Here is another sketch of Moore’s sculpture in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I sat to draw so my eye was aligned with the knot and radiating cracks in the wooden block. One might view this as a mutilated man, two limbs hacked off in battle. From this angle, though, my view was different. Here is a male body. The one leg, bent at the knee, truncated at the foot, and one arm and hand, wielding the shield as defence and weapon, are sufficient. On the side facing me, the limbs are still present, just not actualised, and instead expressive power is given to the shoulder and hip.
Here are some sketches in a limited range of pastels or conte crayons, intended as exercises in tone and texture.
Half a millennium ago, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti were creating exquisite detailed drawings from layered fine strokes of red and black chalk. In da Vinci’s interpretation of a thicket of trees, each crumb of pigment is a leaf, is light or shade. Michelangelo’s horses writhe as Phaethon falls from the skies.
Many of these drawings are held by our monarch in the Royal Collection, the da Vinci doodles snapped up by Charles II. The Michelangelo drawings are on display in the Royal Academy and those by da Vinci are currently distributed in galleries across the UK. Their art marked a step change in Western thought: observation as a systematic process, which also underpins the development of science.
The Royal Academy have paired Bill Viola‘s huge video installations with Michaelangelo‘s exquisite muscular Christs, serene Virgins and flailing horses. Viola’s triptych of Man slowly surfacing through water is flanked by women, one splayed and crying giving birth, the other, his mother, insensate, dying. This “deeply spiritual” portrayal of life’s journey seemed crudely gendered: man the artist, man the observer, man the not-bloody-get-on-and-do-something-useful, not even hold a hand or wipe a brow. Michaelangelo’s drawings are remarkable. His tiny still images dwarf Viola’s great moving tableaux: the soft strokes of chalk building shapes in four dimensions. Still, even placing them behind me, Viola’s intrusive art resulted in my having irreverent and ridiculous thoughts. The great master draughtsman was on his own journey of self-discovery. Mary cradle’s her son’s body but her face is calm, never touched by childbirth or mourning. That itinerant rabbi is strangely ripped and, interestingly, beardless. In drawing after drawing He rises straight up from the tomb, his body erect in the morning after the cold sleep of death.
I found myself outside the exhibition, drawing the 10 foot high cast of the marble from the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Rome. My observation went to pot, my brain contradicting what I saw: I gifted him with head and genitals in proportion to his huge muscular body whereas on the statue both seemed ridiculously small. He leans on his huge knobbly war club, which is hooded by a draped hide, bringing to my mind a woman’s inner lips. What did the sculptor mean to show? It just made me laugh: are we men being trolled across the centuries by what appears a hilarious parody of male prowess?
Upstairs, I drew a cast of an ancient torso, shorn of limbs and head, which is placed in front of a drawing for a never completed painting of Thetis bringing the grieving Achilles his armour. Once again, my eye failed me and I lost the sense of depth, such that the impressive sculpture and the hero’s whitened face appear to lean in conspiratorially.
Destitute women, sex-workers, his lover and his wife modelled for Schiele in sexually explicit poses. They stare out at me from the paper, disputing my male gaze. Schiele was jailed for a time, initially arrested for harbouring a runaway teenage girl but actually condemned for allowing access to his erotic drawings. He also drew arresting self images, naked and anguished. His drawings of women seem much more self-exploration than titillation for others. Schiele’s attitudes and actions were steeped in patriarchy, but his erotic art was revolutionary, visibly challenging the restrictive norms of his time and still challenging today. Sex and gender are powerful, at the heart of family, politics and use of resource, and are the bedrock of art. Once North European invaders saw the very different lives of Pacific peoples as primitive, with mixed disgust, lust and romantic wonder. The themes of sex and gender run through the Oceania exhibition but it is hard to guess at the intent and meaning of the original crafters, or the interpretation and feelings of those who first looked at and felt the objects.
This was one part of a carved frieze of frigate birds and tunoid fish at the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Though this was made by Pacific peoples, it reminded me of gannets diving off the Scottish coast.
In my teens, I was fascinated by a television documentary about cricket in the Trobriand Archipelago, in Melanesia. Matches are played by teams of no fixed size with ritualised violence and dance accompanied by sexualised taunting, charms and incantations. Under colonising powers and the influence of missionaries, cricket replaced warfare, but with a character unique to these islands.
My mother told me about Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologists who studied the Trobriand Islanders, sensationalising, for repressed Western European readers, their (often) female-led and polyamorous relationships as “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia”. She told me that Malinowski’s description of matrilineal descent challenged Freud’s concept of the oedipal relationship between a boy and his parents: in the Trobriand Islands a young man resents and challenges his maternal uncle not his father, and these strained relationships are about power not sex.
