Paying attention –
the disappearance of Rosa
‘One way to achieve a more tranquil state of consciousness is through aesthetic perception. This is a special state of perceptual consciousness, where we apprehend some spatio-temporal object and discern through this object, the Platonic Idea that corresponds to the type of object in question. In this special form of perception, Schopenhauer maintains, we lose ourselves in the object, we forget about our individuality, and we become the clear mirror of the object. For example, through the aesthetic perception of an individual tree, we perceive shining through it, the archetype of all trees (i.e., the Ur-phenomenon, as Goethe would describe it).’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
‘Shall I get me kit off now?’
These are the words of Rosa, spoken on several occasions over the two or three years of our collaboration.
Rosa is an artist’s model. I first time I saw her was at a life drawing session in a room over a gallery where I was exhibiting and sometimes working. For me, even then, Rosa seemed to have walked straight out of my subconscious into the material world. She exuded childhood associations of out-of-reach film stars and smudged and genitally censored dirty photos from my youth. She was the archetype, the voluptuous one, the woman all men have drawn and sculpted from the beginning. The body of bodies, the succulent one, heavy hipped, heavy bummed and breasted, with tight olive skin and a mass of dark hair. Her body said with every move – ripeness, exuberance, the joy of life, the richness of existence. And there she was, in front of me. With her kit off.
She was an artist herself and said she could sing and could play the guitar. Her drawings were of a high technical standard – the sort that could have earned her some good money drawing portraits live at the back of the National Portrait Gallery. Indeed, she had tried to get a spot there, but had been chased off by the regulars. She said she had a rather well off boyfriend but it never seemed to make any difference to her lack of cash and her perpetual search to be something better – better paid, better accommodated, better placed, better loved perhaps. All her stories of her attempts to achieve these ambitions ended in nothing actually happening. She could be extremely crude. She would sometimes model with the string of her tampax hanging out – ‘You don’t mind the mouse do ya?’
She also liked being naked. She was an exhibitionist, a good thing in a model. Even when we had finished drawing or were having a break and I was making tea or pouring a glass of wine, she would be reluctant to put her clothes on, or even drape herself with a dressing gown. Once, after we had started having the drawing class at my cottage – this cottage – I found myself, during our mid session break, in the kitchen, opening a bottle of wine. I heard something behind me, looked around and there was Rosa.
‘I’m a bit nosey – just wanted to have a look round’. She went to the back door which opens out from the kitchen onto the graveyard of the church next door. She was still naked.
‘Blimey – graves’, she said and she started to open the door. It was a summer evening and still light.
‘Don’t upset the vicar, Rosa’, I said. She opened the door and stepped out. Raising her arms above her head she started to wobble her tits from side to side. ‘How d’ya like ’em Vic?’ she shouted. I had one of those very mixed emotional reactions. You flush to the roots with surprise, open your mouth in a kind of horror but at the same time it all turns into a laugh, which you then try to suppress.
‘Here – have a glass of wine’. Staying in my position inside the kitchen I held out the glass, a ridiculous look on my face, eyes bulging, jaw working, holding back the screaming laugh that wanted to come out. I didn’t let it, as I am certain it would have encouraged her to dance around the tombstones, which, though a delight to me, would have given me a hard time from my neighbours had any been witness to it. The wine brought her in. It was like tempting a large animal back into its cage with a banana.
‘Cheers’ she said. ‘Nice place you’ve got here Garry. Wouldn’t mind a place like it meself. One day’.
I really liked (and possibly worshipped) Rosa but in the end I decided I didn’t understand life drawing, stopped doing it, and the excuse for oggling her was lost. The reason I gave up the classes was that it seemed so utterly false an occupation. Most of it for me was voyeurism. I like looking at naked women. The pretence made by most people who attend life classes that sex has nothing whatsoever to do with it denies a fundamental response to life. They all repeat the 19th century artist/voyeur’s lie that the human body is the most difficult thing to draw. They are all probably experiencing a desperate struggle inside trying to convince themselves that having free rein to cast ones eye’s over someone else’s naked body is somehow devoid of sex.
If ever the model at our class was a man I was disappointed. But even the deeply engaging problem-solving exercise of drawing from life, plus the salacious drooling, did not add up to a sufficient reason for carrying on. If it was an exercise in technique why not draw a plant or someone clothed? If it was about sex why sit there and draw?
It was some time later that I thought I would produce a series of paintings of naked people standing still. I wanted a collection of them so that they could be exhibited in a room all in a row. Same dimensions, same background. Only the figure would be different. Of course Rosa came to mind. I phoned her and arranged a date when she could model just for me. Expensive and dangerous but I thought it would work.
