Articles Issue #18
BY Margaret MacNamidheJanuary 11, 2016
BY Margaret MacNamidheJanuary 11, 2016
I am interested here in Boy Leading a Horse, a canvas Picasso painted at the beginning of 1906, during his so-called “Rose Period,” usually taken to refer to the years 1905 to 1906 (fig. 1). The kind of drawing that went into this painting—briefly, a drawing informed by academic practices of the time, but also anticipating Picasso’s later innovations—is a way to open questions of the Rose Period in relation to Picasso’s later work, and to unsettle the contemporary literature on drawing and memory.
The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo provides me with an unusual counterpoint to the problems I would like to explore. Tiepolo and Picasso: it’s hard to think of two canonical figures with art-historical reputations more unalike. The very talent that made Tiepolo a darling of his patrons in the middle of the eighteenth century, namely a sunny efficiency in executing mural schemes for palace interiors, doomed his chances of winning unanimous critical favor among later art historians. In fact, it’s hard to think of scholars more potentially averse to pre-Enlightenment spreads of celebratory allegory than those intellectually shaped by easel painting’s development in the twentieth century’s opening decades. Fortunately for my workload here, just one study of Tiepolo, Michael Baxandall and Svetlana Alpers’s Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, supplies the references I have in mind, especially their speculative discussion of Tiepolo’s works on paper.1
After I explore the parallel with Tiepolo, I will introduce the concepts of trained movements of the hand, and of effort and effortlessness; and these, with the help of some nineteenth-century texts on memory and habit, will led me, at the end of this essay, back to questions of our understanding of modernist drawing. This paper is part of a larger project, whose purpose is to rethink the pervasive contemporary discourse on drawing—whose emphasis on materiality and temporality seems earnest, routine, and broadly focused—by re-introducing forgotten ideas from academic and studio practice. In this essay I concentrate on the terms under which such an argument could in principle be made: the reasons why it is important to return theories of habit and effort to the very particular studio practices they can help explain.
The Rose Period as Stylistic Category
Conservatism buoyed by a mastery of figure drawing: this isn’t a bad summation of many appraisals of Picasso’s work before the end of 1906. Choices in subject matter and Picasso’s impoverished Parisian years have received much attention. Themes of marginalization and bohemianism prevail until 1907—this estimate is from Jeffrey Weiss.2 Peter Read, whose interests revolve around the literary figures in Picasso’s circle, augments this stock of imagery with “strolling tumblers and circus acrobats” (i.e., saltimbanques).3 Depictions of gamins in melancholic settings abound—here I’m adopting a descriptive vocabulary routinely used. On the horizon however, was radicalization. To quote Kirk Varnedoe, starting at the end of 1906, Picasso changed “the basic terms on which his talent could be understood.”4 According to Lauren Madeline, the Rose Period offers “page[s] from the classics,” imbued with a “nostalgia that is thoroughly passé.”5
As regards the term itself: it functions as a label for work painted in the warmer palette to which Picasso moved after his “Blue Period.” This century-old stylistic logic doesn’t exactly tax the intellect—threadbare principles keep the Rose Period dutifully lined up after the Blue one.6 These labels also betoken starter phases in Picasso’s career. For example, the use of color for stylistic organization—a complexity-free invocation—would be unthinkable if applied to other contexts in Picasso’s career. Although such deficits are acknowledged, I use the term “Rose Period” throughout: its name recognition renders it immune to erasure.
It’s fair to say then, Rose Period works remain untouched by consistently in-depth, individualized discussion. (The Blue Period doesn’t languish to the same extent: works previously considered intractably lugubrious have been reframed in Charles Palermo’s recent analyses.7) This stasis I believe, has also captured Picasso’s drawing of the period. Take for example, the largish Boy on a Horse (1905; fig. 2). In such works, Picasso “look[ed] old before his time,” according to Varnedoe.8 The “era of circuses and Saltimbanques” is also the context for Rosalind Krauss’s opinion of Boy on a Horse, but she admires:
[a] bareback rider executed in superb [and] evocative contour. Picasso’s line delimits the shape of the figure, all the while broadening and splaying the edges … and effortlessly implying pockets of cast shadow. Where the line sharpens to the finest of threads, the effect is of sunlight corroding the edge [while] flooding the body.9
This quotation from Krauss shows how figure drawing, masterfully done, is the silver lining to Rose-Period pictures of uncomplicated content. Biographers, novelists, art historians—Picasso’s skill during this period is an ingredient which appeals to all. Unimpressed judgments are not unknown, but dissenting opinions aren’t at issue.10 An ease of verdict is what matters here. This comfort level brings us to the pen-and-ink study by Tiepolo (fig. 3).