I studied social anthropology as an elective year during my medical degree. The great social anthropologists of the early twentieth century, like Malinowski, were creatures of their time and of colonialism. Even so, Malinowski brought wisdom and insight to bear on his subjects of study. Western economists believe in the paramount nature of money, linked to a founding myth about individuals making rational choices over resource use in an ancestral marketplace. Anthropologists, by contrast, demonstrate the diversity of exchange systems and their purposes. The photograph above shows a stick navigation chart showing seas and currents. Malinowski first described the ritual exchange of trinkets between Melanesian peoples separated by hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, dignifying these voyagers as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Across a vast network, red shell disc necklaces were gifted clockwise and white shell armbands anticlockwise. This exchange network was (is?) the foundation of political authority across the islands, the means by which a man gains and displays prestige, not by acquisition but by giving. The Wikipedia entry on this Kula exchange network references later studies of which I had been unaware: Malinowski had neglected the economic and political power held by women in Trobriand society: renown won in the Kula network was balanced by the value of landed property held by women.
Many of the museum artefacts from Oceania were objects of great prestige given or exchanged freely. In their very nature, though, perhaps it was never the intention that these treasures should leave the gifting network to find a resting place under glass. Conversely, we have been gifted the privilege to be included in some way in that Oceanic culture.
I joined the artist who blogs as Outside Authority at the Royal Academy of Arts a couple of weeks ago. We made three forays into the “Oceania” exhibition of artefacts from the Pacific diaspora, one to Renzo Piano’s achitectural display “The Art of Making Buildings” and had a timed ticket into the Klimt/Schiele “Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna“.
OA and I have made previous drawing expeditions together but with longs gaps between. At New Year two years ago, we draw water in Cromford in the cold. As so often, later, I reworked sketches to find the picture I failed to capture outdoors. Many months later, we visited the Kathe Kollwitz exhibition and, reflecting on that experience, we wandered, drawing, through Birmingham. As usual, my medium was soluble ink, moved around with water and covered over with conte crayon. That day, I adopted an idea from OA to limit myself instead to using just three felt tip colours.
However, smudging the sketch with water had led me to be lazy with the lines. In recent sketches I have used water-fast ink, line and block, to render tone and texture, denying myself the option to alter the picture with water. This was the approach I took to drawing the Oceania artefacts.
I much admire the work of the German artist Susanne Rempt who blogs under the appropriate monicker Sue Blackpenart. She frequently draws artefacts in museums and her drawings have such simplicity and carry so much narrative. On occasion, she illustrates the thought-provoking posts and fiction published by blogger CakeorDeath. He has posted several times about the importance of the Pacific peoples’ art to the western Surrealist movement in the twentieth century. Susanne’s influence is obvious in my drawings. In the first two of these drawings I started with and later erased pencil lines, but in the third, like Blackpenart, I committed myself directly in ink.
Claudette Johnson‘s larger than life self-portrait, Trilogy part III, Red, holds us in her gaze. In front is Germaine Richier‘s La Feuille, a bronze figure stripped of markers of femininity, imprinted with debris from the forest floor, decayed, impoverished and dehumanised. This was a witness to two devastating world wars in the artist’s lifetime. Painted three decades later, Johnson’s images reclaim visibility and control for black women.
Richier died the year Johnson was born. Johnson is about my age so we have seen the same world through different eyes. Now, the 1980s, when she painted this, feels like a different, historical, world. “Lest we forget” is a much used phrase. We must remember the battles of the 80s as much as the previous wars. Last night I watched the film Pride with my 11 year old daughter. In response to detailed questioning, I had to explain what I know of the Labour Movement, the Miners’ Strike, how the hardship of that industrial conflict disrupted working class social norms and changed womens’ roles, the nature of HIV and AIDS, the death of activist Mark Ashton aged just 26, civil rights and the nature of solidarity across boundaries that has transformed our society.
I drew without structure, starting with the bronze. I find I have exaggerated the broad shoulders of Johnson’s image, emphasising their power. As I drew, the museum guide planted himself in my line of view to explain to a tour an art critic’s view on interpreting feminist art. He made it explicitly clear to me who he felt controlled the space. This was likely just accidental snobbery and rudeness, but it felt like found performance art.
The “Women Power Protest” exhibition is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until March. It celebrates 100 years of universal suffrage and, importantly for the future, showcases what should be unremarkable, that BMAG’s acquisitions from female artists balance or exceed those from men. Dignity, Hope, Activism are the exhibition’s universal themes, building on the three colours of the suffragettes’ banner.