The Menil Collection, Pat Barker and How Artists Draw Blood

“I am a painter and I paint with nails.”

-Kurt Schwitters

sargent_sketching_in_the_alps_t.JPGI’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 ( (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.

In her introduction to the show Rose shows she’s not bound by any idea of drawing as the explication of form, at least not the form of, say, a table, real or ideal. Drawing is idea rather than technique, style or skill. “Artists draw any way they want, any way they can,” and “may use any instrument or none.” Brice Marden a stick, Cy Twombly a screwdriver, Jackson Pollock a squeezed tube of paint, Robert Rauschenberg his own photographs. Kurt Schwitters cut and pasted bits of this and that for collages or hammered boards in a corner and across the ceiling of a room. You get the picture. These tools are “transgressive devices,” and the form of the drawing is each artist’s “different construction of reality.” It is still a “drawing,” but it “is one in which composition has been replaced by concept, method, and system, and one in which figuration is replaced by configuration.” The artist also draws who only sits and thinks.

There’s something thrilling about the out-there-all-alone-on-the edge-ishness of it. Modernist drawing is “working the main chance and working the borderlines, the margins between disparate modes and media, between conflicting and alien categories, and between states of being,” suggesting the artist is something like a pinball bounced between inspiration and circumstance, but, continuing, thus liberated “to create a new form of plastic art independent of previous formulations but giving up none of drawing’s traditional privileges.”

Talk about privilege! Rose means to give up nothing. She gets to define the role of drawing in the new Institute she heads in a way that leaves everything in. None dare call it not a drawing! Which is great for what the exhibit reveals! The Menil Collection comprises some 16,000 items, much of it modernist stuff — odds and ends and ways and means — that fell into the hands of the de Menils because of their close and longstanding personal relations with many artists. Experiments, studies, notes, doodles – whatever their origin or use, the pieces do give an intimate sense of, yes, drawing. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to see this but for Rose’s inclusive definition of drawing. The exhibit, typical at Menil, is a labyrinth of smaller spaces. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko are paired, with studies or sketches of larger works. The fractured, worked-over human forms of de Kooning are paired with the accumulated gestures of Pollack. There’s Claes Oldenburg’s “Model of Mouse Museum” in many forms as drawing, lithograph, geometric model, canvas chair cushion and kite.

The exhibit includes a measure of physicality not dreamt in Henry Tonks’ philosophies. There’s the smell of wet earth and sound of workers and machines where two new Michael Heizer earthworks are being installed in conjunction with the exhibit. There’s the fresh-paint smell of Richard Serra’s “Wedge,” black paintstick rubbed thick on Belgian linen running along one wall for some 60 feet, 6 feet high on one end, 8 feet on the other. And the towering columns of Sol LeWitt’s “Scribble Drawing #11,” which was, yes, scribbled on the wall, by other artists working according to detailed written instructions prepared – yes, “drawn” – by LeWitt.

But the point brought home to me by my reading of Barker’s “Life Class,” is the distance, in life and experience, between Tonks’ “explication” of line and the nonrepresentational “marks” that constitute the culmination of Rose’s theory of modernist drawing. And I’ll make quick work of this.

At the Slade School of Art the students spent mornings in the Antiques Room drawing Classical and Renaissance sculptures, as well as bits and pieces of them: heads, limbless torsos and amputated arms. And then they’d troop down the corridor to the Life Class Room to work on the skills necessary to convey the bone and muscle that “lay beneath the skin” of the live models.

World War I was unrelieved carnage. During the war in the hospitals and after the war on the streets and in the parks the limbless torsos and mutilated heads were on live human beings. I’ll not name all the writers and artists who saw that war firsthand as soldier or Red Cross volunteer, certainly more of them than in any war since, though journalists and photographers are there for us now in a professional capacity. And after that war many artists looked for something other than realism, likely for many different reasons, but with the resulting explosion in attempts to form something without form, say something without meaning in any traditional sense.

The great modernist who “drew” more than any other just by sitting and thinking, and who drew less than any other by conventional means, Marcel Duchamp, probably saw farther into art’s future than Rose does now at the inauguration of the Drawing Institute. Andre Breton summed up a conversation he had with Duchamp near the end of World War II: “An elementary line of demarcation now separates, in painting and sculpture, valid and viable works from those that are outdated or that have no future. Today, all works of art which make the slightest concession to the physical, to the physical aspect of things, to models nude or dressed, countrysides, still-lifes, etc….and whatever distortion to which they may give rise, must be pitilessly shunned.”*

*Andre Breton to Victor Brauner, October 27, 1945, cited by Didier Simon in “Victor Brauner: Surrealist Hieroglyphs” (Hatje Cantz Publishers 2001).