In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis spins a yarn in which denizens of hell are given a bus-trip to the lowlands of heaven – presumably to offer comparison to their ghostly and miserific existence, and to tempt them to choose a better way. One of the visitors from hell imagines his legacy on earth a lasting memorial to his greatness as an artist. Forthwith our hellish artist friend is smitten by the paradisal scene before him, demanding paints and canvas be brought so that he can record his impressions. The gentle response from his heavenly guide is something like, “Here [in heaven] looking comes first.” Whereupon the hellish artist is so frustrated that his personal impressions lack preeminence, he heads for the bus back to hell, unsatisfied with heaven’s emphasis on God’s creativity over his own. Lewis’ call for the epistemic humility entailed in close observation of nature has inspired my own quest for an art education.
As a young artist searching for studio art training in the early 1970’s I was frustrated to discover that schools here in the States had almost all abandoned the curriculum of close observational drawing of the human body as a core requirement of studio education. Abstraction and the “conceptual turn” in art had already displaced centuries of tradition by the time I was old enough to apply to art school, and it was nearly impossible to find a program still emphasizing study of the nude. The traditional rationale for study of the unclad human form runs like this: we ourselves are human and of all visual phenomena our eye is most attuned to the human body. This makes drawing it a fitting test for hand, eye, memory, imagination, and intellect. If you draw a tree branch or distant mountain range with minor inaccuracies no one notices. But if you draw a nose or finger or even a kneecap a mere inch or so out of place the drawing looks malformed. So the standard for accuracy in rendering the human body is high and the need for close and careful observation at its most demanding in figure drawing. Moreover, the skill and insight gained in a rigorous study of the human form was seen as transferable to all branches of knowledge. Observation is the basis of every art and science, and the rigor required for studying the human figure equipped you for any knowledge pursuit.
I did eventually find a school in Boston that was “hopelessly out of touch” with the then-current art world trends and was still requiring four to six years of figure drawing, anatomy, and the like. Yet after six years of figure study I still felt woefully underprepared (that is, if I wanted to paint like Rembrandt or DaVinci). But painting like the old masters was also scorned in the 70’s – and by the time I entered graduate school in 1977, painting itself was declared “dead”. I wasn’t too alarmed. The postmortem on God had been issued a century earlier and God seemed to have survived.
To my way of thinking, the discussion of what might be a foundational prerequisite for studio training is still to this day in need of resuscitation. It seems odd to me that the concept of close visual inspection as a requirement for art training is now questioned. I am not cranky about this – I am simply registering what seems an impoverishment of our current cultural moment.
T. S. Eliot, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, writes: “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
The same might be said of the dead painters. Their consummate skill in close observation of the human form, of the effects of light, of space and color and the texture of things engenders in us a deeper appreciation of this world of wonders in which we live. If we live inside our heads only, we lose that connection to earth, to the thingness of things and our lives can become insubstantial, gnostic. We risk becoming estranged from the infinite variety, intricacy, and wonder of the created universe.
Close visual knowledge of the human body is no safeguard against alienation from our environment, but it can be a means of honing intellectual and perceptual acuity – an acuity that is applicable to a host of other sorts of human undertakings. Yet why study the nude human form? Well, the simple response is that you cannot draw what you cannot see, and after teaching figure drawing and painting for thirty years I still find the human form boundless, unfathomably rich in meaning, and ultimately mysterious in its beauty and complexity. Here, as in Lewis’ imagined heaven, looking comes first. There is nothing that God has created more worthy of careful study than the human body. And though the distinction between “naked” and “nude” may seem like casuistry at first glance, I believe there to be a great distance between the pornographic gaze and the eye of an artist of faith. I honestly believe that art, like medical investigation, can minimize the potential for the illicit gaze, bringing the artist of faith into closer communion with both creation and its beneficent and extravagantly generous Creator.
Beauty is momentary in the mind – the fitful tracing of a portal; but in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
Wallace Stevens, from Peter at the Clavier