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Aesthetics and drawing: seeing, learning to love, drawing

Luca Cesari

     Slow down your gesture, if you want to know

- Alain (Émile Chartier)

In accounting for his own relationship with the art of photography, prior to discovering with his Images à la sauvette [Images on the run], that he had “an extra gift”[1], i.e. that of writing himself, as Gérard Macé points out, Henri Cartier-Bresson often compares photography with the art of drawing. So, if we want to examine closely the correlation, according to which Cartier-Bresson has the two forms of expression overlap or even coincide, we need to break the genuine and unshakeable spell that the artist weaves as by actually studying his photography as text as well as that confessional text, L’imaginaire d’après nature [The imaginary from life], which is rich in possible readings and which Macé defines as “a true ars poetica”. Anyone who reads this book of personal experience, written with precision and lightness, realizes that the analogy, which is asserted in clear terms by the author and applies at least to him, defines his text as a whole and is a useful incipit for our study of his drawings. Drawing and photography, then, represent two points of an especially harmonious parallel and is almost the extension of one idea. Cartier-Bresson writes: “Photography is an immediate action; drawing is a meditation. Due to its graphic properties, drawing develops that which our conscious mind has captured in that moment”[2]. Excepting the fact that drawing seems to work more subtly to integrate and clarify a concept – as the sketch, in relation to the line, expresses “the gesture that chases after movement”[3], as French philosopher Alain contends – we know that the image captured in the fleeting moment and knowledge of what has been captured in that moment do not occur simultaneously. If “photography fixes eternity in an instant”, while “drawing depicts that which the conscious mind has captured”, and if we know that the former consists of an “image taken on the run” of an essential thing “at the same time as the unfolding of the event”[4], how can we compare a gesture that is speedier than a bird of prey with the meditation of a guru, that is, “meditation” tout court, which is a rethinking of the moment, performed by an adult? We, therefore, cannot take photography as the comparator for Cartier-Bresson’s drawings. They differ from the forms of the “photo shot” (as the artist, influenced by Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the art of archery,[5] would prefer to say) as Western forms of drawing, which Cartier-Bresson looks at carefully and copies, differ from the Zen master calligrapher’s art upon which, conversely, the artist draws in the spirit and style of photographic subjectivity. If photography were to be really seen as his sketchbook, the emotion required to express and compose with a pencil in Cartier-Bresson would behave in the same way it does in photography. However, whereas the drawings, the art, and the newly-found talent we see in the sketches demonstrate that this is not the case, and that the experimentation in form we find in them looks to the past all the while contributing to the harmony achieved, which is a two-way process according to the “obscure” Heraclitus; that is to say, a revelation of the endpoints of the bow and the lyre. In reality, Cartier-Bresson describes different activities, rather than different visions. The sketch and the snapshot may seem to be very similar conceptions of a restless play with the visual object, but they do not express the same conditions of time perception.

