A Defence of Imitation
Most of the things in this photograph are not what they seem. The headdress is made from a lampshade. The material that covers it is the fabric of a T-shirt. The strap beneath the sitter’s chin is actually the sleeves that have been wound around the neck. The backdrop is a sheet of grey cardboard. The “ermine” of the dress is a rolled-up muslin (it’s not pinned; it’s simply balancing, and, if the girl moved, it would fall to her lap). The photograph is a kind of fake. It’s a copy of a Renaissance classic. And it’s the product of a practice called imitatio which I think can be both enjoyable and artistically instructive.
I took the photograph in September last year to help my daughter with a school project. Her art teacher had given her a picture called Portrait of a Young Girl by the Early Netherlandish artist, Petrus Christus. She’d been asked to create a similar image in which she was the subject. We didn’t have long to do this (the homework was announced on Sunday and it was due in later that week) but the assignment sounded like fun, so we decided to give it a try.
One of the first things we noticed about Christus’ painting was the light. Radiance descends from the top left-hand corner of the frame. It brightens the skin of the girl’s face and chest and contrasts her paleness with the drabness of her surroundings. It was morning when we undertook our task, so we needed a “studio” with an east-facing window. The front room was an obvious choice and we saw that the fireplace could double as wainscotting. The white walls could be “solemnised” with cardboard and a chair blackened with a Halloween cape. Whilst I busied myself setting the stage, my daughter went upstairs and completed her make-up. The outfit was devised. The headress was pinned. I got out my smartphone. It was time for the shoot.
It was then that we noticed something else. Anyone who attempts (as we did) to re-enact this painting will quickly identify a mis-match between the position of the subject’s body and face and the direction of her gaze. Her body points one way, whilst her eyes look another. It’s this, we realised, that gives the image its dynamism. The girl is in the act of noticing. She performs what modern neuroscientists call a saccade. A salient detail (a face perhaps?) has come to her attention and her eyes react to more carefully inspect it. This is a pose that is easy to emulate, but it isn’t one that’s easy to hold (try it – just look to one side, but try not to move your head). It was fine for an instant photograph but it must have been galling for a portrait in oils.
So is this, we wondered, why the girl in the painting looks so sad? Is she tired of all that saccading? Or is it something else? What is it that she so resents? Her look is wise, precocious, and, of course, perfectly ostensibly obedient. But it’s also sullen, disheartened, disappointed. “Imagine you’re grounded and it’s the middle of summer,” I said. “Your friends are at the beach, but you’re stuck indoors!” It was an attempt to get my daughter into character, to help her to feel the girl’s latent despair.
When I saw my daughter’s painting I was delighted. I love the details. The lineations of her scraped-back hairline; the modulation of light and darkness on her face; the deep circumferences that circle her irises; the shadows of her clavicles; the lights in her eyes. I believe that great masters can help us to see more clearly and that, in this way, they can teach us lessons (even from the grave).
More than 500 years ago, Petrus Christus gave the world a gift (as all artists do) and it was wonderful to receive it with my daughter in 2022. By setting ourselves the simple task of imitating an image, we discovered new ways of being inventive, practised our skills of observation, speculated about the significance of body-language and facial expression, connected with a girl from another age, and experienced our own artistic growth. Much of the time, as artists, we’re involved in acts of original creation. But I think it’s important for us to remember that acts of imitation can yield great results too.
Dave Alcock writes poetry and flash fiction. His work has been published by STORGY Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Flash Frontier, MacQueen’s Quinterly, The Cabinet of Heed, The Journal of Radical Wonder and The Dribble Drabble Review. It can also be found in two anthologies published by Ad Hoc Fiction and has been reprinted in The Miramichi Reader. One of his stories was nominated for Best Microfiction 2023.
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