Some notes on 4 Distinctive Visual Languages – Da Vinci, Kollwitz,Twombly & Saville

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” – Leonardo

Although we tend to think of Leonardo as a painter he probably painted no more than 20 paintings over his lifetime. Yet, such was his profound interest in  the way things are that he filled thousands of pages with detailed sketches and drawings to explore the workings of, for example, weapons, canals, the natural world, the flight of birds and machines, astronomy, to mention but a few. These were done in pen and ink and the papers covered with explanatory notes and diagrams


But he had a particular interest in the study of human anatomy and did detailed drawings of the human body, internal and external, through detailed observation which necessitated dissecting corpses.


Heart surgeon Francis Wells, who works at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge  recalls coming across Leonardo’s studies for the first time as a medical student. “I remember thinking that they were far better than anything we had in modern textbooks of anatomy,” he says. “They were beautiful, accurate, absorbing – and there was a liveliness to them that you just don’t find in modern anatomical drawings.” (Wells, F The Heart of Leonardo 2013 Springer, London) Wells ha made practical use   of some of these 500 years old  drawings of the heart in his work as a heart surgeon.

Kathe Kollwitz 1867 – 1945

If Leonardo is the master of human physical anatomy then Kathe Kollwitz is the supreme communicator of human emotion and experience, partly that of the poor and working class both in their social situation and through the effects of war. I find her images of human lives in Germany in the early 20th century to be profoundly moving.

Woman and dead child, 1903

She described how she herself was moved by the lives and plight of those who came to her husband’s surgery but she emphasised that, “…compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful” (Fecht, T  Kathe Kollwitz, Works in Colour 1988 Schocken Books, New York)

Working Class Woman with an Earring, 1910

I think the working class woman in Kollwitz’s is an amazing portrait her hard life story is literally etched into her face, her eyes that can shed no more tears her skull-like face that has endured cold and hunger and the ravages of proletarian existence. Yet not all is as black as the background. The earring as Berger has observed “…is small but proud declaration of hope” and yet it is, “totally outshone by the light of her face, which is inseparable from its nobility”.  (Berger, J Portraits 2015 Verso, London) Kollwitz had the extraordinary ability to face and describe through her powerful drawing the awfulness of human life and history and yet, in the same image to express beauty and  guts. Not the entrails  that fascinated Leonardo but the resilience, courage and hopefulness of human life, even at its most desperate.

Cy Twombly 1928-2011

My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake…to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s link. It has to be felt” Cy Twombley

Twombly moved to Rome in 1957 and is influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman past (myths, places, history etc) as well as French Neo-Classicism and contemporary and local wall graffiti. His work also makes use of writing – poems, myths, histories – as well  as the process of writing which points to subtle meaning below the surface. In a short essay on Twombley John Berger argues that Twombley is “the painterly master of verbal silence” by which he means that writing/ language always points from the legible mark to what is beyond, what is unsaid. (Berger, J Portraits 2015 Verso, London). There is a distinction between the clarity and readability of Leonardo’s anatomical works and the language of Twombley’s writing and marks where the meaning is illusive, beyond the signifier.

Leda and the Swan, 1962

This can be seen in Leda and the Swan (1962) above, and point in which the violent swirls, stabs and scratches fly out in all directions suggesting the forceful Jupiter with his thunderbolt-hurling propensities while the fleshy pink ovoid forms and the hearts are suggestive of the motherly Leda. Its overall impression is of overpowering and disorienting violence,  Like abstract expressionists Twombly’s abstract piece leads the eye beyond the surface of the painting to make connections with the past and to reflect on the enduring nature of violence and war. I feel there is maybe a hint of protest in his use of graffiti associated with peaceful resistance to the dehumanising nature of the modern urban environment.

Jenny Saville 1970 –

Jenny Saville is widely known for her large figurative works depicting the female nude figure and usually of large, often obese, women. Her painting plan was her signature piece for the Young British Artists Exhibition III at the Saatchi Gallery in 1994.

Plan, 1993

Like Leonardo Saville is obsessed with the human body, not the interior like Leonardo but its landscape in all its fleshy exuberance and monumentality. Hers is also a dissection but in her case a deconstruction of the predominance in art of the female nude as object,  primarily of the male gaze. On one of her earlier paintings she inscribes a quote from feminist philosopher Lucy Irigary,  “If we continue to speak in this sameness, speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again.” (see Laurence Noel in Jenny Saville the Body Recovered downloaded 30.11.16)

Saville’s paintings are huge in scale and challenge the practice in art generally for painting the female nude small. In Plan the model, Saville herself, looks down to the viewer whose gaze, as it travels up the body meets, meets and is challenged by hers  at the top of the painting. The figure does not conform to the idealized female. The circles on the body are those traced on the patient’s body prior to liposuction, Sylvester, D  “Areas of Flesh,” in Jenny Saville 2005 New York: Rizzoli International Publication. Saville’s painting does not fit our prior notions of the nude in art nor the notions of beauty we have absorbed from our culture. She challenges us to see the beauty in each individual, as she does herself, scars and all.

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