Blog 10 – a censored show

 

Last spring I applied for a drawing project and exhibition in the UK – to draw again at Oxford’s famous John Radcliffe Hospital, and this time to show in their gallery as well. There was much positive correspondence,  and I got a grant from Tegnernes Fornening (the graphic artist’s association in Denmark) to frame and ship my drawings, and to cover a 5 weeks’ working stay.

I decided to exhibit childbirth and baby drawings,  my usual subjects.  Among those I framed were my best childbirth drawings.

Here are some of the drawings I framed: a series of 10 with a father supporting a mother through labour and birth, a drawing of a child waiting to “catch” her baby brother, and 3 from a series of a woman in labour – her face drawn during contractions and rest.

 

I  had however overlooked a note in the hospital gallery information slip: “the Gallery does not accept images containing nudity.”

After some letters to and fro, I realized they meant it – no nudes was the policy and that included birthing mothers and even newborns. The show was ready, and this meant changing and reframing the childbirth half almost entirely. Only clothed or discreetly sheet-covered mothers and diapered babied would be allowed.  Of the iffy copies I sent by email for approval, nearly all my most beautiful drawings were refused –  all these above. I was told definitively that “No women with their legs open giving birth, nowhere most of a female nude body is shown.” In fact: anything even nearing the vagina would not be acceptable.

 

Nudity? Childbirth?

Look back at the drawings. Is your perception of them changed? Unfortunately it has, for me. The drawings are repetitive, of movement, made at full speed. Each is contained and complete, all its lines are important and integral to the whole.  I have an intimate series of a mother’s face during labour, as she went through through strong contractions and intermittent rest. Looking at them again, I realized that several must be left out because of swift lines that some prying, nasty eyes with their own agenda had deliberately searched for and interpreted as prurient, salacious!

From this series, showing a mother’s face in labour, during contractions and rest: Of this series,  Only the first and second were accepted.

 

 

 

 

 

And the little Danish girl waiting excitedly to “catch” her baby brother – censored because of some abstract lines – the innocent subject of her attention. In  the top corner, the midwife’s words in Danish: “you’re ready to receive him, right?”

 

 

 

I came to Oxford and exhibited what I was allowed to. I had some idea of indignantly picketing the gallery, or publishing the “censored” drawings in the local press.  Almost I am sorry I didn´t. But there are other galleries – and maybe the chance to tell the story in a small, nicely produced illustrated catalog. Watch this page.

 

The next blog tells of my Oxford drawing experience, and why drawing on the neonatal wards is, for the very best of reasons, over forever.

Blog 9: reading the smile, in photos and in drawings

I mean here by reading: recognizing an expression – a universal ability.

These are blog speculations about the illusion of the smile, the fixed smile, the difference between how we look at photos and at drawings. Up to now I had not thought about it so much; usually, if parents wanted me to draw after a widely grinning photo of their child, I would just say, “you realize the eyes are squinted” – and then they’d go for a more serious one.

In a smile, particularly, what is seen is fleeting and in motion – the “held” smile waiting for a photograph looks forced and wrong, the caught “flash” of a smile in a photograph works only because we have unconsciously trained ourselves to see it in glimpses.  Adults who have never seen photographs cannot read them, it takes training. During the last generations, we’ve learned to look at the camera’s “caught” expression in quick spurts. I am convinced that looking longer at such a photograph if it is to continue to work – I mean, to affect us – must still be interruptive. It could be measured (number of saccades, returns etc.). I haven’t read about it yet, but I can hope.

This was confirmed for me recently. I was asked to draw a beloved father for an obituary. I was sent several photos and told them I would sketch the one where he was lively and smiling. As we corresponded, one adult daughter wrote: “To me, this (photo) doesn’t look like him! He looks happy, but tired.”

