Monday, 27 April 2015

A Brief History of Sculpture (or, rather, of A Sculpture) by Louisa Young

Many are the strange places to which our writing leads us. Last week it led me to a four-day sculpture course for maxillo-facial reconstructive surgeons. (Those who know my books will know that historical maxillo-facial reconstruction is rather key to them.) The idea is that as the surgeons' training tends to the scientific and the two-dimensional, it is a good idea to let them build a human head from scratch, out of clay, so as to learn the true nature of the shape of a head, hands-on. The pioneers of this type of surgery in the UK, Major Harold Gillies and Sir Henry Tonks, were both trained artists - Tonks was a professor at the Slade School of Art, as well as a surgeon. Many of you will have seen the profoundly moving pastel portraits he made during the time Gillies ran the Queen's Hospital at Sidcup for the facially injured of WW1, as a record rather than as, specifically, art. Here is one -  

Gillies employed sculptors as well to make masks of the wounded men out of plaster, so he could design their surgery without having to pester them all the time. My grandmother, at the time a successful portrait sculptor in London, was one who worked with him. (My sister Emily Young is a sculptor too. I am curious about sculpture and women.) Gillies entirely recognised the importance of art - his first book, published in 1919, was called The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. I won't go on again about the injuries and the soldiers and the genius of those times; today's story is more about the importance of art for reconstructive surgeons, and history trickling down. And why is art important? Because it really makes you look, and it records what you see. Including, in sculpture, seeing with your fingers. Purely practically, sketches were a lot less faff than photography at that time, and still today a skilful diagram or model saves a thousand misunderstood words of explanation.

We all pitched up at a school near Harley Street, and the portrait sculptor Luke Shepherd took us in hand. First he showed us a beautiful pre-Roman terracotta head of  a lady. Not this one, but this sort of thing. Get some clay, sculpt it, fire it . . . the techniques haven't changed much. It's an innate, isn't it, the desire to replicate ourselves?  

The surgeons included three consultants, one of them 'the best nose man in London', and a surgeon from the Jordanian military. The trainee surgeons included three beautiful young women - one Egyptian, one from York, one Chinese and pregnant, and a young man who after a day's sculpting was going on to do the nightshift in a hospital which shall remain nameless.  

We started by wrapping newspaper in a plastic bag, and taping it to a wooden stand. Then you stick a stick though it. Not so ancient, but I seem to remember people used to do it with chicken wire, so of course techniques change a little. 

Then you wrap it in clay. 

Of course you need a lady. Ours is called Hannah; she is a paragon of patience. We measure her with calipers, from her temporo-mandibular joint (just in front of the ear) to her other temporo-mandibular joint. Then from her temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose, then from her other temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose. Humans can be wonky. It's lucky we are, or how would we tell each other apart? 

Put a small black dot on each point you measure. Write down ALL the measurements. Clip the stick to length, so each end of the stick represent a temporo-mandibular joint. Measure the angle and distance to her eyes - draw the line. Mark where the eye will be.

Then measure out to where the tip of her nose would be . . . a point, in the air, as yet unrecognised, unacknowledged. 

And the same with the chin. The points in space become points on the end of a piece of clay.

Measure her again. And again. And again. Measure every angle and plane as you come to it. 'If your work is well done,' Luke says, quoting the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, 'resemblance will come of its own accord.' I like this phrase. I suspect it can apply to writing as well.  

Did ancient sculptors work like this? We know that painters didn't recognise perspective till the 14th century, but sculptors seemed to know the difference between a mask and a head - which is more than I do, at the start. It had never occurred to me that a mouth is curved like a jaw, the middle further forward than the ends. But of course it is! I cry now. But it had never cross my mind. Eyes too. They're practically diagonal. We smile as we work. We are learning stuff.

We give them temporary ears, for guidance - see below. I feel she is verging on a perfect likeness. One of our consultants is a top ear man. Later he explains to us how to make an ear - a real one - from scratch, by carving it out of a piece of rib, and growing it under the skin. 

Oh. Maybe not such a perfect likeness. Also she seems to have had a sex change while I wasn't looking. 