It was summer and a very warm day. I was to pick her up at Winchester station. When I arrived she was sitting on the steps outside the ticket office. She was a marvelous sight, wearing a great multi-coloured drape thing, like a kaftan, and a ton of silver bangles on each wrist. But it was her hair that was most striking. It was enormous. Dreadlocks fountained up out of her head and then descended to her waist. She saw my incredulous stare.
‘Like me extensions? I love ’em!’
She was the most exotic vision. When she stood up her large breasts wobbled under the thin kaftan thing indicating she was wearing nothing under it apart from a thong over her fanny.
We drove to the cottage. On arrival, in the hot sun, she sailed majestically along the gravel path to the door. She looked like an enormous, tropical bird of paradise. I said that I really had to take a photo of her, she looked so magnificent. I got the camera and she sat on the step, lolling backwards in the most amazing glamour girl pose, one hand behind her head, elbow pointing to the sky and her chin in the air. I thought of my landlady peering through her curtains at this vision and I started to giggle.
‘What’s funny?’ she asked.
‘It’s just that you look so wonderful. Not funny’.
We went in. I had decided to do some drawing exercises before starting the painting and the best place for this was in my ground floor sitting room. The room has large windows and, although my direct neighbours only occasionally walked past, it would have given any who did a bit a surprise to see the naked Rosa standing in there on a Saturday afternoon. I pulled the curtains to. The light was soft and the warmth delicious. I poured two glasses of cold white wine.
‘Lovely’ she said. ‘Shall I get me kit off?’
And so it began.
My method of drawing from life is to forget about a ‘style’ or ‘expressing oneself’. The problem as I see it is simply to render the shape and feel of the object in front of me accurately. Cezanne and his petits sensations. That’s all. The image produced, in the finished work, may then, if it suits, be put into context in another picture, and for me it has to be a universal context – a complete world view. In these cases one has a direct experience of the material world, the minutiae of life – the skin, the dribble – but mounted onto a cosmic stage. I find this profoundly moving when it works and an image of how I see things.
To achieve the first part of this, the rendering of the material world, one must give it ‘attention’. And, in giving absolute ‘attention’ to Rosa I discovered something else about perception.
The initial drawings were done quickly. But even in these preliminary moments I was getting a feeling that the relationship was developing as we faced each other. Something was changing as I looked at her.
We went up to my tiny studio – this room in fact – the nude Rosa following me up the narrow stairs. I think Rosa was used to draping herself in tortuous poses on the armchairs of various studios. My demand that she simply stood still, upright and with her arms to her sides must have seemed strange. She stood with the small window behind her and to the right. I marked out the position of her feet with masking tape so that she knew where to stand after a break. I retreated to my chair in front of the canvas on the easel, took up the brush, took a long deep breath and, at last, turned my gaze to Rosa.
How utterly bizarre a situation this is. Seen from a little above and to the side you can see a small area of enclosed space – the studio. In this space are lots of things – papers, pictures, books and furniture. One dominant piece of furniture is solely for the purpose of holding a piece of stretched cloth over a wooden frame. In front of this sits a man. He is in late middle age, balding, with grey touches to the hair on the side of his head. He is wearing a grey t-shirt and dark blue shorts. In his hand is a paintbrush of medium size and a flat board with coloured acrylic paints, laid out on it in single colour lumps, rests on his lap. Behind the man and opposite the window is a large wardrobe with a full-length mirror on the central door.
Across this room stands a naked woman. She is in her late thirties. Plump but with tight olive skin, she has large firm breasts, a rounded belly and semi shaved pubic hair. Her fingers and toes are stubby and her wrists adorned by many silver bangles. Her head is swathed in hair, some real, some false. She is wearing thick black false eyelashes and heavy eye make-up. Her face is still. Large cheek bones on either side of a neat nose and a rather shrunken mouth, as if her teeth were too small. She is looking straight ahead.
The room is lit by the small window only, but, as the sunshine is very bright outside, the air glows with summer light, reflecting off sheets of drawing paper and pale walls. A glass of white wine rests on a table next to the woman. It is struck through with sunlight and makes an isolated glory of itself.
They don’t talk. The man mixes some grey paint and starts to draw on the canvas, looking up every second or so at the woman. Slowly an image begins to take shape on the white rectangle. From where she stands, the woman can see what is happening on the canvas through the wardrobe mirror. The man looks at the woman and at her developing image on the canvas. She looks at the man and at the image of herself emerging on the canvas, seeing them both in the mirror. It complements the second, direct, view she has of the man. The sight lines are extremely complex and the mix of material things and images of things and reflections of things creates a cat’s cradle of ricocheting viewpoints and perceptions.
