I began art school at the age of 14. We were supposed to practice life drawing and sculpting, but the model was seldom present. Plaster replicas of antique sculptures, or parts of them, were then arranged in the center of the room. We used to draw with lead pencils in chiaroscuro, and modelling with raw clay which we couldn’t fire; each finished piece was molded and cast in plaster. Years of clay, plaster and graphite. Graphite, plaster and clay.
At the art school, everybody seemed to pretend they didn’t know about the polychromy of sculptures from the classical antiquity. An ideological omission, for it is hard to believe this was simply ignored. Truth is, the Renaissance and Neo-classical traditions were deliberately favored over the classical period, despite the former’s misinterpretations of the latter.
It seemed all measures were taken in order to avoid the sculptures to come alive. When drawing eyes, we were supposed to focus on the face morphology, the brow ridges, the eyelids, the distance and the proportions of all the elements. Irises and pupils were considered of secondary importance, not to mention their color, movements, texture and their translucent quality. I still remember with horror the plaster reproduction of a single eye of Michelangelo’s David, the iconic sculpture whose pupil, carved as a heart-shaped hole, looked monstrous when seen from a short distance and isolated from the rest of the sculpture.
As an artist, I draw very little. I have spent many years without drawing a single figure. Since my daughter was born, this is obviously no longer possible nor desirable. I enjoy drawing with her. She asks me to depict animals, words, inanimate objects, family members and rainbows. I sometimes include small variations which, in this period of social distancing due to the COVID 19 outbreak, are met with her vigorous objections. Most of the time I doodle the figures unpretentiously. Still, it is instructive. It turns out that when I depict a face, I never include the eyes’ irises and pupils.
I am drawing empty-eyed portraits now. Perhaps I am not drawing faces but masks, ready to be put on, ready to come alive. What do portraits want? Some look at us, calling for an emotional response. Others look so vivid that it seems they only lack a voice to become alive. At times they do come alive, as in the many myths featuring image-making episodes. Maybe we need new myths, rituals and meanings. Maybe we need new masks to wear, to take off, to exchange with each other, to animate and to be animated by them. If we are to follow directives and protocols to protect our most vulnerable fellow beings, it is also vital to find ways allowing us to come together, even in this time of social distancing measures, sanitary masks and computer screens.
Portraits can travel even when people can’t. In the past, portraits’ exchange was practiced as a token of mutual appreciation, companionship and friendship. Maybe we should start there, but we should also keep looking for ways to come together in sitting situations, taking the time to listen to each other, borrowing each other’s eyes.
- Gallery of Employees, 2020