Friday, September 15, 2006

My empty sketchbook

Winslow Homer drew the illustration above for a magazine called Ballou's Pictorial in 1857 when he was 21 year old, and it's apprentice work and not all that good, considering what Homer would be doing just a few years in the future.

There's a lot of busy-ness in the drawing but nothing really going on. (Make sure you right click on the picture to see the larger image.) The central drama of the "story" being told here, the young woman hurrying out of the way of an onrushing carriage and the policeman dashing out to stop it, is taking place smack dab in the middle of things and yet it seems to be in there simply to divide the two groupings in the foreground, as if Homer's intent on having us focus on the rather static figures in the right and lefthand corners, particularly on the group of women on the right, who are a pretty interchangeable bunch.

The one "character" in the scene, the organ grinder to the left, might have been drawn from life---the extended caption that accompanied the drawing when it was published tries to give the impression that Homer drew the scene on the spot, as it happened, as if taking a photograph; more likely, Homer filled the scene with figures he observed and sketched over the course of a number of visits to that corner---but he looks like a college student dressed up in a costume, a pal Homer dragooned into modeling for him and not happy about it.

Homer never did develop the knack for, or the interest in, showing character through faces, but he became a master at suggesting a person's mood and thoughts of the moment through posture and gesture.

That mastery isn't on display here. The people are as stiff as manequins, like life-sized dolls in a museum display. Only the organ grinder's monkey, the dogs, and the horses seem moved by real muscle, and the most alive figure in the scene is the stone eagle ornamenting the cornice of the building across the street.

Homer would always be good at birds.

Like I said. It's not all that good.

But I love it.

I love it for several reasons.

The first is that I know that scene!

Back in my college days I used to work in a bookstore very close to that corner. The movie theater where I also worked was just up Washington Street from there.

Turn right to get to the bookstore, left to find the movie theater.

That intersection was part of my daily rounds for two years, and I swear that if you'd showed me this drawing then without any identification or mentioning it was by Homer, I'd have told you, "Why, that's the corner of Winter, Washington, and Summer in Boston."

Those days are so long ago now that it sometimes seems to me that Homer and I could have been contemporaries, but I'm sure that in the 130 or so years between when he was in his early 20s and wandering around downtown Boston and I was in my early 20s unknowingly marching around in his footsteps, there must have been a few changes in the neighborhood.

But maybe it's the angling of the buildings or the apparent width of the streets, but something in there identifies the corner to my memory as surely as would a photograph taken from the same spot Homer supposedly stood with his sketchpad in the 1980s.

Of course nowdays my memories of Boston are full of images and incidents that I did not see or witness when I was living there. Things I've read, movies I've seen, stories I've been told by people who still live there or who visited since I left, and photogaphs, paintings, and pictures like Homer's that I've looked at over the years have all been edited into my mental 3D map of Boston.

But even while I was there, what I saw wasn't just what my eyes took in and what I experienced wasn't just what I did.

There are books written about how hard it is for people to live life directly, how there's no living in the moment for creatures with big brains full of memories, no seeing a thing in and of itself, unassociated with memories, expectations, prejudices, and simultaneous demands on our attention from within and without.

I don't remember when I first saw this drawing by Homer. It could have been before I ever got to Boston.

It could be that I never crossed the street there without seeing Homer's Boston at the same time I was looking at mine.

It may also be that what I recognize in the drawing isn't the architecture or the geography, it's the scene itself.

Homer was drawing a typical street scene and that typicality never changed.

The crowds of shoppers, the cop on the beat, even the young woman hurrying to get out of the way of onrushing traffic, all of that would have been the same. I even saw an organ grinder down there once, with a monkey. The organ grinder was a young woman and the monkey was a stuffed toy, but she turned the crank on her hurdy-gurdy and her music was real. The people had changed their clothes but the business that took them to that corner hadn't.

And that's another reason I like this illustration. It is typical.

I like paintings and stories and movies that do that, show people being typical.

We don't have enough of that kind of art now to suit me. There aren't very many paintings or stories or movies that show us to us.

People used to like that. Seeing themselves on the stage, on the page, on the screen. They thought they were funny.

The magazine Homer drew for, Ballou's Pictorial, seems to have had no other purpose but to show people what they were like, for their amusement.

We don't have that. Television shows us caricatures of ourselves, farcically debased on sitcoms, absurdly romanticized in dramas.

Movies are worse, and magazines and newspapers only tell us what's wrong with us or what we're buying.

In fact, since almost all our popular arts and entertainment are driven by advertising, their job real job is to lie to us, to flatter us or scare us about ourselves, to make us think so highly of ourselves that we'll reward ourselves with the advertisers' products or despise ourselves so much we'll rush out to buy the products in the hopes of becoming somebody else.

Serious fiction still does it, to a degree. But because writers tend to focus on a very small demographic these days, themselves and their intellectual friends, and then to show them in isolation, cut off from the worlds of work and play, which means cut off from the way we live now, most people won't find themselves represented in a short story or novel even as a minor character.

It's why I prefer to read 19th Century novels. They're filled with crowds.

Like Homer's drawing.

If I could draw better, that's the kind of scene I'd be drawing.

And that's the third thing I love about the picture.

It's so much like something I would draw if I could that it almost feels as if I did draw it.

A friend and I were talking a couple weeks ago about our alternative lives. What are we doing in a parallel universe, we asked ourselves. This is another way of playing the What would you be if you weren't what you are game.

The rules were that these couldn't be outrageous fantasy lives. They had to be plausible in that we might very well have had those lives if we'd only made one or two different but minor choices.

So, the I'd have joined NASA and become the first man on Mars kind of thing was out.

My alternatives were park ranger, theater director, and Charles Kuralt like journalist.

But I'd add that I'd like to have a job like Homer had at Ballou's Pictorial.

I'd like to spend my time looking at people and then showing them themselves and making them laugh in an affectionate, forgiving, glad to be alive way.

What would you be doing?


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