I wrote back: “This is normal, don’t worry! If you stare steadily at a smiling photo, it will stop working and start to look ‘fixed‘ (or as you say, tired).  A smile is passing, and we see it in a glance. Somehow or other, after the invention of the camera, we have learned to look at smiling photos in short glances – and I suppose one can also see a smiling drawing this way, but it gets more muddled now – how we see is so fascinating. I guess a smiling drawing is one we might have on the wall but we would not gaze at it.”

In a persuasive experiment, subjects were photographed as they exchanged a neutral look for each of the 6 universal expressions – joy, sadness, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. Next, the features were blanked out. A third series was made from studying these: just blank ovals, with arrows showing only the direction of movement between features. Everyone is still able to recognize the expressions – try it.  It is the movement and direction of the expressive muscles that we read so impeccably.

Some photographs cannot be read at all, because the difference between the expression of pain and of joy must be seen in motion, or it is unreadable.

pain (injured man), joy (released hostage)

Drawings of big smiles made after photographs, with all the teeth minutely traced in, cannot work.  Everyone recognizes such a drawing – it looks obviously wrong, amateurish and uncomfortable. In reality, we see the flash only – never the details;  it passes too quickly for even the fastest artist to record, unless it is repeated.*( see note)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*note: But in fast drawing, repetition is the key: I can draw smiles and other changing expressions if I see them repeatedly, as here, with writers listening or conversing animatedly at festivals.

Drawing the smile – Blog 8

A mother ordered several drawings from photos taken in hospital of her stillborn son. The baby alone, with his four-year-old sister, her with the baby or with both children. She had chosen eight.

One she wanted was a “selfie” – the three of them lying close together in bed, with the baby in the centre. When I saw the photo, I was surprised:  it was too intimate and intense to hang on the wall, because of her expression. Here was the ultimate face of grief, of someone who has cried till no more tears are left. All the expressive muscles were neutral, as if erased. It is very seldom one sees this look, which is both beautiful and very private.

But she wanted it, and I made the drawing*.

with changes

THE FACE OF GRIEF

When I emailed her a copy for approval, her response was that she liked it very much, but – could I just draw her with a smile?

The mouth is the most difficult feature to draw; everyone can read the smallest of changes very closely and accurately. I was pretty much convinced that the change she wanted was beyond me – that any change of the mouth – widening it, altering the corners – would ruin the drawing. I wrote and told her I wasn’t sure I could do it, but that I would try it out on a copy, and send her that for approval or advice.

I printed a copy to work on. I knew already I would not touch the mouth. AlI I did was rub in 2 small shadows (indicating 2 faint depressions) one on each cheek, there were dimples appear on children’s faces when they smile or, on any face, a visible, passing shadow shifting upwards, caused by the contraction of the elevator muscles – the zygomaticus major  muscles where they insert into the skin. I also took a bit of chalk and covered a slight smudge under the left-hand corner of the lower lip.

face copy smile 2

CHANGED DRAWING

I dared not change the original drawing.

But she wanted a smile.

When you do a commission you have to please the client. And it was, after all, only a drawing from a photo.

When I sent her the altered copy, she agreed that this was exactly what she wanted -“Now I am smiling.”

In the original, I also erased 2 tiny lines between the eyebrows, so light they do not show on the copy – these lines of anxiety (minute contractions of the corrugators) are invariably read by everyone – giveaways in any face that smiles and does not quite mean it.

I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as “intuition” involved when we see and respond  to another person’s face – what we sense about the person is visual (and to lesser extents audible/olfactory).  If we are uncomfortable there is some masking, some disharmony in the facial muscles – and, even when we are not conscious of it, we are all experts at picking it up. Our brains are programmed and trained in this incredibly complex task. A large portion of the visual cortex – the fusiform gyrus – is devoted to recognition and to reading expression.

This work  taught me that it is not the features themselves we are reading, when we look into another human face. Giacometti said the eye has no expression: “The eye is always cold and remote. It is the surroundings that determine the expression of the eye.” And the mouth on its own is not the source of the smile .

(*With her permission I have included the images:  the drawing of the face before I changed it, and then the drawing with the smile.)