Picasso and Tiepolo: Virtuosos of Drawing
It’s a fragment of a composition for an unspecified mural scheme, dated to around 1730. The subject—an allegorical group with a river-god—is drawn with a reed pen.11 Tiepolo used it to sharpen figures into jotted-down but recognizable shape placed against billows of supportive clouds.12 In the lower left foreground, a short row of brushstrokes along with some curls of the nib are enough to persuade the viewer that the river god—he of the bowed head, drooping beard, and angled arms—has been given a decidedly aged torso and weary demeanor. Different dilutions of sepia prevail; the ink is brushed in loosely at times and precisely at others (as in the seated figure’s wings).
The many traditions within post-European Renaissance drawing have generated much commentary in the fashion I’ve briefly exemplified: lashings of praise for the evidence of graphic marks confidently made, long ago. And just like Krauss, albeit in prose less rhapsodic, I haven’t bothered to say anything about the exact size of the drawing in question.13 Nor did I convey interest in such matters as, for example, how long (or how short) the arc of Tiepolo’s hand might have been when he made, for example, those jotted-down marks. Anchoring such commentaries is the figure of the draftsman: a persona—to use the term loosely—whose traits are fluency, legerdemain, effortlessness. Natasha Staller harks back to the rhetoric when she describes the young Picasso as a “dazzling virtuouso.”14 And we’ve seen how Krauss described Boy on a Horse as generated by a preternaturally gifted artist suspended in a state of pre-radicalized grace. Centuries separate the drawings of Tiepolo from Picasso. Little constitutively divides however, the criteria by which a 1905 figure drawing in pencil by Picasso is lauded from those determining the appreciation of one of Tiepolo’s pen-and-ink studies.
In Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, Michael Baxandall and Svetlana Alpers avoided frozen praise to pursue the forms Tiepolo put on paper as “functions of the way wrists and fingers move, [how] pens respond to those movements and [how] ink then behaves on specific [surfaces].” Tiepolo’s “inventions”—that dashed-off group of allegorical figures—contain “an element of pen and wash thinking, of reflecting through the wrist.” And Baxandall and Alpers insist—perhaps too narrowly—that one movement grounds every single kind of hand-made line and mark applied to a surface: “we tend to pull strokes down, or towards us.”15 This certainty about “pull” may be part of the reason why Tiepolo doesn’t pose too many questions inspired by their intriguing phrase, “reflecting through the wrist.” For example, when Tiepolo’s “inventions” appeared on a surface what specific movements was the pen following? Baxandall and Alpers’s airiness indicates, I believe, a general lack of interest in drawing large in counterdistinction to drawing on a more portable scale. Take Tiepolo’s control of ink dilution: Baxandall and Alpers praise it but they don’t provide detail. But the kind of control in question—fluids and line combined for miniature spatial mapping—must have been a function of how Tiepolo “reflected through the wrist.” The washes in the compositional sketch depend on a surface kept horizontal or partly—carefully—tilted. Tiepolo would have found the conditions of a very large study less amenable to the well-controlled dilution Baxandall and Alpers admire: the bigger the drawing, the greater its vulnerability to pooling, drips, and puckering of the paper, unless it had been stretched in advance. These observations may register as studio minutiae, but there is something of a tradition of attention to them; Leo Steinberg’s discussion of the “flatbed” is an obvious inclusion; references to that argument, however, are usually confined to reverential citation of its diagnostic prescience. If we return then, to the phrase “reflecting through the wrist” in order to elevate it beyond the evocative, then Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence’s most disappointing deficit turns out to be its disregard for the trained hand of the artist. The phrase “reflecting through the wrist” is generated by a 1973 study of drawings made by children and untrained adults; the cognitive psychologist Peter Van Sommers is the author.16 The expectation was that juxtaposition—Tiepolo with the 1973 study—would have generated insights into Tiepolo’s drawing.17 It cannot be denied of course, that the movements of Tiepolo’s hand while working on a small scale were bound to the orbit of the wrist. But Picasso, Tiepolo, not to mention generations of artists trained through western models of fine-art pedagogy, weren’t confined to “reflecting through the wrist.” They learned to make a range of graphic marks, and they did this by acquiring a technique that doesn’t restrict drawing to the wrist’s limited orbit.18 While we haven’t exhausted the potential of the Pictorial Intelligence, we have arrived at a point where a propensity for generalization limits its usefulness. I will therefore reframe—in my next section—the inquiry into the drawing hand (as launched by Van Sommers) to identify how Picasso may have held the paintbrush or other graphic instruments in early 1906. And with that, I arrive at the canvas at the heart of my interests here: Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse.
