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Archive for the ‘faces’ Category

This article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2020. The author is Sally Hickson, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Guelph 

After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice-President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate — at least on social media. The fly has already been immortalized as a Biden/Harris fly swatter (sorry, they’re all sold out) and sparked a Halloween costume.

In many circumstances, flies are unremarkable. That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.

Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life (buzzbuzzpfft!). In the great scheme of things, our lives are no longer than that of a fly. For me as an art historian, the fly was a moment to reflect not only on the history of flies in western painting, but to begin considering what the long history of this symbolism may reveal about why the fly generated so much buzz.

Humility, impermanence, illusion

Take, for example, an extraordinary little painting known today as Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 by an artist from the German (Swabian) School, now in the National Gallery in London. Her elaborate white head covering highlights a perfect little fly, that’s settled on her just to remind us that our life, like hers, is impermanent.

The corollary is that we’re supposed to do the best we can with the time we’ve got. When it comes to time and eternity, as painter and poet William Blake wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The fly is a little reminder of humility.

Painters could also include a fly to draw attention to themselves, demonstrating with their “trompe-l’oeil” (deceiving the eye) tricks that they could paint in a manner that seemed so real, a viewer of the portrait would be tempted to try to swat the fly away. The 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, tells a story about the painter Giotto fooling his teacher Cimabue by adding a realistic-looking fly to a painting.

Salvador Dalí, who was pretty much the lord of the flies (he painted them a lot) included a fly on the watch face of his painting The Persistence of Memory (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He also used an army of ants to signify the decay of time and life’s impermanence.

All is not what it appears

Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.

 

Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.

In the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment. They were harbingers of worse things, like pestilence and death. That’s a lot of deliverables for a bunch of tiny flies.

The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things, or as commentator David Frum noted, unpleasant things in a presidency we’d rather ignore — which is why, I suspect, given the administration’s record, some people found it so delightful.

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The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446), by Petrus Christus, oil on wood. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Original article by Sally Hickson:   https://theconversation.com/mike-pences-fly-from-renaissance-portraits-to-salvador-dali-artists-used-flies-to-make-a-point-about-appearances-147815

SNL: Fly Debate:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI_lxFv203I&list=PLS_gQd8UB-hLlAHDdSUdIYLjk9WCDnjWx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conversation_(website)

 

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FigureRosso

At the end of class there’s never enough time, it seems, to transition from the rich web of associations that has been spinning in our minds to the rules of the road in the practical world out there. I sometimes forget to take photos of the students’ work and sometimes I’m too rushed when I make the rounds with my camera.

As you can see, the photo of this student’s drawing was taken in haste.  It’s obviously blurred. You can barely make out the head and upper torso of a draped figure.

I do wish I had a clear shot of that fine drawing.

But I don’t regret having this blurry view.  I immediately found it moving.

The feelings of incompletion and ambiguity have been threads running through the past few posts.  Look at this photo for a while and observe what happens in your mind.

There are examples of mystery and “veiledness” that go back quite a ways in Western Art.  My first association was to Medardo Rosso’s heads of children.  Up next.

Drawing by Chelsea. Graphite on paper, ~12″ x 10″

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Giamatti1

“There’s really not much to do. I’ve tried to do a little writing. I’ve been drawing again, which I hadn’t done in many years,   that’s been a wonderful thing, actually, having this time on one’s hands, to take up things again….A lot of my life I wanted to be some kind of artist, a cartoonist or some sort of illustrator…

All I can do is sort of weird funny faces…I just kind of do these faces…I got a lot of time on my hands….honestly, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing…I never really took any lessons….It’s been fun to do it again….it’s been a good thing.”

Giamatti is in a Zoom (or Zoom-ish) conversation with Stephen Colbert and he’s saying that this self-isolation has a good effect.  He has rediscovered the pleasure of drawing!

At that point the conversation had a chance of going deeper into how drawing feels in the mind, how it’s developed over centuries, how it’s taught or not taught and such, but this is TV, so Colbert takes the shallow turn and suggests Giamatti could do a graphic novel. That’s ok.

Nevertheless, we had witnessed a subtle moment in American television:   we heard a big star saying to another big star in the entertainment industry that being alone in your quiet room and drawing—that is a wonderful thing.

Yes, it is.

 

You can see that conversation at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9B8ij0GGBI

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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KatRaeburn

If you squint a little, you’ll see two dark stripes.  At the same time you see a profile.  Stay with this.  Keep looking at the whole page.

The mark making in the dark passages is so rich that you’re drawn (!) in to dwell on the intensity of that texture.  The next second you’re reading the face with its clear profile and the hint of an eye in the shadow side.  Your brain flickers like a strobe light, back and forth in this paradox.

This is uncanny, very powerful.

Drawing by Kat.

Here’s what I mean by “two dark stripes”:

KatRaeburn copy

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HenryRaeburnBWusdRaeburn’s portrait of Robert Brown hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I admire it at every visit.  It is painterly, with quick, sure dashes of the brush: look at the hair, the edge of the collar.

Of all the student copies of this portrait (up-side-down) this drawing, by Mary, is most “painterly.”

When we see lines in a drawing or a painting, our attention traces the line and we feel assured of clarity and rationality.  Lines delineate shapes, orient us and tell us what’s what.

MaryRaeburn

Notice, there are no lines in Mary’s drawing.  Everything is effect, shades of gray, nuance. Imagine navigating over your drawing paper without the guidance of lines.  It takes intense concentration. This is quite an achievement.

When we draw portraits we are not satisfied with mere accuracy of facial features.  We always read the emotion in the face.  When you consider that this drawing was done up-side-down, is it not astonishing how such a process can result in such depth of emotion?

To review how this drawing exercise was set up, visit

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-1/

To compare other students’ work:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-3/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-2/

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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20190905_123041.jpg

Students gasped when this drawing was turned around, to be seen right-side-up.

It was drawn up-side-down, remember. Btw,  No student cheated by turning the drawing right-side-up before it was finished.

When you’re drawing up-side-down, you enter a state of –hello!—pure seeing.  Sounds corny, but the name of this class is simply Drawing as Seeing.  It’s thrilling!

Notice how the sliver of reflected light on the face’s shadow side makes the drawing three-dimensional. So subtle, so powerful.

The time allotted for this assignment was a little over an hour.

Drawing by Shweta.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-2/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-1/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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JudyRaeburn

This student, Judy,  also working upside-down, stayed with the assignment.  So difficult, remember.  It can be very frustrating not to be able to outline the eyes with some clarity.

But look, turned right-side-up, the face comes through with eerie intensity.  Most striking is the eye on the shadow side of the face.  Notice, that the only thing that says “eye” is the white of the eye.  There is no other anatomical feature stated.

We will continue to work with faces in this class.  What makes a likeness, an emotional expression–what draws a viewer in—all that is quite nuanced and fascinating.

To review the basic set-up of this assignment, visit:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/facing-the-portrait-with-henry-raeburn-1/

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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HenryRaeburnI like to present my students with art work that feels modern but was actually done centuries ago.  Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) was a Scottish portrait painter with a modern, romantic sensibility.  In our fourth drawing class we were working from Raeburn’s portrait of one Robert Brown of Newhall (1790’s), about whom I know nothing, but Raeburn must have seen him as self-confident and introverted at the same time.

Now, the catch is that we drew Mr. Brown upside down from a b/w Xerox copy.

HenryRaeburnBWusd

This is a difficult assignment!

It’s difficult because, even looking at it upside down, you know it’s a face and that means you want to do it justice.  You want to get it right. You know, for example, that the grayish smudge you’re looking at in the Xerox copy is actually representing an eye. An eye is a highly intelligent feature and it’s super important in getting a likeness.

20190905_114033

As you can see, this student could not resist the temptation of drawing a clear face with clearly articulated features.  It’s interesting that Robert Brown’s keen intelligence somehow comes through in Justin’s line drawing.

But, alas, the assignment was not to produce a line drawing but to observe and duplicate the various shades of gray. So difficult, takes so much patience and detachment.  We will have more exercises like this to practice.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Raeburn

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Céline ads are a great source for drawing faces.   You don’t feel obliged to make it pretty and add eyelashes. Just draw!

Drawing by Jeanne Mueller, graphite.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/celine-frown/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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16octhead

We say “the whites of their eyes.”  But the highlight on the upper eyelid 16octheadeye(1) is whiter than the white of the eye (2). It’s not easy to give in to this fact.  After all, no one ever said, “don’t shoot until you see the highlight on their upper eyelids.”

This drawing from a photo does not resemble the 16octheadphotomodel, but that doesn’t matter.  Resemblance comes much later.  And in any case, resemblance may not be the goal.  The model/photo serves as inspiration and what happens in the drawing process is more important than likeness.

As you look at this drawing notice how important the shadow cast over the eye ball is for the expression and your conviction that this is a real person.

Drawing by Maggy Shell, charcoal, ~ 16” x 14”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/eyes-no-eyes/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/2778/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/andre-carrilho-and-the-mythic-window-to-the-soul/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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