What emerges subtly is not so much similar behavior involved in photography and drawing in Cartier-Bresson as the difficulty of putting them in parallel. Trying to understand what the “temptation of drawing” implies, what it tends to generate, and how it comes to exist in the major photographer of the twentieth century is an issue that concerns aesthetics less than it does art criticism. Indeed, if we were to conduct a close examination of what the mind does with what it writes by pressing a key on the keyboard or a pencil onto a sheet of paper, which we cannot do here, we would still be dealing with a rich series of parallels that, nonetheless, give rise to noteworthy glitches relative to the first, second, and third creative processes. Cartier-Bresson writes that, if photographers, “compose almost in the same fraction of time that it takes to press the shutter release”, and if this occurs in the presence of a subjectivity that approaches “like a wolf … stealthily”[6], this fascinating and tyrannical way of performing is not as applicable when Cartier-Bresson picks up a pencil to draw. Yves Bonnefoy often asserts: “To draw is to have to choose between imitating an object and producing a sign”[7]. I would guess that Cartier-Bresson chooses the first option. But what does it mean to imitate? The poet goes on to say: “If suggesting an outline … a context that we perceive in a point in the world and thus permit the form that appears on the page to listen to the echo of a fragment of reality … or evoking, out of the nothingness of perception … a structure … that is totally abstract”[8], perhaps a structure that recalls the opening of the treatise Tao Te Ching [The way] (“the line that wants to be true form and not a line”[9] so that the artist finds himself or herself before two paths having the same point of arrival), we would need to understand why Cartier-Bresson favors the most imaginary of mirrors and behaviors, namely, imitation, which is held in such contempt in modern times. Cartier-Bresson copies from reality. He has always done that. But what does it mean to copy? Here we need to defer to Alain’s unique insight, “by copying we invent”[10]. He adds that we need “to learn to love, which is to respect, and this is something of which we never acquire enough knowledge because observation does not determine the gesture; it is, instead, the gesture that determines the observation”[11]. Cartier-Bresson’s gesture is clear. He does not walk or run in order to produce a drawing; he sits, reflects, ruminates. When his observation mechanism is activated to execute a pencil drawing, the tension of his spirit is, perhaps, not projected onto the flash, the blink of an eye, as much as it is on attention, thoughtfulness, alertness, listening, the plumbing of depths, and contemplation, particularly when he copies from real life or from Western art, using his knowledge as an instrument of impassioned evocation while he remains motionless. Whether he depicts, like a great paleontological fresco, immense fossil rib cages and casts of dinosaurs in the Museum of Natural Science, or the pine trees of the Pincian Hill, Villa Medici in Rome, the Tuileries Garden, or Titian’s self-portrait, Cartier-Bresson can neither run nor flee; but, like a reflective admirer of landscapes or ancient art, he assumes the vantage point of one who meditates, dreams, or swishes taste sensations against his palate. Without claiming that it is original, his method consists of producing a reflexive, true copy of the real with the aim of composing a figure that tends to represent, if not reproduce as faithfully as possible, the real object that exists in and of itself. But what does it mean to reproduce something faithfully? Does it, perhaps, mean to imitate?

Unlike the first image, the problem of memory presents us with the need to translate the noumenon of reality and confer on it an architecture that Cartier-Bresson relates to the much admired numerical or metrical composition of Renaissance art. Once more, in his own self-referential semiotic system, the artist describes a series of correspondences between light and number that make them equally valid in both drawing and photography. But knowledge of the design and ideal compositions produced by the architectural, sculptural, and pictorial Renaissance civilization cannot also hold photography in the same container since photography is an art that is more advanced than optics and closest to the first impression that, under the perfect mental and physical control of the senses, thinks only the moment it presses the shutter release. Indeed, Cartier-Bresson uses the lens the way a Zen calligrapher uses a black pen or a Florentine moves a pencil, or at least aspires to do so by divine intervention, according to Cennino Cennini’s Craftman’s Handbook, while fully aware that he will not achieve perfect beauty, having already adopted the new style of his photography. In drawing, Cartier-Bresson translates from memory, the translation of an emotion that is never available in the instant but in the mental filter that processes lived experiences, in the remembered image of a city, a place, the body of a woman, a painting by Pontormo, Géricault, or Bellini. The realm of the “real” is not “put” in parentheses; the roofs of Paris are drawn in a descriptive style with an almost naïve ardor, but this unusual importance ascribed to the “real” given, in an artist who belongs to a more subversive circle of artists than the historical avant-garde, feels like a full-stop. If it is not, as Alain suggests, a stopping, constraining the impression, the sensation, the subversion of the subject, or slowing down the “gesture” in the face of a knowing will, it is a Buddhist manifestation, but one that does not keep pace with photography because it entails slowness, meditation, the “lyre”, the mechanism or threshold of inquisitive concentration, or the scrutiny of place the most remote corners of the mind. Let us take as an example the drawing of a Parisian passage [arcade], an urban structure, which is better known to us from Walter Benjamin than from the photographs of Nadar. The arcade drawn by Cartier-Bresson is striking because it offers our eyes a stimulus different from the mental, mnemonic image that forms in us through reasoning and description, which are typical of the great essayist and philosopher. We could say that Cartier-Bresson’s gaze reveals an unexpectedly natural vista that, within these covered passages or walkways, reenergizes the space of a lived experience, an intérieur [interior], which, according to Benjamin, is erased or eliminated by the triumph of such an urban object par excellence, with its transparency and lack of intimacy. Cartier-Bresson endows the same structure with a perceptible “aura,” a structure that theoretically should sanction a denaturing of the habitat and a highly unusual view of the modern city; he changes it into a curious magnet for experiencing the “aura”, that is to say, a unique and lasting approach that, in many respects, resembles the slow germination in the mind of what Bonnefoy calls l’arrière-pays [hinterland] (though it seems strange to say this of Paris). In A short history of photography, Benjamin asks: “What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be. While resting on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch which casts its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance – this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch”[12]. For Cartier-Bresson, the moment, when the snapshot is taken, is “the fleeting moment of an unstable relationship”[13]. The moment of tracing the mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, or the Arcades, is like the shadow of the imagination that, in that instant, in that hour, tarnishes the appearance of verticality that settles more fully than does the appearance of an arrow: a grace that fixes the flying arrow in the retina of the soul.

