May Lilith haunt the dreams of judges and Hekate light our road

The current exhibition at the British Museum brings together “sculptures, sacred objects and artworks” across time and place exploring a question, framed by classicist Mary Beard as “How do you represent feminine power or desire in material form?”

I cannot post these sketches from the exhibition without saying this. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned a decades old ruling on privacy that had defended women’s right to choose with respect to abortion. This horrifying misogynistic attack will coerce, control, incarcerate and kill women across the USA. This assault on women is of a piece with world-wide assaults on bodily autonomy, for example the increasing exclusion of trans people from affirming health care and civil society, and a rise in violent homophobia. As we increasingly celebrate diversity and fluidity in ourselves and others with regard to gender and sexuality, the reaction is to police our behaviour and expression within narrowly defined limits. These are spear points to fracture and exhaust us, and distract us, so we stumble down a road leading to fascism.

The female form has been exploited across time and six continents as a vehicle to express ideas about our very nature as evolved, natural, thinking, creative, social, hierarchical and transgressive beings.

The exhibition takes six themes: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, Compassion and Salvation.

Passion and desire are driving forces, in manifestations extending from lust, ecstasy, rage, wisdom and conquest. It is a transgressive disrupting force and can be a glue holding together relationships and society. The 1994 sculpture “Lilith: the first woman” by Kiki Smith shows Adam’s first wife, expelled from Paradise for desiring sexual dominance, crouching on a vertical surface above our heads. My little drawings, attempted twice, did not capture the majesty of this bronze figure. May Lilith haunt the dreams of the justices.

Monstrous women, demon goddesses, witches sit both at the fringes of society and at its heart, independent, aggressive, protective, vengeful, wise. The Roman god Hekate symbolises transition, gazing at three pathways. She is light in darkness. May we choose well our future direction.

Bacon

Left handed sketches from April.

Francis Bacon “Study for a Portrait” 1953 oil on canvas. Pen sketch at the Royal Academy “Man and Beast” exhibition.

The figure in a business suit framed on a structure like a hospital bed knees drawn up yet fucking arrogant as fuck. The whole torso is almost one shape with barely few lines and shadow to define it

“Pope I” 1951 oil on canvas – a reworking of Velazquez’ “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” c1650.

The pope’s throne is rendered transitioning to a commode-like chair – steel framed and the vestments into steel bands twisted like the back braces taken from inmates and the suggestion of spotted dark blood.

Knight’s move behind

First, I saw you, your smart face impassive, eyes taking in the gallery, your form  slender in your camel colored coat, forced ringlets dropping past your shoulders. Then you, her mister, five feet away, your right shoulder to her back, your indoor broad-brimmed hat darkening your pallid face, long hair tucked in your collar, intent on your scrolling text. When she turned and walked, a tiny pause, then you swung round to follow.

“I will not look, not chance a glance at these narcissistic outpourings.  A century gone, what is this revolting old man to me?  This is for you: I am here for you, it is you I am tied to, I am your dark  shadow, my movements tracking yours, we are linked, us, by photon marionette  strings.”

A flicker of memory.  In the closing hours of the Millennium Dome, I came across two Ladies. Their collared slaves feigned disobedience, not walking to heel but tugging at the end of their leashes, their faces masks of chosen silliness.

“I learned that you drew before walking, were an Old Master by five. A child, your skill shamed your father into abandoning his profession. Here is but the barest cameo, a small snapshot of your intense love affair with paper, and still it exhausts me. To be the greatest, ever, must you have been a man? Did your vast ability need still the certainties of patriarchy, to possess so utterly objects, lovers, daughters as blank slates for your self image, or to reach in and pull out their souls as blocky excrescence?”

At rest, your missus is always perpendicular to  your line of sight.   She moves off, giving no summons.  You return no acknowledgement, do not look up or right, remain intent on your phone.  You stand for the briefest moment, before the invisible coupling engages. Trailer-hitched, you set off after, a constant neat knight’s move behind your queen.

 

Picasso and paper” exhibition at the Royal Academy.

 

 

 

Lynchian narratives

The person who blogs as Still Outside Authority is known for giving gnomic titles to WordPress posts: the latest landscape line drawings are headed “Under the Gibbet“.   There is something of David Lynch in this linking portentous words to image.

Yesterday, OA and I walked the canals between Manchester Piccadilly Station and the artspace HOME.   Here was my last sketch, coloured this morning in conte crayon and watercolour, having first been re-inked to obliterate the heavy black lines in the original on-site drawing.  A cleverer artist would have left that expanse of water as white paper, with a minimum of lines to suggest ripples.

We had visited the exhibition My Head is Disconnected: visceral drawings and relief paintings by David Lynch (open just one more week).  In these images, we meet recurring characters and a house motif.  This is not a storyboard, rather each individual picture might stand for a whole film, the series connected by a single director.  Each work encapsulates the totality of narrative and dialogue, characterisation, build-up and climax and resolution, tone and mood in unmoving shapes and cryptic utterances.  We fill in the gaps (the missing 90 minutes of film) in our responding imaginations.  That recurrent house icon is clearly, very much, not safe as houses.  We see “light fire boy” and the caption beneath “meiah is a girl who he likes AA lot”; “Who is outside my house” which throws out a poignant thought about the dog; “Her shadow began to change“; “Bob’s antigravity factory” with the artists fingers clawing through the think earthbound paint; “A lonely figure talks to himself softly” standing in a storm, expressing the thought common to us all; and Bob’s meeting Mr Redman is not welcome at all.

