Sunday, January 13, 2013

Working in the Dark

On view at the newly re-opened Yale University Art Gallery is Thomas Eakins's stunning 1872 portrait Kathrin, which I was able to study for a while this afternoon. The photograph above offers a much clearer resolution of the picture as image than can be seen under gallery conditions. Where the shadow cast across the sitter's face merges nearly seamlessly into the chair's plum-colored head rest in the photo, it leaps shrilly forward in the gallery as the spotlights glare off the picture's heavily-worked paint film. Similarly, if the photograph yields a definable footstool in the pictorial foreground, the canvas itself is much more ambiguous, compelling the beholder to sound the floor's floral shallows to find exactly where the vertical support of the stool cedes to the surrounding, spiraling arabesques of carpet.

Drawing from Walter Benjamin, Michael Fried has described what he sees as the tensions between the horizontal plane of drawing and the vertical plane of painting in Eakins's work. Reflecting on my drawing after Eakins, I think that Fried probably has a point. Eakins's image prompts an oscillation effectively re-enacted in the drawing as I dutifully (that is, somnolently) retraced the finicky contours of the imposing armoire as at upper left in the detail and then got lost in the tonal world of the sitter's immediate environment in the center. What struck me most as I drew this picture, though, is Eakins's willingness to work in the dark, as it were. Although this is nominally a portrait, he seems to delight in obscuring the sitter's visage. He runs together her high-lighted nose and cheek, the join of her chin and neck, the boundaries between her right, fan-holding for arm and the project arm of her chair. Eakins renders the "action" of the picture (such as it is) in such subtle tonal variations that it verges upon perversity. As I only realized after about 40 minutes of drawing, the sitter's arched left hand is not only passing over the globe of the chair's arm in a kind of benediction, but she is playing with the kitten in her lap who stares out from the picture plane. Passages like this are such a pleasure to draw not only because they deliver the frisson of disclosing that which had previously resisted pictorial resolution, but they also encourage drawing in a way that aims toward a disintegration of graphic closure. Since you can't see what you're doing as you work in the dark, the act of drawing is freed back to an atavistic scribbling. Boundaries are sacrificed; the isomorphisms of sitter and sittee (arms and arms, head and head-rest, etc) are embraced, while—to my great surprise and delight, at least—these renunciations turn out to deliver back interesting and otherwise-unknown information about the object of study.

An aesthetics of invisiblity; a confusion or merging of figure and ground such as we might find in slightly later works by Vuillard (as at left)—all of those can certainly be found in Eakins's conjunction of carpet and footstool. But, prolonging our appreciation of the twilight—our willingness to wait on that shadowy threshold of understanding—that seems to me to be the gift that Eakins offers us.

No comments:

Post a Comment