No. Terrible. We need to look from every angle, at the topology and geometry of the skin. Return to measuring. I measure the eyes. The sticks mark the inner and outer canthus, the corners of the eye, and the pupil.

There are good new words. Canthus. Philtrum. Conca, scafa, fossa, tragus, Darwin's tubicle, incisura intertragica. The ear-building consultant teaches us drawing on Day Four; he loves this last term so much he almost dances as he says it, and comes and writes it on my sketches of my drawing partner, the Jordanian military surgeon. Have you ever spent eight hours staring at and being stared at by a man you do not know who has recently been sewing people back together in Iraq and DRC? It is - surprising. You are required to stare at him, and he at you. You see each other's thoughts - not what they are, necessarily, but that you are having one. 'Why are you smiling?' 'What are you laughing at?' It is only after many hours of staring, towards the end of the day, that I see he has the little bruise on his forehead that denotes a lot of praying. His devoutness - devotion? - is right there to see. He sees me see it. He is a nice man. Not very good at drawing though.

Before and after the drawing lesson. Oh well.

Back to the sculpture. I nickname mine Cecil. He is clearly a minor Cambridge poet of the inter-war years. At the end of the day I spray him, and he goes into a bin-liner for the night.

Next Day: Good morning Cecil. You are all wrong.

Luke is an extremely good teacher. Within moments, Cecil has a softened, female brow, filled in eye-sockets, lots more flesh, and some hair.

She gets a neck. Her jaw is wrong, but he points it out. You have to look. And measure. And look and look and look and record how it all fits together, all those planes and angles, all that topography. You do that to Hannah, and then to your sculpture. Take her off her stand and look at the top of her head; kneel before her and look up her nose, the underside of the back of her head, every curve and camber. The surgeons know the names of the muscles. 

Here an academic from Essex appears to be sculpting the actual lady.

Getting there. The mouth is not flat, and nor is it just what the surgeons call 'the vermilion'. It is a muscular outcrop - most visible in sexy French film stars, the 'mouth on a stalk' pout. But we all have it to some degree. I give it to Cecil, or Cecile as she is now, and s/he becomes all the more female. 

I like still having the lines demarcating the planes and angles. It makes it look rather fifties, and kind of like I know what I'm doing.

Hair! How can you make hair out of clay? Clay is the very opposite of clay. 
Spot the difference. Hair, and ears. 

Ears. Dear god, ears.

They go in a lot further than you'd think. They are a series of helices. They have a Y shape - is that the bifid tragus? No, the tragus - well there's two of them - are the, how to explain - the bits at the bottom  above the lobe, the forward one is just behind the TMJ, the posterior is the sort of horizontal ledge just behind and below it, and the icisura intertragica is the dip in between . . . what, you're not following? This is why surgeons need to be able to draw. How swiftly I could point it out on a sketch. 

And finally, with many a Bake-Off joke, we lay down our tools and line up our host of Hannahs. Here she is, a flock of her, all in a row.

This is mine. As I said, Luke is a VERY good teacher. 

Are you still wondering about the TMJ? See the dot just by her ear? That's it. That's where we pull the stick out at the end.

Work in Progress:

And here are the surgeons at work. Bear in mind that they usually sculpt in flesh. Some of them did have to dash off occasionally for a little light operating in the course of the days, but they all without exception found it a very enlightening and useful course. As the Jordanian said, 'Few things in life sculpt its effect inside us, and this course is one of these things'.

And as I can't offer you a picture of my own deep concentration, 
here instead is a sculpting selfie

And here's our lunch. It's true what they say about medics and their diets.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

"After Altamira, All is Decadence" Carol Drinkwater

                                            A cave painting of lions at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc

It has been reported in the press this week that a replica of the Grotte Chauvet has been created. It will be open to the public by the time you read this.  The original, containing thousands of prehistoric animal and figure drawings, will no longer be accessible to visitors because our human presence is putting the artwork at risk. This is not a question of hooliganism or graffiti. It is simply the erosion caused by our attendance there, our exhalations near the paintings. A friend who is staying with us remarked that it was a great pity that one should buy a ticket to visit a copy, even one hailed as a near masterpiece. I disagreed with him, recalling one of the most memorable experiences of my travelling life: a visit to the caves of Altamira.