In Cartier-Bresson’s observations, we often find nouns that are anything but accessible or clear in meaning, nouns such as “subject”, “event”, “immediacy”, etc. They are a fundamental part of the physiology of the mind, and of a specular way of treating our representational functions from the standpoint of aesthetics (aisthesis or perception). Determining which reflexes are involved in the initial image, working and evaluating it even as it is created, producing the inalterable imprint on the filmstrip, which could not be retouched (at least up to the time of Cartier-Bresson), whereas in drawing and painting we can return to the original experience in order to correct or change the image, appears to entail the identification and explanation of the different approaches involved in drawing and photography. A posthumous collection of writings edited by Henri Plard, translated with the title The solitary thinker (1995), contains an essay on “The five senses” by Ernst Jünger. After “touch” (“the sense par excellence”), we have “sight”: “The terminology pertaining to the sphere of deceptive sense impressions relies, for the most part, on images that pertain to optics”. Expressions such as “foresight”, “vision”, overview”, “keeping an eye on”, and “trompe-l’oeil” [deceive the eye], relate to the power, the visus [acuity] of judgment and prejudgment. Jünger applies to this power, which is always a productive on the part of the eye, the term Wahmemen [to perceive], a word that literally means “to take from something that which is real”. The function of such a “taking-from” or extraction, is clearer if we consider that, in this case, a verb is used “whose original meaning is confirmed in the work that goes on inside the camera obscura and in the selection made by the eye when it is struck by optical sensations. Among the many objects, scenes, and relationships perceived by the eye, there is always only one detail picked out, “taken to be true’”[14]. In effect, we are referred to the camera by the analogies Cartier-Bresson draws with the movement of the release button, the click of the snapshot, the “casting” of light, as though he were establishing a parallel with the exercise of perhaps our most delicate organ, after that of touch. Because for Cartier-Bresson as for anyone else, to photograph means “to recognize” or “fix the moment of expressive equilibrium”[15], it follows that the neurophysiological mechanism of the photographer cannot be “sensation”, which is passive. The question returns, however: Can the camera obscura, or the lens, if not the camera, recalling with affection Caravaggio and Canaletto, be considered the equivalent of perception?  Certainly not. We find ourselves once again inside a black box because we do not have intimate knowledge of all the stages along the chain of communication between the external and the internal senses, as was thought in the past. In particular, we do not know how those dense “compositions” that, stored as they are in memory, allow themselves to be selected or self-select at the moment the snapshot is taken[16], whether deposited in a flash along with indelible life events in our paleo cortex or delivered up by our imaginary. If it is true that memory intervenes on the moment to extract the quid or essence from the flux (of reality or of the image?), “to take from something that which is real” applies at this point to both disciplines in isolating a specific detail. Although it constitutes a synthesis of thought brought about by an instrument that can also be manipulated, such as the sheet of paper and the pencil, drawing presents the artist with very different problems and a more filtered and deferred flexibility. In fact, we again return to Benjamin’s words concerning modern technologies: “For the first time, photography frees the hand from the most important artistic tasks in the process of pictorial; reproduction – tasks that now devolved upon the eye alone. And since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was enormously accelerated, so that it could now keep pace with speech”[17]. From that point forward, by virtue of the same daemon that inspires abstraction, drawing became a means of reenergizing the hand, it could be called a return not only to the fleetingness of material things, but also to a sense that is somehow appropriate for natural depiction, with the undeniable advantage of temporality that is less mechanical and allows for longer reflection when the real phenomenon presents itself.