Picasso’s Boy with a Horse (1906) and Trained Movements of the Drawing Hand
Readily apparent is how features in Boy Leading a Horse connect it to the well-known definitions of the Rose-Period’s stylistic characteristics. We see an arid landscape and a male nude, whose body is given the slender, adolescent form Picasso favored in much of his figure drawing during this period. Although Boy Leading a Horse was completed in early 1906, related works were underway by late 1905. That’s because Picasso had a multi-figure composition in mind, titled The Watering Place. Narrowly speaking then, Boy Leading a Horse can be described as the largest study for this prospective canvas. Paintings by Paul Gauguin, such as Riders on a Beach (fig. 4) in which a scattering of horses and riders gather at a shoreline, are often-cited sources for Picasso’s project. The chalky washes however, in one of Picasso’s preparatory studies for the Watering Place—a small gouache from 1905—bleach out Gauguin’s characteristic colors and textures (fig. 5). As for Boy Leading a Horse, a gray sky is brushed into its featureless setting.19 In fact, the sky is the same color as the horse, which is bodied forth by black contour line as much as by relatively small patches of modeling in gradated paint (for example, the horse’s back hooves). Another divergence is that
Picasso’s figures share a strongly frontal orientation whereas the horizon is the destination preferred by Gauguin.20 Yet another contrast with Gauguin is the evocation in Boy Leading a Horse of what can be briefly described as a generalized Classicism—the abbreviated, even flinty rendering of the boy’s facial features is exemplary.
The clipped essentials I’ve just provided hardly do justice to Boy Leading a Horse and its many qualities. Nonetheless, these bare facts are as much as I want to do for now by way
of describing how my chosen painting belongs to the project of the Watering Place. I’m also skirting topics prominent in the literature on Boy Leading a Horse. Of these, the one offered by Paul Cézanne’s Bather (Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.; 1885) makes a particular claim on our attention (fig. 6). For my purposes however, the interpretative cluster around Boy Leading a Horse is less productive than a brief description of this painting by Varnedoe. Varnedoe’s comments lead us to specifics neglected—or such has been my charge—even in the most innovative and exploratory accounts of how artists might draw. Varnedoe emphasizes “the elimination of any indication of reins” from “the boy’s clenched fist” (fig. 7).21 We see all four fingers of the boy’s hand—rather sketchily rendered—curled around straps which were never painted in. To be sure, the missing reins can be attributed to Picasso’s use of the centuries’ old tradition where unbridled horses obey human figures as though, to quote Varnedoe, “by unseen magic.”22 I do not follow this explanation however. And neither do I take on all of the curiosities in handling seen in Boy Leading a Horse.23 Instead, I try to explain the enigmatic gesture Varnedoe notes.24 In order to do so, I immediately return to the familiar story of Rose-Period Picasso: the one in which figure drawing takes a starring role.
