This is an essay on drawing; but first of all I have a brief word to say in connection with literature. Ideas about the novel were, for a very long time, misdirected by the concept of “likeness to life,” indeed to some degree the notion has still not quite gone away. It implies (what is in fact absurd) that a bound collection of printed pages, or a string of sentences, or a narrative could actually be “like” life, in the weak sense in which a replica or recording is like its original. It is important that criticism of the novel should have learnt to get on without this false notion, and with it the concepts of “mimesis” and “realism.” That a novel can, in some way, “mirror” or be a copy of the human matters that it deals with is not, after all, something that would ever be posited of a poem or a work of history. A history of the American Civil War will not be expected to be like a civil war. The relationship between a work of fiction and human life is of the greatest significance, but it is not a relationship of likeness, or indeed of unlikeness. Shall we say much the same when it comes to paintings and drawings, I mean about the relationship between them and the scenes or objects they refer to? Certainly not so obviously; all the same, the more one considers the matter, the more one feels driven to do so. Here is what Ernst Gombrich says in his Art and Illusion about a painting by Constable of the country house Wivenhoe Park. “Constable’s painting is surely much more like a photograph than the works of either a Cubist or a medieval artist. But what do we mean when we say that a photograph, in its turn, is like the landscape it represents?” His answer to his own question is not very satisfactory.
more from P. N. Furbank at Threepenny Review here.