Daniel Maidman, Melancholy Portrait of Rachel, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15"x11”, 2014
I had my doubts about this drawing, but there was a unity to it which is something I’ve been working on. Artist Joseph Podlesnik commented, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?”
Podlesnik himself knows what the hell he’s talking about in terms of the unity of organic forms.
Joseph Podlesnik, Untitled, pastel on paper, 12.25”x7.5”, 2014
I promised to follow up on his analysis (which is what I’m doing here), because it answered closely to something which has been much on my mind for maybe the past year or so. I can’t find a record of the instigating incident, which was also a Facebook thing. Somebody somewhere posted this closeup of the face in the painting Ramsay MacDonald by British (and, pleasingly, Jewish) painter Solomon Joseph Solomon:
Solomon Joseph Solomon, Ramsay MacDonald (detail), oil on canvas, 35.5”x28.5”, 1911
Solomon is a hero of the current crop of neo-academic painters. Whoever posted this closeup remarked on Solomon’s amazing grasp of the architecture of the head. Sometimes in life a single turn of phrase will change some fundamental thing for you, and for me, this concept of “the architecture of the head” was one such phrase. I rephrased it for myself to “the architectonics of the head” - the system of the architecture, over and above the specifics of the particular architecture.
What I mean is this. The remark, in either form, elevates the given head from simply a nicely-done head, to a comprehensible head. One can understand what makes it work so well: every element, from the distribution of values over the surfaces, to the varying yellows and pinks, to the placement of the parts in correct perspective, answers flawlessly to the geometry and structural unity of a convex bony object wrapped in a little meat and skin. The lack of error to this head gives it its sense of rightness. Encountering this head, the eye unclenches, because it senses it will not have to paper over any differences between what is presented and what was meant.
This conceptualization of the topic as a matter of architectonics was new to me. I was familiar with the ideas of knowing the structure of the skull, and the proportions of the face, and so forth, before. But I had never integrated the diverse implicated topics into a single concept, called architectonics, which subsumed all the relevant sub-topics. All the parts fell into place: they became a single thing. There was one head-ness to the head.
This sudden sense of the parts falling into place effected a quiet revolution for me. I had been self-consciously avoiding heads based on “what I know” - I follow this avoidance in general, but especially for heads. I don’t want to draw first what I “know” is there, and then see if I can shoehorn the specifics of the model into place once I’ve answered to the strictures of knowledge. So I build up heads from features, making sure each feature has its right shape, and doing my best to get the features to sit in the right places relative to one another. This method is prone to mishap, but it encourages me to focus on personality and emotion in the faces of the people I am looking at, and that is my highest priority.
Indulging in that sense of superiority which I, for one, cannot quite overcome, I have been faintly dismissive toward the knowledge-oriented drawers of heads. Those aesthetes, I allowed myself to think, were really drawing concepts, and not people. And most of the time, this may be true. It is not easy to draw either a concept or a person. But I think there are two things a fair-minded observer would have to concede about Solomon’s MacDonald: that indeed it does have an amazing grasp of the architectonics of the head - and that it is rich in character, mood, and presence. That is, it neatly leaps over the dichotomy which I was proposing, of the head from architectonic and humanist perspectives.
At the right time, all it takes to make progress is the recognition that progress is possible. I bumped up against the Solomon and the description at the right time. Thenceforth, I found that I could approach the head as Solomon did: from both an analytic (architectonic) and an empirical (humanist) perspective.
Actually, let me not make so audacious a claim. Let me say that knowing it was possible, I could no longer not try. I finally had enough knowledge and experience on both sides of the divide that I was comfortable simultaneously throwing both methodologies into the effort. I could see the unified skull beneath the flesh, and I could also see the complex configuration of tensions and relaxations of the muscles of the face, which gives faces their emotions and characters.
So when Podlesnik says, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?” what I read is, “I understand what you have been trying to do, and it worked.”
Looking at it again, you can see the Solomon to this face, can’t you? It is not as good a picture, but Rachel happened to take the same pose, under the same lighting, at the same angle relative to me. Or close enough. The two instances partway fused.
Under more generous conditions - that is, in paint and with all the time in the world - I continued to deploy the model of the architectonics of the head, emphasizing and eliding detail to accomplish individuality and unity in a portrait I was working on of my friend Rupa DasGupta.
Daniel Maidman, Rupa, oil on linen, 20”x16”, 2014
Eliding detail? you ask. Yes, in one very particular way - I brightened the side of her nose, so that the upward planes of her cheeks and nose appeared more fused into a single structural unit. They don’t actually look like this - but it’s how the eye understands them. This kind of selective de-emphasis can only fail to interfere with the personhood of the model if you’re coming at the problem from both sides. Thus, you see me here applying to their fullest the principles I learned from my own practice, and from this Facebook poster whose name currently eludes me, and from Solomon Joseph Solomon.