Indispensable to my account is this fact: by the time Picasso arrived in Paris for the first time in 1900, he had acquired a professional training.25 His famously early start at (and increasing dissatisfaction with) a number of academies have been detailed by Staller. She has comprehensively shown that aspiring artists in Spain were obliged to spend longer hours in front of pattern books and plaster casts than were their contemporaries in other European countries.26 Nonetheless, the rudiments of this education are continuous enough as to allow us to say that Picasso became versed in the kind of skills we see fine-art students acquiring in my next illustration (fig. 8).
It is a recent photograph (2007) of the anatomical theater of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, showing students carefully drawing on chalk boards.27 Successions of broken solids can be seen, white chalk against black or cloudy gray. These marks are testimony to the aimed-for skill: of conjuring the human body’s relational connections. And everywhere we see the students pulling down on their sticks of chalk in order to mark these distinctions.
Many of the features we see have been rendered familiar by art-historical research into fine-art pedagogy as founded in and then exported from western Europe. For example, we see a now-normative combination of male and female models; they’re studied by male and female students alike. This is in contrast to the notoriously gendered histories of the École and its fellow institutions.28 Nothing innovative about the style of posing; the flexed positions the models have been settled into show the École’s fidelity to the anatomically illustrative displays beloved of the post-Renaissance academy.29 Meanwhile, the ringed-around spectators on stepped seating remind us that this life-drawing session is taking place in a hallowed anatomical theater.
These are all institutionally significant matters of artistic apprenticeship, but I emphasize the following details instead. First, the skill we see these students practicing is the ability to draw the body on a life-size scale. Second, the students have adopted standing postures, although some are hunkered down as we can see, in order to draw closer to the floor. Third, the chosen scale requires drawing on a vertical surface, not one that is either tilted or horizontal. Fourth, and most difficult to glimpse from this view, the students are holding their pieces of chalk in a particular way. Learning this configuration of fingers, thumb, and wrist is part of their training. And this was the grip Picasso mastered, at an age not that much younger—marveled-at precocity aside—than the students we see here.
Further detail on drawing within the wrist’s limited orbit is therefore appropriate. It can’t be described as evoking any “athletic movement,” but “reflecting through the wrist” is shown in The Realist Painter (National Gallery of Ireland; 1865; fig. 9) by the nineteenth-century French painter Thomas Couture. Couture was a pillar of the establishment so subtlety is not among The Realist Painter’s virtues. But for me, the most relevant aspect of Couture’s slacker Realist is the contrast he provides with our view of the École’s life-room. The Realist allows the bottom edge of the drawing-board to rest on his lap; his left hand holds its top edge. He stretches out his legs, props up the board carelessly; his lowly model is just a smidgen away.30 This draftsman allows us to change “reflecting through the wrist” to the more accurate, if clumsy, phrase: drawing from within the hand. The thumb’s movement—levered, as it were, from the inside of the wrist—propels the graphic instrument. What The Realist Painter shows us is that the resting of the wrist makes it impossible to say whether the artist is adding to the pale sketch we can barely see, or pausing as he droopily looks up at his model.31
This ambivalence as to whether or not Couture’s artist, forearm on board, is actively drawing contrasts with our ability to tell which of the École students shown in the photographs is making a mark. When the students study the models, they have to turn away from their drawings—it’s easy to see which students are doing so. But a paused posture is active here: to launch a line, the student must keep his drawing hand in position. To rest the arm when drawing from the shoulder would mean allowing it to drop to the side. In other words, allowing the drawing arm its gravitational preference entails leaving the worked-upon surface entirely. Of course, moments like these offer occasions to consider the drawing’s overall look. But they aren’t physically integrated in the process of making marks. Couture’s painting shows how drawing on a small scale allows for a rested continuum. The tilted board includes support for the hand. If the École students were using this grip, they’d be obliged to rest their wrists and elbows on the chalkboard and work in immediate proximity to it.32
