who had spent decades, their whole lives in fact, drawing from life, a phrase that always evokes more than a literal translation. Both exemplified obsessive diligence, but not in the interest of optical naturalism. They adored Cezanne, an exemplar of this nagging need to convey in two dimensions our bodily immersion in space, our life in depth. It was no accident that Matisse and Giacometti were also sculptors, but more specifically, people trying endlessly, and Giacometti would probably say hopelessly, to let us in on their emotional response to space. That elusive vertiginous fall, that sweet, daily epiphany. Matisse said he didn’t draw the model, he drew how it felt to be in the presence of the model. Photos show him sitting right up close and personal, so the figure almost becomes a mental state, a gravitational dream.
At Degas’ ideal academy, a student would spend a year drawing the model. The next year he would have to walk a flight up to see the model, remember what he saw, and return downstairs to draw. After four years and four flights he would have powerful legs and an acute visual memory. Picasso, like his friend and rival Matisse, had the kind of traditional training that taught both close observation and visual memory, and this enabled both men to freely interpret what they saw and to invent, based on a deep feel for space. As kids we draw conceptually, starting with stick figure parents, then gradually flesh out our drawings by studying our world; Picasso reversed this sequence, claiming he worked to regain the inventive powers of children. Very loosely speaking, we might say the Middle Ages depended more on ideated drawing, the Renaissance on informed observation, a gradual self education in anatomy, spatial depth and visual gravity. No one has drawn more beautifully than Raphael Sanzio, though the next generation used the freedom gained to stretch and distort human forms until, in the haunting drawings of Jacopo Pontormo, we see premonitions of early Willem de Kooning. J.A.D Ingres, who worshipped Raphael (as seen through the filter of flattened Greek vase painting) went on to inspire Picasso in an intuitive cross generational conversation. When we draw, more than two eyes are involved. Matisse drew also with his emotions and his body, emulating jazz, Picasso with his mind’s ability to play variations on a spatial theme. Both borrowed other eyes as well, eyes from across the history of art. We look at the model through a lens of ten thousand years of art, and this is a good and inevitable thing.
Or we did this until recently. Something has happened, some collective amnesia when it comes to this vast cultural memory and training. When photography was invented, it was often claimed that painting from life would wither, and a new, exotic plant would grow. This was, I believe, a severe misreading of what painting had been up to for all those glorious centuries, as if given an I-phone Raphael would have chosen to paint Pollocks, or hung up his palette altogether. True, after Daguerre, dogged portrait painters did tend to go into another line of work, but this reductive view of both photography and painting needs to be re-examined. Something more insidious has happened; a generation has grown up mistaking photography for reality. Assigned to draw a still life in a friend’s drawing class, a student walked in, leaned over the set up and quickly, casually, snapped a picture on his phone. “I’ll do it at home” he explained on the way out the door. This sums up, for me, a ghastly devolution of life itself. I find it unlikely this kid will ever have the queasy experience of leaning over the yawning gap between breathing forms, the bodily integration and disorientation in space. Why? Because experience has literally been flattened out for him. The magnificent writhe, pulse and pull of form and gravity has safely been reduced to a small, flat sadness. He sits in Plato’s cave, happy as a clam. Were the philosopher himself teaching that class, he could explain that there is an ideal chair manifested in an actual chair, which, when drawn, becomes three removes from the source and center of being. Now, draw the image on your I-phone and you’re suddenly four removes, way out in right field, bereft. Even a non-Platonist can see the problem: we no longer draw immersed in being, responding to the flow and curve of physicality. We passively eat a pre-packaged visual meal. I used to teach a class where we drew with charcoal one week and with clay in low relief the next. I wanted students to viscerally feel how forms turn, how an edge is actually a plane seen, or rather felt, at an angle, as we crawl like studious ants over hill and dale with our carefully greedy eyes.
Is Matisse right, does no one know how to draw any more? One way to see our recent art, at least art in two dimensions, is as a choice between optics and caricature. On one hand, all the people who basically take a photograph and draw it, more or less diligently. (This might include those drawing from a model but aspiring to have the result look like a photograph.) On the other hand, we find those making cartoons, be they in emulation of Japanese anime or Lisa Yuskavage. Neither approach would in any way compute with Matisse as what he considered drawing. Were he alive, and had he any hair, he would no doubt tear it out. In his novella, The Ebony Tower, John Fowles writes of a hip young painter/critic who visits an old curmudgeon, a member of an endangered Matissean species. The old painter inhabits “the old freedom,"a liberation from self-conscious ideation, from indenture to fashion and audience. We might include working from photographs as a loss of this old freedom, in that we lose the gravitational pull of the world under our feet, we forfeit the emotional response to space and form Matisse so valued. We never learn the freedom to invent like Pontormo or Picasso.
Don’t get me wrong. Photography is powerful, seductive, ubiquitous, and can be an art on its own glorious right. Consider the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the most famous photographer of the 20th century, who waited like an infinitely patient sharp-shooter to depress his camera’s shutter at what he called the decisive moment. His work has an uncanny rightness, freezing the moment when a man jumps a puddle in what feels to be a universe of necessary or inevitable rhythm and echo. Why did one of the undisputed masters of this modern medium lay down his camera forever and pick up charcoal and paper late in life? He made no claim to greatness as a draftsman, so why did he opt for what some see as an anachronistic medium? Was it an older man’s distrust of the definitive, and a growing preference for the provisional? Perhaps the instantaneous became less involving than the cumulative. Cartier-Bresson traded the thin slice of time involved in photography for the vastly different experience of space/time as a thick block. The same wonderful eye must have been at work, one with a good deal to teach us whatever the medium, but I find it inspiring that a master can ignore expectation and reputation and humbly apprentice himself to an age-old practice, almost a form of meditation.
Baby boomers like me enjoy disdaining the current addiction to our phone’s little screens. Painters like me really do despair that legions have voluntarily impoverished themselves by then copying the images those phones carry. Why bother to do that, really? Sure, we can impress ourselves and our friends that we’ve managed to replicate a pre-fab image, or to smudge or distort it in a Photoshop way. But where is the old freedom, the kind enjoyed by artists from Giotto to Matisse? That elusive term, "form sense,” no longer conveys the poetic power seen and felt in “nature,” another term that barely computes. We might all take a hint from Cartier- Bresson and slow down, and, without worrying about success, fame, innovation or self-expression, just sit still and look. And draw. And look. And draw.