There is, then, a time for taking image and a time for knowing the image, as there is for “wandering all day with nerves on edge, trying to take live snapshots”[18] and another to move slowly in search of “inner silence”[19] by drawing. There is nothing more to say as well for the organ of perception called upon by the activation, selection, and decision by means of which the gaze has selected from the essence of the moment or in accordance with the increased level of cognition that is as different from the initial choice as it is from the cognitive processes involved in rethinking, recollection, and retention. In Cartier-Bresson, drawing enters the limitless domain of retention. This second activity is no less real or true or less capable of “taking something to be real”. Are taking from, imitating, and copying the same activity? Yes, they are, but only in the sense that, in order to uncover essence, Cartier-Bresson has to find in photography the same anxiety that his friend Alberto Giacometti displayed dramatically, fragilely, and without release,  in the draining challenge of depicting faces, figures, real presences in an attempt to attain something beyond the apparent, “something more than what the eye sees, which mimesis rejects”[20]; we cannot say, however, that drawing predisposes him to the same emotion and performance. In this case, we might consider something else as essential: perhaps a “temptation”, or a passion of the mind, which is also intuitive; but we should not do so without taking into account the fact that the perfect moment has passed or that it is fixed in the photograph. This would be a monastic passion, like a Carthusian monk’s for his book of hours, a copyist’s for the square notation of a chant book or the silent and methodical illustration of a manuscript, or like a sustained adagio that establishes an order confirmed by the lines. Outside of itself, what form does the subject have? This might be a question that the wise old Buddhist asks himself as he picks up his pencil. This is a question that addresses one’s very relationship with the world and is also a key to extracting a quid or embracing an aura that may not be solid as marble. In the drawings of Cartier-Bresson, there are no moments in which things present themselves like a perfect flower; rather, there are slow segments of time out which spring up freshness and fragrances for the eye, a hunter that pursues prey in the visual forest. However, there is longer trajectory for desire, for the erotic desire of being and acting that, conversely, learns more by feeling and appreciating among the shadows of the thinkable and the accessible, the tension to draw or produce form with the wary cooperation of the fingers. We are, in fact, dealing with a deferral of the trajectory of feeling (since Zeno’s arrow cannot surpass the turtle) or perhaps an intuition in which a calmer method pertains, not a different way of perceiving, but of rendering feeling subtler or simpler. Bonnefoy calls him a visionary of the simple. He means a visionary or seer, perhaps, in the sense in which Rudolf Steiner spoke of the language of art with a certain transparency, which the alert individual intuits when his or her gaze on reality rises to something like a third level of consciousness, whereas for the rest of us there are only two. He calls it “observant”[21] consciousness. Cartier-Bresson invites us to reflect on his lengthy observations, defers to the hand that contemplates and recalls in a delayed time, becoming more involved with the other person, navigating his sea of alterity, the interminable meditation of a hand that finds movement insufficient and less human if it does not know hesitation and rethinking along the various moments of lived life, prudent approaches. Slow down your gesture, if you want to know. Cartier-Bresson’s act of taking up drawing, then, presupposes reaching out to the other person, from one shoreline to the other of the gaze, with the positive loss of self on the part of the one who moves toward that which the philosopher calls the il y a [there is]. Drawing represents a recovery, on the level of successive and previous instants, of the entire lived experience, broken down or simplified, as Cartier-Bresson states, in the snare of the moment, by that decisive take demanded by the formal properties of the camera. It represents a recovery of the world, of its presence as meditation on an encounter to which a segment of time can be conceded that is longer than that which allows no possibility of return (at least until the arrival of digital technology, which alters or challenges everything Cartier-Bresson believed most earnestly), a segment of time rigorously calculated and determined by the shutter. This would be a recovery of time itself, which involves a form of retroactive imagination applied to the ideologized world of the image in which live. In addition, we know the expertise with which the master recommends naturalness in preparing the mechanism for the act of anticipating the moment, and we know the extent to which his art, which does not allow the possibility of returning to the event, erasing or retouching what is captured in the snapshot, or otherwise manipulating the event, aims to oppose the artifice of the false, “which destroys human truth”[22], as he writes. Both the ethical and the imaginative source of the ambivalence of hand and eye could be found, at a certain point in Cartier-Bresson’s life, as a response or reaction to the transformations the image undergoes in a society “that turns it into an instrument of deception par excellence”[23]. As a matter of fact, we could say that, “in this century of images that fly by”[24], the varying amounts of time needed to create a drawing or write a poem can combine to offer assistance and a different rhythm of life, a special way of draining not the disorientation, but the exhausting haemorrhage of the senses, which Paul Valéry described in the early 1930s, caused by hallucinogens and increasingly powerful stimuli. Along these lines, Cartier-Bresson works with a counter-time, which definitely creates space within the noises of the times in an effort to see more fully, if he can manage it, and thereby love and walk with a different pace. It is a duration during which the artist realizes that he or she is naïve or ignorant in the face of a nude body, an altarpiece, the light that seems to bounce off the half-closed eyes of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna of Senigalia and the two elegant angles flanking her. We might say that duration is a state with different times: the intuition of a single moment, but also a slow reflection, the other side of the moment, since one who meditates does not succeed in “expressing everything at one time, without persevering”[25]. Therefore, if it is true that “the line expresses movement”, just as photography represents it as motionless (Zeno’s arrow), and the sketch is “the gesture that chases movement”, what other than “recollected movement” is an active witness of the ungraspable? It must be like achieving harmony of the different string tensions of the bow and the lyre in the creation of the analogy between the art of photography and the art of drawing. The first entails instant perfection attained in a fraction of a second, and the second entails the synergy between thought and sketch; the very soul of the work thinks better with the hand than with the eye.

