Go Figure*

I recently discovered the eclectic and all together fantastic collection of Classical and classically inspired objects that make up Sir John Soane’s Museum. It was, for the sheer size and arrangement of the artifacts, overwhelming. As such, I plan to return another day to explore the permanent collections more thoroughly. My primary objective on this occasion, however, was to see the temporary exhibit ‘Drawn from Antiquity.’ The exhibit focuses on the use of ancient sculpture as the basis for life-drawing over the course of the last five hundred years. Sculpture, particularly the many nudes that survived antiquity, was a more than adequate replacement for a live model, either when it was considered unseemly, or as an initial introduction, prior to the use of the real life human form. If one considers particularly the athleticism often depicted in male statues (which indeed, was in part the inspiration of the recent British Museum exhibit ‘Defining Beauty‘), sculpture was an ideal representation of the musculature of the human form. This exhibit then, brings together a collection of works that focus particularly on the artist at work, whether in a studio or museum, and thus demonstrate the use of ancient sculpture as the model for life drawing. One excellent example of this, shown below, illustrates the use of a combination of classical sculpture, skeletons, and what appears to be a corpse as the artists’ models.

Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort 'The Practice of the Visual Arts' (1578) British Museum.
Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort ‘The Practice of the Visual Arts’ (1578) British Museum.

This sort of practice is, in fact, the inspiration for Soane’s own collection of architectural fragments, casts, sculpture and other items which he kept in his home and used to educate his architecture students at the Royal Academy of Art.

This got me thinking a bit about the practice of drawing generally, but more specifically about the tendency to draw the human figure, whether a simple stick figure or a fully articulated representation of the human form. Pompeii, of course, in addition to the thousands of textual graffiti adorning the city’s walls, also hosts a large number of figural graffiti. These range from elaborate drawings like that found in the House of the Ship Europa (so named, in fact, for the graffito of the ship), to small doodles that are not readily identifiable as depicting an human or animal:

Man or bird? Langner 241,  III.4.b
Man or bird? Langner 241, III.4.b

Although some of the figural graffiti include some text, usually in the form of a single name or numerals, the majority are nothing but a drawing, and thus not something I often get to look at. The tendency to draw in antiquity is, however, well documented in Martin Langner’s Antike Graffitizeichnungen, which demonstrates that practice was widespread both in terms of geography and subject matter. He attempts to classify the images into typologies, which, for the most part work, but the ambiguity and differences in the skill level of execution to sometimes render this subjective. Regardless, what quickly becomes apparent when flipping through his catalogue is that there is a desire to replicate the human form, whether or not one can do so accurately.

Langner 633, IX.11.3
Langner 633, IX.11.3

This figure is of particular interest for its crudity. An argument has been put forward by Katherine Huntley that some of the figural graffiti from the Vesuvian region can by used to study childhood development. Her premise is that developmental psychology has shown children conceptualise and draw in a specific manner as they are developing which is ubiquitous across language, culture, and time, and therefore can be applied to the identification of the type of drawing typical of children as a method for identification. She outlines six stages in development of drawing beginning with scribbling, progressing through basic or pre-schematic, schematic, visual schema, visual realism. She attributes this human figure from the exterior of a bar to the third (schematic) stage when drawing begins to become more complex and multiple elements are combined to form a composite image such as this one, which combines a diagonal cross and an oval to create a more complex figure.

Other elements of the progression of drawing (whether by child or adult) can be seen in the layering of elements. In the figure below, hair exists underneath the cap, in a manner that suggests one aspect (hair) was applied before the next (cap), thus creating a final product that was logical in its conception, but is unrealistic in its execution. This occurs in full figure illustrations

Langner 254, V.2.4

as well. This figure, viewed in profile, depicts both arms despite the side-on perspective. This too, is a common occurrence in drawings created by those of either lesser skill or age.

Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7

What is interesting to me, however, particularly in the context of the Soane exhibit which inspired me to look at figural graffiti, is that many of the images actually recreate standard ancient portrait types. The majority of the facial illustrations are similar to the portrait busts popular in Roman (and to be fair, Greek) sculpture. They depict a head and shoulders, often but not always in profile. Some are of course, rendered more expertly than others,

Langner 206, VI.16.35
Langner 206, VI.16.35

This particular example adds lines around the neck and shoulders, attempting to give a three-dimensional appearance to the graffito as if it was, in fact, a sculpture rather than a scratched drawing. The final example is an illustration of a gladiator. It is in gladiators and other athletic figures that there is an attempt to depict the human form more accurately, that is, in conveying musculature, movement, and often clothing and weaponry.

Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7

Here, there is a curvature to the calf, knee, and thigh that is indicative of muscular legs. The bent leg emphasises this. Likewise, the left shoulder and upper arm is similarly muscled, and the bent elbow, combined with the hold on a short sword demonstrates an awareness on behalf of the artist of movement, the form of the body, and the way athletic figures were depicted in other media, especially sculpture. This image, and others like it, seem to indicate that like their more modern counterparts, those living two thousand years ago also drew from antiquity.

*The inspiration for this post lays in part with Sophie Hay and her recent habit of tweeting figural graffiti to illustrate her current mood.

One thought on “Go Figure*

  1. Colin C. Campbell 18 Sep 2015 / 18:52

    Great post. I’ve always wondered about the stylized depiction of the human form in Egypt. They were obviously capable of rendering accurate, 3D figures in sculpture and were excellent artists, yet they seldom, if ever, seem to paint a 3D picture of the human form. Wonder why.

    Another thought is the ability of the Native American in their depiction of form. Primitive? Stylized? What?

    Love, me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s