“I am a painter and I paint with nails.”
I’ve been reading Pat Barker’s novel Life Class (Doubleday, $24), set in the early years of World War I. It’s the story of several young art school students whose lives and ideas about art are altered dramatically by the war.
I’d read Barker’s World War I trilogy published in the early 1990s – “Regeneration,” “The Eye in the Door,” and “The Ghost Road” – and was deeply affected by the historical and psychological realism of Barker’s writing, and by her knowledge of the era and keen sympathy for her characters. She portrays real figures such as the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers to explore the devastation wrought by the war on a generation of British men and women, both at home and on the front in Europe. Rivers is a commanding presence in “The Ghost Road,” in charge of treating and rehabilitating shell shocked soldiers to return them to the war.
“Life Class” has a similar real-life figure, Henry Tonks, a surgeon and anatomy teacher turned artist (his sketch of J.S. Sargent sketching in the Alps is above), who teaches life drawing at the Slade School of Art, a class attended by the young artists, women and men, we follow through the rest of the novel. Tonks is present only briefly in the narrative, but his spirit looms over the whole. In real life Tonks worked with a plastic surgeon pioneering techniques used on young men whose faces were mutilated in the war. In the first chapter of “Life Class,” on the eve of the war, he instructs art students on the relation of drawing to anatomy. Drawing is all about physicality, finding a way to “convey what lay beneath the skin.” “Drawing is an explication of the form,” he would say, meaning a mirror of what is there to be observed in the real world. A “real world” that will be turned upside down and inside out by the war.
I happened to be reading the book last week when I was in Houston visiting the Menil Collection (http://www.menil.org/). (For a description of the Menil, see my post “The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes with Menil.”) I was struck in particular by a new exhibit, “How Artists Draw,” curated by Bernice Rose, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and now the Menil chief curator responsible for the development of a new Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, which will be “dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition, and study of modernist drawing, including its role in contemporary artistic practice.” The emphasis on “modernist drawing” separates what the Institute is about from the philosophy and classroom practice of Henry Tonks. What replaced explication of form in drawing followed irrevocably from artists’ experience in World War I and its aftermath.