[1] See in the Italian edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s L’imaginaire d’après nature, L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], preface by G. Macé, translation by P. Benedetti (Milan: Abscondita, 2005), p. 11.

[2] L’immaginario dal vero {The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 15.

[3] Alain, “Disegnare” [Drawing], in Pensieri sull’estetica [Thoughts on aesthetics], edited by E. Bonora, preface by A. Di Benedetto (Milan: Guerrini e Associati, 1998), p. 100. The essay can be found in the classic edition of Alain’s Cento e un ragionamenti [One hundred and one arguments], edited by R. Solmi (Turin: Einaudi, 1960), [1976 2a].

[4] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 22.

[5] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery, translated by R.F.C. Hull (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[6] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 27.

[7] Yves Bonnefoy, Come andare lontano, nelle pietre [How to go far, into the stones], in Lo sguardo per iscritto. Saggi sull’arte del Novecento [The written gaze. Essays on twentieth-century art], edited by J. Sarro (Florence: Le Lettere, 2000), p. 132.

[8] Yves Bonnefoy, L’albero, il segno, la folgore [The tree, the sign, the flash of lightning], in Lo sguardo per iscritto [The written gaze], op. cit., p. 137.

[9] Come andare lontano, nelle pietre [How to go far, into the stones], cit., p. 127.

[10] Alain, “Artigiani” [“Artisans”], in L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 97.

[11] Alain, “Disegnare” [“Drawing]”, in L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 101.

[12] Walter Benjamin, A short history of photography, translated by Stanley Mitchel, p. 20. , accessed on November 16, 2017.

[13] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 28.

[14] Ernst Jünger, Il contemplatore solitario [The solitary thinker], edited by H. Plard, translation by Q. Principe (Milan: Guanda, 1995), p. 76.

[15] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 27.

[16] I think that, for certain subjects historically treated in Italy, from the aesthetics of Gillo Dorfles, which aims to dismiss all forms of realism, the current belief that our entire discursive, mnemonic, imaginative, etc. apparatus stems from a constructivism that, while it is masterful and detailed, relies solely on the sensorial function/fiction. See his recent, rich anthology, which narrates the development of his entire Itineraro estetico [Aesthetic journey] (Bologna: Compositori, 2011).

[17] Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, translated by E. Jephcott, R. Livingstone, and H. Eiland (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 20-21.

[18] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 20.

[19] Ibid., p. 61.

[20] Yves Bonnefoy, Il desiderio di Giacometti [Giacometti’s desire], in Lo sguardo per iscritto [The written gaze], op. cit. p. 79.

[21] Rudolf Steiner, “Conoscenza spirituale e lavoro artistico” [“Spiritual knowledge and the arts”], in Arte e conoscenza dell’arte. Fondamenti di una nuova estetica [Art and knowledge. Fundamentals of a new aesthetics], translation by L. Bavastro (Milan: Editrice Antropofisica, 1998), p. 154.

[22] L’immaginario dal vero [The imaginary from life], op. cit., p. 26.

[23] Yves Bonnefoy, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, in Lo sguardo per iscritto [The written gaze], op. cit., p. 102.

[24] Ibid., p. 110.

[25] Ibid., p. 101.


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