We now see a better view of the grip used by these students, one in which all four fingers curl around and under the graphic instrument (fig. 10).33 It’s a still from Henri Georges Clouzot’s film The Mystery of Picasso (1958). From a scene documenting the École’s life-drawing-based curricula to a film-still of Picasso drawing in the late nineteen-fifties is not the leap it seems. Clouzot’s film dates from a period in Picasso’s career rich in documentary evidence of the gestures he adopted in the studio. Which is not to deny that an historical chasm separates the Picasso of 1906, still trailing clouds of teenage-prodigy glory, and the septuagenarian celebrity of Clouzot’s film, indefatigably bare-chested. But dilemmas of relevance recede because of my pragmatic use of this picture. Clouzot’s glass and the École’s chalkboards both show drawing on a vertical surface. The angle of the graphic instrument is the same as—in fact, it’s ordained by—the fingers curled around it. The educational term for this grip is the “radial cross palmar grasp” and it differs from handwriting’s more familiar tilt.34 According to the normative grip used for handwriting, the pen or pencil is not enclosed by all four fingers—we can gauge this by a look at the silhouette of the brush Picasso holds. I refer here to Western traditions where children are taught to form letters until they adopt a combination of index finger, thumb, and middle finger to direct the pencil or pen. Now drawing on a small or mid-sized scale is perfectly suited to the same grip normatively used for handwriting. To underline the differences between the two grasps, I return to Baxandall and Alpers’s references to children and a demographic they identify as “untrained adults.” I’d imagine that many of us have observed children or even representatives of that pool of mysterious talent, “untrained adults,” in the process of drawing by means of gripping the crayon or pen with all four fingers. This kind of grip is visible in the top row of my next illustration (fig. 11). This montage from an unorthodox source has nothing to do with Baxandall and Alpers or other sources for drawing technique previously examined.35 Nonetheless, it usefully isolates and illustrates my references. A grip involving all four fingers gives control to the wielder but at the cost of imparting any flexibility to the mark being produced.36 By contrast, the photographs of the École students; the film stills of Picasso; and the second row of this illustration—all of these show us the graphic instrument resting on the thumb and under the fingers.
Combined with the impression The Realist Painter conveyed of aversion to corporeal effort, these observations enhance our appreciation of the engagement required by life-size drawing. Our tour around this topic allows reconsideration of the gesture central to Boy Leading a Horse. What we see is an empty grip—as conveyed by the degree to which the boy’s hand curls around missing reins. That configuration—this suggestion shouldn’t come as a surprise—figures, I believe, the skilled grasp of drawing from the shoulder. I propose Boy Leading a Horse as a painting structured by the gesture we’ve been examining, its two figures swept into monumentality by the arm drawing at full, life-size tilt. It also foregrounds the movement of pulling, an action that very well may be proprietary to the activity of drawing itself. My proposal raises many questions. They include: why did Picasso award prominence to this gesture? And why is Boy Leading a Horse the work to which this prominence was awarded? To begin answering these questions, I return to how the Rose Period has been described: Meyer Schapiro’s engagement is the one I’ve found most useful.
Effortful versus Effortless Drawing
The text in question is a transcribed version of a 1969 lecture by Schapiro. Here is an edited quote:
In [Picasso’s] Rose or Pink period, the figures are shown in postures of self-enlargement and elongation. They raise their arms above their heads instead of entwining the limbs within each other. … Many large paintings show a small figure … leading a great horse, reminiscent of classical and Renaissance conceptions of the hero who guides the horse … It is a theme of the consciousness of art as a skilled activity of manipulating the instruments, which here is the human body itself.37
