Parkett No.91 2012
WHO LOOK AT ME?
There is a difference—and it is not small—between the ways she looks at me when she is drawing.
Once (it was her birthday) she arranged me on the sofa: limbs spread, fingers down. No apologies dribbled from her mouth while she worked, and no reserve at all was in her eyes as she pushed into my crevices with her looking. She took in the creases of my knee joints, the heft of my toes, saw geometry in knucklebones. Nostrils, even, were examined that day, as she molded my parts to suit the skeleton of a figure she had seen already in her mind. I saw her face anew then, an expression on it of claim unsheathed that I had not seen before. And when I remember her eyes taking me in, the word that comes to mind is dominion.
But that was only once.
Far more frequently (on days that were not birthdays), we cast uncertain lines out to each other to watch them tangle up; and then we enjoyed the knottiness that comes from two selves intertwining. We brought our own patterns to this play, and then we watched our patterns interweave, sinking slow hooks into one another that started early on and did not come out quickly. On these days, we came together. And then—my pattern—sleep would spin its threads around me, leaving me in its cocoon even as I lay with limbs entwined in lover’s. Her pattern emerged then too and fit seamlessly into the tangle. My eyes would drift open to find her there: moving only barely, having quieted all her shifting, even the scrape scratch of her pencil on paper somehow silenced, as it left my image in its wake. Her eyes hovered then, carefully, not wanting to tousle even a strand of my stillness with her looking. She drew.
She drew me: sleeping.
If you reach back into the passages of time, looking for the words of women whose likenesses fill art books and museums, you will find a strange scarcity. Along with this scarcity, you will find anecdotes and histories, arguments and revisions, so much discussion that the scarcity itself might recede from notice altogether. But if you are like me and you toss these aside to search doggedly through the pile for words—recorded words—that actually came from the mouths, letters, journals of the thousands of women whose bodies cover canvases and swathes of paper the world over, you will find tiny grain-sized gems in vast seas of silence.
It is a summer day, and I am in a college library in upstate New York with a pile of musty- smelling books laid out before me. My scanty Internet search has proved too thin, so I have come here, looking for these women’s words. Nicole is sitting opposite me (I have captured her curiosity), and she is making me a list to search through later: the names of the women who frequent the work of Pablo Picasso. She becomes absorbed in a large-format book of photographs of the artist and his family. Muttering through the captions that explain each photo’s contents, she lets crestfallen murmurs leak from her mouth as she catalogues the woes of the women Picasso worked from and wooed. I thumb through all the books until I open one that finally yields these words: I am more strange than ugly.2 They come from a letter written by Berthe Morisot to her sister after seeing a painting of herself by Édouard Manet in the Paris Salon of 1869. The line is buried in the social news of the day so the letter offers only this single, arresting reflection. But in weeks of spotty searching, these are the words I find.
Strange: unfamiliar, foreign, outside of, queer.
There is something undoubtedly peculiar about seeing my face, my tears, my form, through the eyes of another—filtered through a sight that is not my own but that is close. So close, in fact, that this other sight—this sight of the other, her sight—feels like a honing in. It is attentiveness, fueled by feeling, that transmutes itself first into her gaze and then into the small lines she makes on paper, the private details, the ones that only someone close enough to feel my breath could see.
I started looking for these women’s words when I first saw these drawings borne of private hours and secret pastimes hung on public walls as objects of art and commerce. I wanted to know what the many thousands of women who came before me had to say about the gulf that opens up between the closeness of being seen in just this way and the accompanying dissociated quality of having countless, unknown others see it too.
But as is true in so many of History’s chapters that have to do with women, I was not met with a plethora of their recorded perspectives when I walked into the archive. What I found instead were embers, glowing their way around sparse, dark records. Voices, mostly lost.
The flyer for her spring show is a reproduction of a black-and-white rectangular piece made up of twelve small-sized panels. At the bottom on the left, a frame holds the head and arm of a sleeping figure, blanket pulled to chin, back of the hand resting on cheek, mouth. On the side of the figure’s head are the tiny dashes, dots, that have come to signal me in her work: Nicole’s way of marking my haircut’s close shave. I see this for the first time on the last day her show is open (Nicole hands me a pile, encouraging me to save some). It jars me. She usually tells me when I’ve been drawn—and she does not usually show the ones where I am sleeping.