I have known since I was seven

The Rabbits, by David Lynch

He who posts as Cakeordeath, endlessly informative on all things surreal, introduced me to this short film by David Lynch. This, though, is not so much surreal as permeated with existential dread, the haunting soundtrack comprising undulating chords punctuated by a muted engine siren, like a muffled scream.  Three people, expressionless in rabbit masks, make short gnomic statements that almost make sense.  It plays out like an episode of Friends, with characters coming on set pausing until the applause dies away and recorded laughter sounding unexpectedly at irrelevant moments.  We look down and in on the stage, so action plays out in a hutch, or a shoebox diorama.  I watched it in fragments and when I finished it, I found myself scribbling furiously in conte crayon on a sheet of cardboard.  I had been captivated by those two pools of light, from the table lamp to the right and the upright at the back.  At first I saw the colours as a sick turquoise and dull brown.  Only by drawing did I see the set is criss-crossed by shadows and varied hues, and standing out on the side table is a small lime green pot.

Who was on the phone?

It is still raining.

It has always been like that.

When did you go out?

I have known since I was seven.

It happens all the time.

There is no moon tonight.

I said it looks like it is still raining.

Where was it exactly, do you remember?

Is it that late?

Since then?

And getting darker.

An old warm rug.

A dog crawls.

Something’s wrong.

The dog crawls.

Lights blow out.

A wind.

Dark.

Space, strings and saurian skulls

An afternoon in the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden geared my brain for observing the landscape in Cornwall, where she spent much of her life.  Apparently Hepworth pioneered the idea of the pierced object in abstract sculpture, an idea developed famously by Henry Moore.  The Tate’s notes on this piece “Sphere with inner form” describe the “smooth thin shell, punctured by circular and oval openings, covers the crusty inner form, which is also pierced. The warm brown patina of the outer surfaces contrasts with the green of the interior faces and the inner form”.  I reflected on these comments “she drew attention to the relationship between ‘an inside and an outside of every form … a nut in its shell or of a child in the womb, or in the structure of shells or of crystals, or when one senses the architecture of bones in the human figure'”.  Is this a particularly female perspective or simply a mark of a great artist, who can express the vitality beneath the surface?

I began my sketch drawing freehand with the brushpen and then with fountain pen loaded with india ink.  It was later that I worked colour back in, using watercolour, and conte crayon both as a resist and as an opaque layer on top.

The Tate’s notes on Hepworth’s 1966 piece “Spring” draw attention to its ovoid shape, in short, it is an egg.  This relates to ideas of nature’s cycles and rebirth (and therefore also death or dormancy too?  The notes don’t say this).  As with “Conversation with Magic Stones“, this idea had been developed through multiple versions, with previous iterations carved in wood, the painted  smooth shell contrasting with the coarse grain of the interior.  I loved that the pierced interior is strung through and through with threads.  I wanted this to make music – a stone lyre.

 I walked round this piece “Bronze Form (Patmos)“, holding open the shutter of the iphone camera, distorting it so I could see three sides together.  The critical feature of this sculpture is the enclosed space, within the bronze shape that folds over it like a wave.  It was inspired by her time on the Greek island of that name.

My immediate response to Bronze Form was to see, not the space within as Hepworth intended, but the outer shell as the twin-arched saurian skull, that heavy block of bone evolved to develop piercings and pillars, lightening the load and providing a framework for powerful muscles.

I wrote on the page “Sculptures built of space and pillars, like huge distorted saurian skulls.  Others solid but holes strung with strings like a stone lyre”.  I reflected that these shapes seemed natural “set against the more unnatural forms of the the cultured plants” in the garden.

The magic of stones

I found a shady corner on a hot day in the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden (part of the Tate in St Ives).  I had walked through Hepworth’s bronze installation “Conversation with magic Stones“: comprising three standing figures and three low-lying irregular polyhedrals.  The notes tell me that though this was a late piece, it was a large-scale realisation of ideas developed through multiple earlier works across several decades.  For her, the figures depict something of human relationships: totemic persons in tension with each other, the mythical landscape and magic stones.  From my standpoint, I saw the hard-edged uprights alongside the less regular lines of the bamboo setting: the distressed flat metallic surfaces against the smooth natural cylinders.

When I looked at my sketches made over several days in Cornwall, I started to recognise something that Hepworth had been conscious of in developing her work.  Here are three of the ten or eleven remaining stones that comprise the Nine Maidens of Boskednan sited in the midst of moorland.   These placed stones speak of now unfathomable relationships among the early Bronze Age inhabitants and between them and their surroundings.  How did these stones relate to matters of kinship and exclusion, exploitation of resource, search for meaning, and hierarchy of power?

On the coast west of St Ives, I chanced across another stone circle set deeply in the ferns.  This was not marked on the map: I cannot say whether this is the work of ancients or a contemporary folly.

Each sketch was started in pen and indelible ink – really an exercise in mark making.  However, I then applied conte crayon to give texture and act as a resist for simple watercolour washes.

 

The Warrior

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.

Red chalk

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.

Hercules’ big club

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.