The Language of Gesture

Gesture gives voice to the inexpressible. Rodin’s study of gesture as the intermediary moment between two movements allows his work to manifest a sense of “life”.

My initial exploration into the arts began with my study of masked theater performance. Through this study, I witnessed the power of gesture and movement to express the deepest emotions of the human heart. In fact, I found gesture more powerful than words to transmit those things that we have no words for- those things that, in a sense, are un-speakable. Gesture gives voice to the inexpressible, where mere words fall short and a symbolic language is necessary to give those emotions form.

Rodin was the first artist in whose work I found a possible language or translation between the interior life of the human heart and the figure. His figures present a vitality that comes from his intense study of gesture. Rodin studied under Lecoq De Boisbaudran. He is best known for his work on memory (read his Training of the Memory in Art online at archive.org) but he also taught Rodin to observe the natural gesture of the figure unhampered by “the pose.” This simple idea allowed the model full freedom to stroll around the studio, her figure naturally reflecting her inner state. This state of the model moved from one attitude to another as her emotions and thoughts drifted. The artist job was to be a keen observer and capture the gesture that encompassed a certain emotion. Later, he would study that gesture/emotion and create a sculpture or painting from it. But Rodin takes this even further. He states, “movement is the transition from one attitude to another…He (the artist) represents the transition from one pose to another- he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be.” (Paul Gsell, Rodin on Art, p.68,69)

What one hopes to capture as an artist is “life”. The expression of this life is a multitude of gestures flowing into one another, compelled by interior forces of thoughts or emotions that are seeking expression- form. And it is form that one is interested in. But this form only materializes when it finds its corresponding emotion in the artist. Here, it calls to be manifest. Much figurative work today is static. It is wonderfully rendered but it lacks zietgiest. One needs to hold onto the fleeting moment/ movement in a way that is not forced and static like a photo, but flowing and free derived from an inner spirit. Rodin’s work seeks this intermediary moment  between two movements and is the key to the effectiveness of his work. Time does not stand still. It is an ever flowing river- the transition between movements expresses this “life”.

Gesture is a language. As one studies it, one becomes more sensitive to its expression. When working with a model one knows intuitively when one sees the mystery unfolding before oneself and one becomes obsessed with capturing it. No gesture will do- only that one expresses it in its full intensity. That is the one gesture to hold onto and maintain in the work- going beyond the changing attitudes of the model from one day to the next. This gesture speaks beyond words and captures the soul- of the model, the artist and the viewer.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Gesture”

  1. I love what you write about gesture. This is one of the most difficult things in working with the figure for me. I have abandoned many drawings and paintings some that were quite far along because I realized they looked too posed or static. And so often it is most interesting when the model is not trying to pose at all but just moving or talking. Tricky for me to capture. I like your drawing very much it has a beautiful dignity its hard to find the words so I will just say beautiful.

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