Altamira (a UNESCO World Heritage site), located a few kilometres from Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, northern Spain, was the first site with cave paintings to be discovered, in 1880. How the discovery came about was quite by chance and a rather lovely if sad story.

                                                                   Bison, Altamira

In 1875, a Spanish landowner, lawyer and amateur anthropologist, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, learned that a stone mason, while quarrying locally, had unearthed some rather unusual caves. Don Marcelino went to take a look. He found a pencil-thin aperture. It had been revealed after millennia by the landslides caused by the mason’s gunpowder explosions. Don Marcelino slid through the opening and found himself within a series of labyrinthine caves, chambers and tunnels that measured in length some 270 metres, almost a quarter of a kilometre. This dark hidden space had not been visited for at least ten thousand years. Don Marcelino, even in the crepuscular light, noticed markings on many of the cave walls but he could not make out what they were.

Three years later while he was attending the Anthropological Sciences pavilion at the World Fair in Paris, he spotted a display of prehistoric tools. He learned that they had come from caves in France. This knowledge inspired him to return to the Cantabrian caves and begin excavations. Digging around outside, he unearthed bones, spears, shells and tools. He returned to the site on a regular basis and on one of these trips he took his eight-year-old daughter, Maria, with him. As the story goes, penetrating the caves, oil lamp in hand, the small child looked up at the very low ceiling and remarked, ‘Look, Daddy, at the painted bulls.’ In fact, the child was pointing at a series of paintings in red ochre of a herd of prehistoric bison.


I try to picture that moment. The moment when Don Marcelino was witnessing, confirming what he had found. The relevance of his discovery, the realisation that his work had not been in vain. This revelation was a moment he had been working towards for several years. Back then, one hundred and thirty years ago, cave art was a completely unknown archaeological science. De Sautola was the first to propose it. A pure, untouched paleolithic universe.  He was standing in the midst of what had once been a prehistoric settlement or meeting place, where the hunters or their wives, their women perhaps, were artists, a community of artists who whiled away their time painting the world that existed for them beyond those caves where they lived or sheltered.
One of the sights that touched me deeply were the handprints.  Those early artists have imprinted the cave walls and ceilings with impressions of their hands. Handprints. Their signatures, perhaps?

Don Marcelino published a small book on his findings, with copies of many of the illustrations he had seen at Altamira and other, lesser sites in the area. He was mocked. The scientific world did not take him seriously. The Church also declaimed him, vociferously so. They were keen to discredit such findings for fear the discoveries threatened the omnipotence of God or put the subject of evolution into the spotlight. Tragically, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautola died in 1888, a disillusioned man. The brilliance of his investigative work and his findings were not recognised until 1902.

My reason for making the pilgrimage to Altamira was because I was searching for ancient olive stories. The birth of, the beginnings of agriculture. Olive pressing, the cultivation of olive groves, for my book The Olive Tree. Might these hunter-gatherers have lived on a diet of fruit, berries? Might they have pressed juices from these fruits? To create lighting, for food? Might there have been wild olive trees growing in the vicinity?

I had bought my ticket to visit the caves of Altamira online weeks in advance and had arranged my travel schedule to fit in around the date allocated to me. The guided visits are limited to ten persons and they are not very frequent. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that I would not be visiting the original caves but a neighbouring replica. I felt a little cheated (It was probably mentioned on the website where I purchased my ticket but the information was in Spanish and I must have missed it).

During the 1960s and 70s, the paintings were showing early signs of damage caused by the damp breath, exhalations of carbon dioxide from those flocking to visit the rupestral art. I was assured the neo-caves opened in 2001 would not disappoint.

And they did not. The reproduction has used identical colour pigments fashioned from the same powders as the originals. Every bump and incline, every rockface, nuance and contour has been represented down to the minutest detail.

I think we were nine in my group plus the guide. Everyone of us was moved to tears. I am not exaggerating. One couple, Japanese if I remember correctly, were on their knees in front of one of the images, weeping at the sheer beauty, the purity and exhilaration of the artwork. Picasso, who from his earliest days was fascinated by primitive art, visited these caves, the originals, before 1939, when he exiled himself for the rest of his life from Franco’s Spain.