Formulated as they were in extemporaneous mode, Schapiro’s ideas rove around an imprecise range of works. And he conflates the effects of Rose-Period figures with the unseen movements of their making. This skating over niceties shouldn’t distract us from the case Schapiro makes for a Picasso who, over the course of two years or so, mulled over the portrayal of elemental movements, especially those dictated by gravitationally bound currents. Mention of such considerations immediately beckons any indicators of figural stability toward one destination: the ferociously complex space Picasso would create in the Demoiselles d’Avignon of barely a year later. Rather than follow this trajectory however, I simply underline Schapiro’s rather cumbersome phrase, “the theme of consciousness of art as a skilled activity of manipulating the instruments, which here is the human body itself.” The pragmatics of drawing re-appear, I suggest, in the contrast of Schapiro’s phrase with Baxandall and Alpers’s “motor vitality.”38 On the one side, Baxandall and Alpers apply “motor” to practiced action. On the other side, the world of making lumbers into view as “manipulating the instruments.” It’s as if Schapiro ruminates as though for the first time on how exactly Picasso drew—and he’s struck by a cumbersome physicality centered on the hand (“manipulating”). Yet Schapiro’s doughty description and Baxandall and Alpers’s carefully honed phrase both return us to the world we glimpsed in our photographs from the École, where we saw how the ability to draw the figure on accurate-to-life dimensions necessitates the effort of learning the palmar grasp. Perhaps even the young Picasso experienced effort when learning it. Not that I’m making so bold as to venture that effort was indeed involved on the part of Picasso.39 But let us proceed with the far from outlandish notion that a learned skill usually entails a tricky period when a new movement is tried out. Analysis of this notion allows us to understand the gap between Schapiro’s “manipulating the instruments” as something “brought to consciousness” and the “motor vitality” referred to by Baxandall and Alpers. Once that separation is understood, we can return to Boy Leading a Horse. The best way to way to account for this gap, is, I suggest, to consider the historical roots for the cultural awareness into which Baxandall and Alpers tapped when they used “motor” as an adjective and applied it to drawing.
When used descriptively, “motor” comes with an undertow of accompanying terms such as habitual, automatic, and—from an especially venerable tradition—“second nature.”40 The intellectual desire to comprehend different categories of bodily movement is perhaps most longstanding in France, a log of salient authorities (including Marie-François-Xavier Bichat, Pierre François Maine de Biran, Félix Ravaisson, and Henri Bergson) suggests itself as the route through which we can unite Schapiro’s deliberations with an easily adjectival use of “motor.” A more recent name also comes readily to mind, one that can even be inserted as a later installment in this sequence of references: that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. For post-war audiences, Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Cézanne epitomized a notion of painting as embodied movement. The notion that work in the studio proceeds inch by deeply pondered inch endures, indicating the unaltered appeal of observations about pats made by a filbert brush on medium-sized canvases.41 Thus the 1945 essay’s effect may have been unduly talismanic: the whiff of personal empiricism continues to inform many observations about the specific work of the studio, regardless of how various artists have wielded graphic instruments, scissors, or different paintbrushes.
I begin instead with late nineteenth-century Paris and two figures: Pierre Janet and Artidor Beurier. Janet was appointed professor of experimental psychology at the Collège de France in 1902.42 His work has attracted a now substantial literature on what Sigmund Freud disparaged as the “cathartic cure.”43 While hardly as resonant a name as Janet, Beurier cuts an ambitious figure during the period on account of his writings for the influential journal Le Revue Philosophique. So far, however, no text written by Janet nor his near contemporaries has been found appealing enough as a destination for the topics of Picasso’s drawing nor the accretive, eventually habitual nature of artistic skill. If we take a look at Janet’s 1889 dissertation in philosophy however, we find a meditation on the trained hand of the artist. Janet quotes a pianist but the characterization in question bears on my inquiry. “When I’m trying to remember a piece of music, I let my fingers wander across the keys; they’ve a better memory than I have—they find [the piece] immediately.” Janet speculates that “if an artist consciously thinks about what he’s doing, he’s less likely to succeed,” because “mistakes are less likely to be made when the movement is automatic; when it doesn’t come from the mind.”44 This passage from Janet’s text may remind us of traditions of commentary on drawing, where skill is taken as effortlessly habitual, as second nature.45 By 1889 however, imprecision about the role of habit was unlikely. In fact, Janet’s dissertation, appearing at that decade’s end, indicates a turning point within a tradition whose summa is often located in 1838, when Ravaissan’s Of Habit was published.
Ravaisson’s heirs benefited from the enriched status won for habitual behavior in their predecessor’s landmark text.46 More than a note of frustration with Of Habit’s authority, however, can be heard in 1876 when Beurier saw the understanding of habit as trapped in a circular structure. He criticized “a vicious circle,” one turning around the question of whether “the repetition of an action is at the origin of habit or [if] habit is the first movement of repetition.” Beurier was looking for a beginning, as it were—for him, temporal progression was the modus operandi of habitual actions and effort inaugurated the first movement because, as he commented, “there’s already a tension before any repetition; [and this] first movement leads to a second, then a third, and then on and on, indefinitely.” The accumulation of movements was key to facility, but that part of the process seemed a given to Beurier, who perfunctorily added that the “greater the repetition, the greater the skill.”47 Much more intriguing was a foundational “tension,” one which “precedes all repetition” and which led to lesser, succeeding movements, “on and on” as he put it. Of Habit had told him however, that no one could say where and when “effort” started. According to Of Habit, “effort” occupied a “mysterious middle ground [le lieu d’équilibre]” between passivity and action. The “dividing line” separating these impossible extremes, Ravaisson explained, “is everywhere and nowhere.”48 Ravaisson melted habit as well as the actions it encompassed into this mobile, intermediate state; by contrast, Beurier insisted that we need to distinguish habitual acts from “habit itself.”49
Ravaisson’s aptitude for varying career paths, including a role in wide-ranging curricular reforms across the educational system, ensured that by the 1880s his philosophical ideas had reached a range of audiences unmatched in their social variety. Yet Beurier’s writing attests to the waning appeal of benign continuities within a generalized “sphere” of “intelligence,” to quote from Of Habit.50 And we find in Janet’s dissertation a meticulousness about specifics within individual actions which I believe are informed by a post-Ravaisson resolve to distinguish habit from habitual acts. Most saliently for Boy Leading a Horse however, by the end of the century, a claim to sequential progression was no longer drowned in the continuum described in Of Habit. Here we can remind ourselves that Schapiro’s “consciousness of art” as a “skilled activity of manipulating the instruments” in respect to Picasso’s life-size figures allows no place for a continuum—for Schapiro, there was no easeful facility beyond foundational effort. For Baxandall and Alpers however, habitual skill is that which has overcome and perhaps even dulled effort—the inaugural moment’s active mode. To paraphrase the pianist quoted by Janet, Tiepolo’s hands—according to Baxandall and Alpers—store constantly available technique. Moreover, when Janet’s source described sitting down at a piano and “letting fingers wander across the keys” we are reminded that Baxandall and Alpers summon the continuum of an adept availing himself of a seated posture, one in which the hand is never obliged to leave the drawing surface.
Janet however, was symptomatic of his period in forsaking an indeterminate “middle ground.” Instead of Beurier’s slide from a preliminary jolt to the action itself, Janet compacted differing modes. We find him summarily dropping the notion that a moment of learning is prodded into existence by “tension.” “Co-ordination of the learned movement,” he proposed, “occurs at the very same time as the feeling is recognized.” “We can’t say,” Janet went on to point out, “that such–and–such a sensation is felt, and then the complex action corresponding to that feeling is learned.” In fact, according to Janet, we “acquire these two things simultaneously.” But Janet didn’t elaborate on how “our consciousness combines those very first elements.” However dependent on contrived delay the notion of “tension” as preamble had been, the earlier formulation included effort made palpable. A sealed “co-ordination,” by contrast, seemed to shrink the element to which Of Habit gave an expansive “middle ground.” Nonetheless, the truncation of moment Janet’s observations demanded—“such–and–such a sensation” didn’t neatly precipitate a “complex action corresponding to that feeling”—indicates an eminently appealing refusal of dualities.
We return to Boy Leading a Horse apparently suspended between, on the one hand, the continuum evoked in Of Habit and, on the other, the recognition of simultaneity in Janet’s description of learning as acquisition. Does this keep us in a divide that has escaped our attempts to bridge it, a divide that I described as separating the flow of drawing as movement as conjured by Baxandall and Alpers from the effortful process of making mused on by Schapiro? None of the processes we have looked at so far allow for an action which stops before it has completed its arc. For example, Beurier asked that attention fall anew on individual examples of habitual action instead of habit itself; he wasn’t interested in the piling up, as he saw it, of skilled movements, referring only in passing to actions that go “on and on.” In Boy Leading a Horse, Picasso stopped within this “on and on,” the part of skill that had proved uninteresting to Beurier, and even to Janet, given his description of a “complex” action whose workings were lodged inside a bound-together moment. Picasso stalled at the point where a representational element—in other words, the depiction of reins—would have completed the gesture we expect the boy to make. The action had already started however; it wasn’t inaugural effort that proved decisive: somehow, a sequence of movements in the same order and together taking the same amount of time (the boring part of skill) was interrupted. This interruption has the effect of directing our attention to an element foundational—so I’ve suggested—for making a picture on a life-size scale.51 From the beginning of Picasso’s career to the end, he depicted life-size figures. An essential aspect of this way of working is made curiously prominent in Boy Leading a Horse—because an effortful, first moment of learning reinstalls itself in an uninvited fashion. Recall that the palmar grasp affords a longer range but simultaneously deprives the artist of his ability to maintain the hand in a flowing continuous movement across the surface (as evident in the photograph of the École).
In Boy Leading a Horse, the specific action of pulling occupies an enigmatic centrality. A characterization of drawing by Baxandall and Alpers again becomes salient: in making a mark, “we tend to pull strokes down, or towards us.” Applying this observation to Boy Leading a Horse brings out the degree to which the painting is centered on this very gesture: and here I return for the last time to the currents of philosophical thinking on habit that we’ve been exploring.
The moment of memorization supplies Bergson with “images which are recollections”—imagistic recollections of diligence. These recollections are sealed unto themselves however; they remain separate from his learned ability to memorize. Indeed, Bergson can’t describe how the initial effort merges into the process of learning itself because he can’t remember it. He explains this as follows: “like every habitual bodily exercise [the memorization is] stored up in a mechanism which is set in motion as a whole by an initial impulse, in a closed system of automatic movements which succeed each other in the same order, and together, take the same length of time.”52 According to Bergson, the bound-together moment we heard Janet evoke occupies a register separate from the subject’s recollection of memorizing a lesson. Therefore extricating a notion of an initial effort from the totality of a bound-together moment is a pointless exercise. That is because an ability to remember a skill can be so efficiently deposited in our limbs that, just like Janet’s pianist siting down at the piano, no laborious activation is required: the “fingers find the piece themselves.” For Bergson then, never the twain shall meet: the initial effort generates recollections which share nothing in common with “a closed system of automatic movements.”53
I believe that the separation Bergson argues for accounts for the gap between, on the one hand, Schapiro’s idea of making as fully alert—accentuated, as it were—and, on the other, the kind of action—flowing, continuous—favored by Baxandall and Alpers as exemplary of drawing. But Bergson’s two registers don’t integrate one of his own terms, the “initial impulse.” Although something on the order of an “initial impulse” must set the process “in motion as a whole,” Bergson doesn’t expand on what he means by “initial impulse.” His notion of a “closed system of automatic movements which succeed each other in the same order and together take the same amount of time” doesn’t allow for an action which stops before it has completed its arc.54 Thus he only manages to maintain his division between two forms of memory by insisting on the predictable, iterative unfolding of a learned skill—in exactly the same amount of time, each and every time. Looking at Boy Leading a Horse, however, we must ponder the possibility of an interrupted habitual sequence, which confounds Bergson’s theory of the separate realms of memory.
In the compass of this study I have re-introduced into art historical and theoretical discourse some of the “rudiments” of studio and academic instruction in drawing from Picasso’s Rose Period and before. With tools like these, I think, it is possible to begin to re-evaluate the apparently isolated position of the Rose Period in relation to Picasso’s later practices, and thereby question the conventional division of his career into named periods, apparently sequestered from one another. But my broader purpose, as I mentioned at the outset, is to bring new conceptual and analytic tools to the contemporary discussion of drawing. That literature, which places great emphasis on abstract notions such as immediacy, temporality, and materiality, needs, I think, to be brought back into conversation with the actual gestures made by artists, and with the theories of habit, skill, and effort that were being advanced at the time.
I would like to thank Harry Cooper and Charles W. Haxthausen for detailed and generous comments on earlier versions of this paper.