There are two kinds of portraits she makes of me. One comes from memory: I am not even there when she makes them. The other arises out of the ties we bind together, when I fall asleep and she draws. These come from living, breathing, closeness: They show pores, furrows, slack jaw. They are studies: awkward, sometimes inelegant. And they come from lost hours: stretches of time I don’t remember, stretches of time when I am tangled in her, when looking feels like touching not like looks. She tells me these are how she learned my face: hours of drawing someone barely moving, someone not awake to distract or protest. It is like life drawing, but not.
The memory portraits hang in public places: In them, my eyes are open. Sometimes I am shown with tears, sometimes I am shown with her. The other kind live inside the folds of two sketchbooks filled with other drawings, notes to herself, pages of conversation between voices I do not know and cannot hear. Strangely enough, it is the ones she does from memory that are easiest to recognize, as if somehow the abstracted details of a likeness come closer to the thing by virtue of not trying to be it; because instead they are birthing something else, something new, something other. The private portraits are filled with lines: They take in details that are there but that do not signal, the kind of details of a face we learn to forget in order to recognize it—lines we learn not to see so that we can know. There is something tender in these drawings: tender, misshapen, sometimes monstrous.
In these, I am more strange than ugly too.
She is not the only one by whom I have been drawn. It happened once before: a babysitter my mother hired, I do not know her name. I was eight, maybe nine, and in the unmanned wreckage of what would become my teenage years, dysmorphia had its nails already dug in deep. I remember looking at the sketch and seeing myself as if for the first time. No mirror or photograph could have shown me that: my countenance, through the eyes of another—someone who did not see me ugly. I explained this to myself as her deficiency, her not being so great at drawing. But the image stayed, latent, and was the first shudder up against the imperfections of what it means to see, against how coiled our own stories can be around the things we think we know.
That was the first time, Nicole was the second: brushes with a particular kind of sight, one that would make me see too, but only later.
5. Being Drawn
The verb to draw is more complicated than it may at first seem. If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find seventy-five different definitions, many of which are further divided into lettered shades of nuance. A single, shared etymology traces the word’s history through Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse—to a root that means “to pull, to carry, to bear.” A book she gave me for my birthday yields another origin also based on the term’s root, dh(e)ragh, which means “to drink”—as in, to draw or pull in (like a draught), mingling with the sense for drunk, drunken, and drown.3 To be drawn is more than to be represented by a line across a page. To be drawn also means to be pulled, attracted, allured. The term has an underbelly as well, a darker sense: to be splayed, opened, spread.
What is it that draws one body to another? What is it that then draws a body to pull out a pen and try to trace what it sees, record the figure before it in line or stroke? There is a way in which the smattering of drawings that now exist of me in the world make me feel like she was trying to metabolize something—to be inside an experience but move it through, pull it in so that it might convert, and eventually pass outside of her. She draws me: The lines that comprise my face now exist in her hands like muscle memory. She has pulled them into her fingers and now knows them without having to look. And when these lines pass through her onto the page, one queer body draws another—while at the same time, she lets herself be drawn.
There is a story of Gertrude Stein sitting for a portrait by Picasso only to have him finish and show her a painting that did not look much like her. He famously declared that it would, knowing the power he had to make an image. There is a lesser-known story of Emily Dickinson sending her poems off to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly only to have him respond by requesting of her a picture. She sent back a remarkably alive description of herself in words and asked, Would this do just as well? I have spent my most sustained scholarly efforts considering the powers of invisibility, the power that lies in remaining unmarked, unseen, unrepresented. It is not a popular position, and the irony of this does not escape me now, as my likeness is brushed into a vehicle of vision and visibility that preceded me and that will, no doubt, outlast.
She recently told me she wishes she did not know my face so well. Drawing, here, returned to its origins: as something to carry, something to bear. She does not do it anymore, some shield has gone up. Now, when I chance to fall asleep before her, I wake to find her watching, but she has no pen in hand.
1 June Jordan, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), 18.
2Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 57.
3Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 69.