Writing on Art and Muscle Memory

Louis Block at The Brooklyn Rail:

What brings me back to a painting is often a feeling, like a nagging muscle memory, of wanting not only to see, but to sense the painting’s facture. At the Met, I always return to Degas’s Portrait of a Woman in Gray (c. 1865), and the strange way in which the sitter’s black scarf seems to dominate the picture. Looking in closely, to the point where the weave of the canvas is visible and catching against the streaks of thinned oil, I find my wrist twitching with the desire to repeat the artist’s marks, anticipating the slight give of the fabric against the brushstroke, the soft friction of the bristles as they run out of pigment. It follows that my eyes’ movements are bound by this black shape that blends into the woman’s bonnet and resembles a figure holding an umbrella against the wind or wielding a scythe high in the air. Other portions of the painting seem secondary—the sketched-in right hand, the unfinished left eye—the whole composition just scaffolding for this burst of gesture. The tugging at my wrist lasts well after I leave the picture, each tightening of my fingers against the imaginary brush pulling the scarf back into focus.

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