The line in drawing

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606/7-1669), Trois arbres (eau-forte)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606/7-1669), Trois arbres (eau-forte)

In his work called the « System of the Fine Arts » (1920), the philosopher Alain puts forward a typological exposition of all human aesthetic endeavour, all of which is a product of the human imagination. The ninth book of ten in the series tackles the topic of the art of drawing.

Alain associates drawing with writing, in that these two strictly human activities bring gestures and signs together. It is the same gesture that creates a sign, letter or line. « It is a fixed gesture. » « The line is the invention of drawing itself » he suggests in his introduction. But this drawn line does not necessarily follow the lines provided by nature, nor always the contours of shapes being looked at.  Better yet « the illustrator translates lines without lines and often ignores the lines presented by nature. » The line in a drawing does not imitate; it interprets a shape by means of a gesture. It is a judgement made by the artist. Drawing is an abstraction in that unlike painting or sculpture, there is no material. In this sense, the beauty of drawing is « independent of the model »: « a drawing is beautiful just like a writing is beautiful. »

The object of the drawing is the movement of the form. The drawing captures the essence of an action, even if the subject matter is immobile. Painting, sculpture and photography capture snapshots of an action. They can make it easier to understand a movement but they only show a moment fixed in time and immobile like Zeno of Elea’s famous arrow, cited as an example, which shows that at every instant of time in its journey, there is no motion occurring. Moreover, the colour of the painting grabs the attention and highlights this lack of motion, whereas this sign is a drawing in the whiteness of a void that interprets the action and makes it visible, therefore felt. « The line in the drawing invites us to appreciate the gesture and movement »: the illustrator « carries us with him » and « induces lively or slow action via the shape of the lines. » « So it always appears to us that a beautiful drawing can move. » It might also be the movement of a feeling. But drawing, « quick art », delineates motion rather than detail because it chooses in lines what is moving and alive rather that what is heavy and just exists. This is down to its abstract nature.

Drawing expresses shapes by capturing movement. The continuous lines don’t touch each other again but are superimposed « one line taking up the next », « sometimes united, sometimes separated, always distinct. » Their inflections, the energy flowing through the gesture that traced them, are the mark of the artist. The drawing will definitely borrow from neighbouring arts in order to highlight texture here or physical resemblance there, « sculptural drawing » or « pictorial drawing », « in order to add weight to it and stabilise it by attenuating the line. » Yet the art of the illustration remains down to choice and by not saying everything, thereby signifying only what the nub of the art alone can grasp: the moving form.

French philosopher Alain, born Émile-Auguste Chartier (1868-1951), had a strict and rigorous style that was edifying (intended to elevate morally) and succinct (concise and complete). He was a thinker whose respectability and favoured measures concealed strong originality beneath an appearance of conformity. It is certainly an Alinian aesthetic to which free thought is not bound to subscribe. But the philosopher, a learned fan of the arts, examines and defines what constitutes the essence of the expression of each art. To that extent, his philosophy helps to hone aesthetic perception.