contingent way that images arrive in the work—lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.”
So how can drawing both reflect on and help negotiate the complexity of the human experience? Can the process of Drawing offer possibilities of negotiating the terrain that lies between personal and communal experience? Can the immediacy and accessibility of Drawing allow for an exploration of the physical as a bridge to the metaphysical? The experience of life is ephemeral, however the marks of a drawing made in response to that life are ‘frozen’ or fixed, thus making it possible to share an experience and in that sharing creating a community of interest, thus hopefully, adding to a meaningful experience.
I’m having to think about this in some detail as I have to give a conference presentation on my own practice, ‘Drawing as collective allegory’.
I have mentioned the crucifixion drawings of Michelangelo before, however as an exploration of the physical as a bridge to the metaphysical I think these drawings are sublime. I've put the image above into this post at its largest possible size so that you can see the traces and marks of the artist's hand much more clearly. You can see the hand/eye thinking going on before your eyes, each time we look at these drawings they open themselves back out to us and reveal the shadows of their making.
These drawings inhabits the realm of the physical in three ways. The first is composed of the actual physical materials used to create the work. Michelangelo liked to use high grade cream or white paper on which to draw.This has however discoloured over the years and mould or stain marks have also changed the paper surface. The drawing is made out of black chalk. This is a soft carboniferous schist, usually mined at this time in Piedmont. It came in a variety of colours and densities, red and ochre as well as a range of blacks. This chalk is quite dense, with a fine grain that allows it to be sharpened to a point; it can therefore be used in technical drawing, the sharp ruled lines of the cross being a case in point. It is also strong enough to resist crumbling when pressed down hard, therefore artists can use it to create emphasis as they perhaps want to bring out muscle energy or hold on to an area of bone. It can also be used to create modulated hatching, which is often used to re-create tonal lighting effects. Chalk hatching can also be used alongside finger and stump work, areas of tonal change made even more subtle by blurring the edges between marks.
Black chalk can also be used wet, by dipping the point in water, an artist can make the chalk achieve a much darker tonal range. This together with an awareness of different densities and granular makeup of chalks from different mines, meant that an artist like Michelangelo had a high level of finesse available to him when using this material. If you compare his 'for sale' finished drawings which also use black chalk, you can appreciate the difference in approach, the drawing above is much more direct and the working methods of the artist are not hidden. A reasonably grainy paper with a certain tooth is needed to make a chalk drawing, however the tooth or grain of the paper also holds onto the grains of chalk as they are removed, therefore it is hard to remove marks, therefore as the artist begins to clarify an idea, he has to deal with the images left behind. Sometimes by working over the areas of previous adjustment with darker marks and sometimes by painting them out.
Michelangelo has used lead white to remove and change areas of drawing in the image below. This goes transparent over time and so we are given an 'unveiled' view of some of these drawings, they are not the same as they would have been when they left Michelangelo's hands.
In the image above it is easy to see the areas that were painted over in lead white.
The second way that these drawings inhabit the realm of the physical is in their documentary nature. In order to depict the physical body of a man hanging from a cross, another physical body had to exert itself in making a series of marks that were designed to be read as an image.
These drawings are mainly constructed out of of a series of wrist bound arcs, which are a frozen document that in effect record the movement of Michelangelo's arm, wrist and hand. There is a certain imprecision or almost shakeyness, as well as a changing of mind as the drawing arrives. The drawing is a 'tracing' of an old man's gestures. It is a physical embodyment of one man's actions, the record of his body movements made as he struggles to imagine another body struggling with a near death experince.
Finally, the third way that these images inhabit the realm of the physical is in the fact that the image itself is of a physical thing. These are images of human beings sufferring both mental and physical agony. The maker of these images is aware of this at one point writing,
"Oh! Flesh, Blood and Wood, supreme pain, Through you must I suffer my agony." Michelangelo has many years experience of the physical world, has seen bodies in action and felt his own body change and become suspect to aging. The physical nature of his drawing materials is something he knows he has to work with, he is sympathetic to their limits, whilst at the same time aware of what he is aiming to achieve. The struggle of the mind/eye relationship is clearly evidenced as Michelangelo adjusts and changes the image, each time finding a position for the figure that more readily fits the slowly emerging 'idea' of what it is to depict an image of a man who is also a God; of someone realised at that moment when their earthly flesh is at its most weighty, and yet it is also a moment when someone will pass through their humanity and attain the status of a God. All flesh being cast aside and only spirit remaining. The flutterring marks of adjustment, also become the marks of movement as arms become wings, the dead weight of the body about to be borne aloft by arms pushing themselves free of their cross.
This final image from the same series of drawings, opens out one further issue in relation to this post. That is the importance of repetition, or trying to say the same thing over and over again until you get it right, or at least in a form that is communicable. By approaching this subject several times, we can ourselves begin to read Michelangelo’s intentions. Each image creates a variation on the form of a curved body set off against the geometrical hard shapes of the cross. The drawn bodies are made with arcs of gestures that are built up to form muscles and bodies, they vibrate between the solidity of modelling and the energy of mark-making. This is the language we are having to learn, and we can only learn it because Michelangelo has given us several examples of this language in use.
I would argue that as drawings they achieve something that all artists would aspire to, a form that fuses together a metaphysical concept with a physical reality. Reaching across the gap between one mind's construction of experience and another's is one of the hardest and yet most meaningful things to do, and only by imagination can we do this.