His words when he exited las cuevas were: 'Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.'

                                                              Hand with fish, Picasso

I left the site in a state of euphoria, wandering the hillsides for hours looking at, into colours, at light, as though I had never seen grass or trees or cows before, reluctant to return to the town, to noise and modernity. I had seen the world anew. I did not find olive clues in the vicinity but the experience did put a new spin on my journey. The first time. Man’s very first experiences. It was as though my sight had been unshackled. My travels continued for another nine months or so. No other place I visited reached back in time as far as Altamira - how could it? - but when I sat beneath millennia old olive trees trying to imagine the people who had planted the trees, who harvested them and pressed their fruits, I frequently recalled the simplicity and purity of the artwork at Altamira. Once Upon a Time… when Man and Nature lived hand in hand.
Twitter: Carol4OliveFarm

Saturday, 25 April 2015


When I was a History student (in the 1970s and again at the turn of the century) one of the things I liked most was being buried in the library.  In those days, part of the joy of historical research (and one of the main things we were being tested on) was slogging through cardboard indexes and untangling illegible handwriting.  We were looking for something no one else knew about, or which had been routinely overlooked.
In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD.  Some people never finished at all.  In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see.  The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.

Not much changed for four hundred years
Those of us who were on time limits of three or four years for delivering a thesis laughed about the Gnomes, as we called them, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who silently envied their secret world. I learned, like them, to feel a frisson of superiority when a new person arrived at an archive, unaware of the particular bureaucratic gymnastics that particular institution had invented for ordering something up.  I remember the thrill of finding letters and notebooks that ad languished, unread, for hundreds of years.
My excitement was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that I was the only person in the world who cared.
I was even a little sad at the thought that when my thesis was done, anyone with the detective power to trace a copy, and the muscular strength to lift it down from the shelf, would be able to find the location of 'my' documents in the bibliography.
My idea of a fun place
But then, in the early years of this century, the grown-ups taught me to share.

I was lucky enough to be taught by some truly wonderful scholars.  They were all equally brilliant, but in academic esteem, some were more equal than others.  Those whose books were commissioned by commercial publishers and sold in normal bookshops were condemned by the Gnomes as 'popular' historians.  Their success in spreading their knowledge to people outside the magic academic circle was taken as proof of their intellectual inferiority.  It's not surprising that the collective noun is a 'malice' of historians.
The popular historians got their own back in the late 20th and early 21st century, when well researched, beautifully produced history books temporarily became money-spinners, but that was also the time when the Gnomes' contempt for such authors reached its highest point.

When broadband came along, even popular historians were tested in their belief that their work - and, more importantly, their source material, - should be available to the masses.  Many ancient documents are now online in facsimile form.  You can zoom in and out of indistinct lettering until a meaning emerges. You can compare documents housed a world apart, wearing your pyjamas or over a cappuccino. And you can do all this without any entrance exams, just for fun.

Try deciphering this by the light of a 40 watt bulb in a library
I know that is a good thing, and I love using the Internet. But I'm ashamed to say that somewhere deep in my heart, I am sad. I miss our old secret world.  I'd like to think that there's something noble in that sentiment, but if I'm honest it's founded on a pretty despicable form of snobbery.  I liked knowing things that other people didn't know - and stood little chance of finding for themselves.  I adored my old work tools (pencil, notebook, magnifying glass and silence).  I thrived on the simultaneous torture of being kept away from my source material when the library was shut and the blissful encounter with real life that the closure forced on me. 

Many professionals whose status depends on feats of memory are being undermined by our new world of information.  Imagine how medics feel when patients arrive having correctly diagnosed their own illnesses online. It is becoming more difficult for them to appear omnipotent, or to bury their mistakes.

It is still (just) possible to do an historian's work in the old way.  Some of the Gnomes are still there, bending over their books.  Many more must have died of starvation in a world that only rewards published results.  Others may have been driven out by the clicking keyboards of students using the library as a place to access the Internet while saving on heating bills at home.

I have said goodbye to my inner Edward Casaubon.  But sometimes I secretly wish that I'd been born a little earlier, and could have carried on gnoming forever.

pictures :Wikimedia Commons.  Library picture: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons.