The Three Legs of Drawing: A Sketch

Brugel to Rubens
Great Flemish Drawings
23 March – 23 June 2024


There is a drawing by Rubens of a torso of a man with three legs (1600-1608) that is being exhibited as part of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford of Flemish Drawings. Obviously, Rubens was attempting to work out the position of a leg for a painting. It was as if each of these legs had a claim to becoming the final realisation of the position. The presentation of three legs simultaneously provides the imagination with options and perhaps this is what drawing offers in the form of the multiplicity of options in advance of final appearance. All three legs each have a potential place, but a choice is to be made because only two legs will suffice within the design of the final painting.

Sketch of the muscle of a leg by Peter Paul Rubens

X-Rays of paintings often show the choices made within the underpainting which might have been made in the form of this arm or another arm, this gesture rather than another, revealing in turn the exercises in imaginative deduction or refinement. Drawing then as process brings the viewer close to the working of imagination or intuition, as opposed to the more definitive forms of representation based on established cognitive ordering of things. Like the hidden art of schematism, drawing is like a form of hidden art that invariably did not necessarily become exposed, and as such were left in the pages of private sketchbooks of artists in question. This in turn gave rise to the feeling of drawings intimate relationship to the thinking process of the artist.

Within Modernity a persistent question posed is that of the relationship between drawing and painting, which in turn reveals the relationship between public and private. The degree to which this question was exposed within the aesthetic process was also related to the exposure of the subject itself, but it was one that could be seen to alter the very status of drawing as a practice. It might be that a double exposure started to be mediated within drawing, that of both a question and that of a reflex or gesture. Also, within this a shift is affected in the relationship between the academic status of drawing whereby drawing was understood as a repository of research insights that propel into the very heart of aesthetic desire, or the sense of agency or voice which might be assumed. It is as if drawing shifts from being behind each completed artwork, to becoming its own centre, affecting a shift from being that which underlies, with that is distributed through all the different aspects or manifestations of art. So drawing is not only the question of its relation, (to painting and the self) but one which contains a sense of the expansion or distribution of it. Thus, when writing itself enters, not only in relationship as medium, but a new feeling of distribution occurs because of this shift, that enables an expanded sense for an outlet for the figuring of the figure. Therefore, drawings plasticity is enhanced and with this transformative medium for a whole number of folds, the fold of painting, the fold of subjectification, and the fold of writing is the creative outcome. With this, drawing moves from being a minor form, to one that disturbs or redistributes a relationship such as of minor and major.

The notebook drawings of Artaud, the calligraphic paintings of Twombly or the work of Joan Mitchell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, each in their own way serve to establish chains of drawing-painting-writing. There is within this an eruptive quality, or a breaking free of a restrictive code, and with this either a contraction of the space in-between these registers or an opening out a new rhymical accord that stretches out or pulls together within a greater sense of inscriptive intensity. If drawing had served as a schematic, observational, and expressive coding of recollection and registration, then one of the implications of this further complexity serves also the way in which the shifting system of signification within the potentiality of drawing becomes operative. The coding of drawing practice might serve as a model for its own mutation in or over time because of the way drawing never held itself up to the scrutiny of being a completed object. Drawing in this regard might be claimed to not only be in accord to the transience of its as medium but to be the very delicacy of being able to provide transience with a system of make itself visible through marks or inscriptions.

There was always something other within drawing. When lenses started to be employed, the impact of this was to repress this space of the in-between of drawing and proceed directly to the completed object. A testimony to this was that Vermeer left no trace of having a drawing practice whereas Rembrandt left thousands. This was surely due to the employment of lenses to establish the image. The difference between a Rembrandt painting and a Vermeer painting is telling in this regard and it is as if we are viewing quite different objects especially in regard to the actual relationship to the durational figuring on the image. The layers of paint within A Rembrandt painting, especially in late Rembrandt record a density of revisions, corrections, and insights as if a painting can record the totality of each of the shifts implicated within its textual surface. All of this is repressed within Vermeer which draws them close to the advent of the photographic code.

We are now not just a lens saturated culture, but one of virtual reality and this provides a form of counter narrative to our relationship to inscriptive practices. Partly the response to drawing is formed as trying to understand the difference between the manual and the machinic. In someway this connects to the sensitivity attached to perceived history of drawing that comes with a perceived threat to its status within the aesthetic process. Virtual drawing processes carries within it the elimination of the fugitive and contingent aspects of manual drawing. Perhaps this drawing by Rubens might inflect upon such perceptions, even though this would be without its design to do so. This is why we might look at drawing within the present as being an offering of another mode of destiny for the visual. The technological regime operates as an imperialistic operation transforming the textual interface of the image which eliminates the delay in the perceptual process that it offers. Historically drawing functioned as a pause for thought that expanded the sense of medium.

Drawings future relates to, whether we can elect which ground we are standing on and with this the ability to cognize this as an offering. This might appear as an insignificant freedom but one that requires our attention.


Text by Jonathan Miles


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