Life Drawing Class

Life Class. Sketch by Doug Pope

Recently a friend invited me to join him for an informal life drawing session held in the back room of a used furniture store in Halifax. The store doubles as a prop warehouse for movie companies so the background comprised a jumble of miscellaneous items. Because the room was small the dozen aspiring artists sat close to one another and almost on top of the unfortunate model, who remained remarkably poised and professional throughout.

It’s a humbling exercise. You want to draw well, you want your drawing to have a spark of personality, but you also want some semblance of reality, some faint hint of proportion. No pressure. There’s a naked person in front of you, you know a digital timer will buzz at any second, while everyone in the room scribbles away as fast as possible.

Salvador Dali. Drawing, 1936

I came home and had the following thought experiment. Imagine the young artists in the room were Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Matisse, Klimt, Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Tom Wesselmann and a few others. Dali does an impeccable drawing, neat, detailed, beautifully shaded and full of showy surrealist touches. Magritte draws with complete indifference to his subject and surroundings. He proceeds like an artist in a courtroom. His drawing is accurate and perfunctory and yet, despite himself, there is a undeniable element of poetry to the figure. Frida is the only artist in the room to capture any sense of the model as a personality. The face is lovely, though it suggests suffering and endurance and bears a striking resemblance to Frida herself.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait, 1937, Tom Wesselmann, Nude with Mirrow, 1990 and Egon Schiele, Torso, 1914

Arriving with no drawing materials, Picasso borrows pencils and pad from his neighbour. The room is stifling hot and Picasso is the first to strip off. Others follow and soon discarded clothes are piled on every available surface. Picasso draws with lightning speed. He finishes well before the buzzer sounds and steps out into the corridor to join Schiele for a smoke. Schiele is a nervous wreck. Painstakingly slow, he barely draws a single line before the buzzer sounds. When Matisse arrives, he sits so close to the model that he blocks the view of those behind him. Music plays in the background and Matisse hums along. The others in the room pretend not to hear this. Soon Picasso is singing out loud. Loudly. The room joins in.

Matisse tells funny stories to the model. She laughs, her position shifts and objects sail through the air in Matisse’s direction. Picasso dances with Frida, oblivious of the fact that she can barely stand. Dali takes advantage of this opportunity to cut one of Picasso’s drawings from his sketchbook. Picasso, of course, signs everything. Dali will take the drawing home, draw on top of it, sign it himself and claim it as a collaboration with his close friend and fellow Spaniard. Magritte alters some of the paintings on the wall. Klimt is busy selling one of his drawings to a fellow student. The drawing has an erotic allure and the buyer feels thrilled and embarrassed at the same time.

Loui Jover. Reclining nude after klimt, 2009

Posted in Art

Mountains of the Moon

Macmillan Collector’s Library edition

Last week I posted about the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows. What struck me about this delightful book were the characters and their adventures. Today, I’d like to explore the implications of one particular phrase used in the book, “Mountains of the Moon.”

The phrase appears in the first sentence of Chapter 9: “Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further–his simple horizon, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know.”

In this instance, “mountains of the moon” refers to the limits to a person’s curiosity. There’s only so much room in your brain. We like to learn new things, but there are some things we’d rather skip. They’re boring, they’re irrelevant, they’re noisy distractions, they’re too far away.

What intrigues me is how these limits can be challenged. For some people I suspect the limits never change. For others, there might be interesting exceptions. For example, I like most forms of music, but don’t particularly care for country music. However, I like Willy Nelson, I like Johnny Cash, I like Patsy Cline. When I met my wife and she also liked Patsy Cline, we started walking after midnight together.

The opposite can also happen. We’ve all probably had this experience. There’s a piece of music, a painting or film that you just don’t care for. You don’t get it. It’s meaningless and annoying. And then you meet a special person. Maybe the person is a teacher or mentor, a friend or lover. The important thing is you value the way this person sees the world. One day, to your shock and dismay, you learn that the one piece of music that you so detest is one of your friend’s favourite pieces of music. Now it may be that the two of you agree to disagree. Or it may happen that you begin to revise your strongly held opinion. Your resistance to the music begins to fade. Your friend’s enthusiasm persuades you to give it a chance. And once you do that, you begin to like the music just a little at first, then more and more. You realize you’ve had a transformative experience.

Art requires an audience. However there is never just one listener who forms a single impression. A whole galaxy of listeners form many different impressions and their conversations around what they’ve seen and heard are vital to the art experience. The mountains of the moon shift depending on who we’re with and the conversations that arise.

Wind in the Willows

EH Shepard’s illustration of Ratty and Mole on the river.

My wife and I recently read Wind in the Willows together. We found the book more charming than we remembered from childhood and marvelled at how many points of connection we were able to make to our own present-day lives.

It’s a story of friendship and small adventures, life along a river, having fun, having too much fun, lessons learned, sharing and gratitude. The characters include Mole, Ratty, Mr. Badger and the flamboyant thrill-seeking Mr. Toad. I particularly identified with Mole, who starts things off by emerging from his underground burrow to be born into the world (the opposite of Alice who tumbles down a rabbit hole to experience the topsy-turvy Wonderland).

Mole is an innocent character, yet shrewd enough to evade dim-witted rabbits who want to tax him for no good reason. Mole dismisses them with the phrase, “onion sauce!” and continues on his way. He discovers a friend on the riverbank, Ratty, who introduces Mole to the delights of boating. Ratty’s philosophy is: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Mole insists on learning how to handle a boat himself. Ratty is the ideal teacher and the two learn to depend on one another.

However there is much talk of the wealthy Mr. Toad, who flits from one whim to another with enthusiasm but with little regard for safety or the needs of others. Toad and Mole are opposites. Toad is lovable, but egotistical and mischievous. He ignores his friends’ advice and doesn’t learn from his mistakes as he drifts ever farther afield. Mole gets homesick and has to choose between spending time with his friends and living like a hermit by himself. Ratty suggests a solution. Mole can visit his home whenever he likes, and still see his friends. In other words, his spirit of adventure doesn’t have to end because he wants to go home from time to time.

The book encourages adventures, but also suggests that one can easily go too far. Good adventures cement friendships and lead to shared experiences. Bad adventures disrupt friendships and lead to distrust and misfortune. The river is the perfect symbol of the good adventure. It offers variety and novelty, yet connects all the friends in a lively and delightful environment.

Talking about Art

leaftalkposter-copy

A group of friends recently met at my sister’s house in Hantsport for an experimental event. We billed the evening as Talking about Art. On a large blank wall, we projected images of artworks, illustrations, ads and movie clips. With each image, we invited the assembled guests to contribute any impressions or ideas the images evoked. There were common themes and two moderators helped stir the group in useful directions. The evening was sponsored by the Robert Pope Foundation.