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  • Diane Thodos

The Body in Exile: Figure Drawing as Radical Act

First Published in the New Art Examiner March/April issue 2020.

It is no coincidence that the rise of conceptualism, both in our museums and in the academy, corresponds to the devaluation of traditional schooling in the arts. Who needs to go through the rigors of drawing the figure…if all an artist needs to do is find a predictably outrageous outlet for a predictably outrageous opinion?

Mario Naves, On the Importance of Drawing

The human body, as a nucleus, is rich in associations, and when it is turned into art these associations are not entirely is ourselves and arouses memories of all things we wish to do with ourselves…

Kenneth Clark 1

Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890–1895, 41" x 39”.
Edgar Degas, After the Bath circa 1890-95 41" x 39"

It is hard to deny that we are now living through post-human times, in no small part because of how the power of mass culture, technology, and propaganda has over our lives, political systems, and the very life of nations themselves. In his 1964 book The Technological Society Jacques Elull warned about this increasing standardization of culture that has come to pass, not merely through technological mechanization, but through the colonization and control of thinking itself.

Technique must prevail over the human being…the individual must be fashioned by techniques… in order to wipe out the blots of his personal determination. 2

The postmodern and conceptual currents of the mainstream of the art world reflect this same phenomenon. Conceptualism by its very nature embraces the deskilling and de-education of art students, and uncritically appropriates technically driven media accompanied by corresponding modes of conformist application and use. The embrace of technological “techniques” masquerade as creative discovery precisely because “True technique will know how to maintain the illusion of liberty, choice, and individually.”3 Is it any wonder why Artforum, for decades now, promotes figuration that ridicules itself through repetitiously deskilled, technical and banalized conceptual forms? This corresponds exactly with Elull’s assertion that

If technique demands the participation of everybody, this means that the individual is reduced to a few essential functions, which make him mass man. He remains “free” but he can no longer escape being part of the mass. 4

This is why the supremacy of conceptualism - a kind of mainstreamed “mass” art culture - doomed the importance of human life study and skill, essentially derailing the search for meaningful self-expression in art training. But even as the postmodern assertion about the “death of the author” became the popular mantra of art theory in the 80’s and 90’s, the aesthetic and artistic drive to render the human figure and relate stories of human experience gave birth to the auteur in the form of the graphic novel and animated film. These quasi-popular art forms gave artists an outlet to reengage with storytelling, draughtsmanship, and a relationship to audience that that avoided the censorship of the postmodern mainstream. Because human content with skill were cynically banished from the center, these media were forced into the margins of what was considered the “fine art” mainstream.

A typical example of application of Elull’s “technique” in postmodern art is how life study was replaced with copying from photographs. Figures traced or rendered from photos often look dead for a good reason. No actual human presence is witnessed. No act of observation and using eye–hand coordination took place. No relationship between the artist and the human subject existed.

Egon Schiele, Squatting Woman, pencil on paper 1918, 17.7" x 11.6“.

Today learning to render the human figure with concentration and skill has become a radical act for a simple reason. Our technology driven Internet age has made us comfortable with erasing the need to skillfully witness and attend to the human presence, and by association with ourselves. Technological displacement and substitution detaches us from the core of creative experience. Figure drawing does the opposite. It increases the sense of human connection through the discipline that comes from hours of observation and eye-hand coordination. According to author Peter Steinhart

Because it’s aims are gradual and cumulative drawing is a discipline, and organizing and training and honing of the imagination so that one may be ready to work spontaneously whenever called upon. It is a discipline that requires constant exercise.5

The great achivement of the Greek invention of the nude was its unification of the body with the spirit into an idealized whole. Today the transformative power of this unity has been deeply compromised due to the loss of anatomical knowledge, concentration, and skill. Several artists from the Modernist era like Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele are prominent and expressive draughtsman of the figure. Even their simplest drawings radiate a tremendous vitality and immediacy of the human presence with masterful skill and expressive force.

It is worth mentioning the work of two British figure artists whose art has survived the conceptual bias of the mainstream. It was fortunate that Jenny Saville and Lucien Freud each received a solid skilled-based art training from their respective schools, something, which Saville has pointedly remarked, is no longer available. For each the figure is observed with an almost furious concentration that exposes its flaws with undeniable vulnerability and pathos, but with and undeniable animal energy and fleshy intensity. The interiority of their subjects are filtered through the interiority of themselves, reasserting the power of subjective vision and the uniqueness of the human presence. Freud’s and Saville’s many years of mastery

Praxiteles, Hermes Bearing the Child Dionysos. Parian marble

achieve this double reflection: that of their sitters and that of themselves.

Like the mass culture that surrounds us, the mainstream art world has turned away from the life world we inhabit, abandoning the tools we need to express our all-too-human condition at a time when we need it most. This is why returning to the skill of drawing from life is radical. It breaks from all the “techniques” of mass culture by concentrating our minds and skills back on the human subject, and by association our own subjectivity. Developing life-drawing skills brings about the possibility of reconnecting with life, resisting alienation, and has the regenerative power to rediscover the reality of the self that lies within.

1. Kenneth Clark, The Nude Kingsport Press Inc., Kingsport Tennessee, 1971, p. 8

2. Jacques Elull, The Technological Society, Random House, New York, 1964, p. 138

3. Ibid, p. 139

4. Ibid, p. 207

5. Peter Steinhart, The Undressed Art – Why We Draw, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1964 p. 23

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She exhibits internationally and is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie IL among many others.

Auguste Rodin, Nude lying on her back with right leg up, pencil and watercolor, 12 3/4" x 12”

Gustav Klimt, Pregnant Woman and Man, 1903–1904 17.6" x 11.8"

Jenny Saville, Time, 2010, charcoal on paper.

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993

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