But there are also many possible relationships. The obvious one is of sex. Why don’t the man and the woman go into the next room, the bedroom, and fuck? He doesn’t try it on and she doesn’t suggest anything. There must be something else on offer. I keep correcting my drawing as my brain tells me that what I have put down does not match the figure in front of me.
But wait – it’s much more complicated than that. I have to think more clearly. What I am doing is reacting to an image in my conscious mind which my brain has created from incoming light signals. My self imposed task – who has imposed it? – is to create some marks on a flat surface which provoke similar reactions in my brain to those coming from the mind image of the material object. The game is to somehow circumvent the brain’s messing with the incoming information both from the physical object in the material world (Rosa) and from the flat illusion being created (the painting).
We know that the brain makes sweeping assumptions about the signals it receives from the physical world. It presents those signals, after a tortuous but nanosecond journey from the brain’s receptors, to the conscious mind as what it thinks is the most useful interpretation of the material presented to it. An ‘image’ (that is, a bundle of electrical impulses and chemical reactions) received in the visual centres of the brain has been pushed forward into consciousness and as it goes is encrusted in memories, emotions, attitudes and associations. This of course goes for the information coming from the image being made on the canvas as well. But it seems that in the present process – concentrating on the looking and copying, giving ‘attention’ – that the information coming in can, to a large extent, be experienced without the brain’s programmed interference and can be stripped down to the raw data, ditching on the way all the accretions the brain thinks it worthwhile to stack around these images. Perhaps like switching off all automatic correcting and formatting mechanisms in a text programme on a computer.
The more I have to make corrections, fighting all these impulses, the closer and more intensely I have to concentrate on the visual sensations coming in, to the exclusion of all other thought. I am looking at the shape and the form and the colour of what is before me – jettisoning any sense of a ‘person’. The shape of the flesh, without imposed or sensed character traits, or notions of their history or their future, ditching the adjectives. And with the suppression of all possible arrousal. As Lucien Freud said once – to draw a head as if it were another limb. Or Tennyson, repeating his own name over and over until it became just a sound*.
To begin with, I still cannot help seeing Rosa the person, the mind, standing there. She sometimes tries to start a conversation, usually beginning with ‘If only I . . .’ I mostly ignore this and she slowly accepts the fact that I am working. She is used to this scene. Her sentences trail off. Time goes by. The warm room is silent apart from the slap of the brush on the canvas. There are pigeons outside crooing close by. A fly buzzes in the window and goes out again. I clear my throat from time to time.
Suddenly, Rosa says she needs a rest and a sip of wine. She shakes out and moves over to where I am sitting. She comes close. She is looking at the work. Her nipples are a few inches away from my face and moving about. Her belly by my hands. I can smell her. She is so close I can feel the warmth from her body on my ear. I should be trembling and flushed up with sexual revving but I am not. I am looking at the image, wanting to carrying on, wanting Rosa to go back to her place. I sense that something important is beginning to happen. She returns to her place, puts her feet in the feet shapes and it starts again.
There is then an essential rule of this game (for such it is). The rule is that one must try to tell the truth – the truth of the raw data. There is no point in even starting this if lies are allowed to creep in, lies born of ‘this is near enough’ or ‘I like that and don’t care if it is not like the object’. There are many temptations to lie, to not care about digging out the raw visual stuff. No-one will know! And no-one cares anyway. They will see a coherent image and that will be enough for them to praise me. One’s brain has innate forms it wants to impose on the incoming data, preset moulds into which the information can be poured and manipulated. My ‘brain’ wants Rosa to be a certain shape. Through innate archetypes and learned stereotypes it tries to force me – what ‘me’? – this way and that. So my – whose? – struggle goes on. No! – it really is not like that! It is like this! Measure the bloody thing and see! Part of the problem is to recognise when this is happening. Telling the truth is essential to this process and it takes practice. One must fight hard against the disinclination of one’s brain to override its own systems. But what – who – is making the decision to do this? Perhaps a persona split off the mainstream as overseer of other resident identities.
So Rosa stands there while this cross fire of emotions, perceptions and reactions tumbles on through the allotted time of the session. It is remarkable to me that all this is taking place in silence. I think that perhaps some grinding roar from my brain should indicate that its workings are in operation. (In fact I believe that if the brain’s workings did make a noise when they went into operation, the problems philosophers have with consciousness would vanish).
And while it grinds on something else is happening. Rosa, with her kit off, begins to disappear. Her dodgy boyfriend, her tales of lowlife in Southampton, her local sexuality, her stories of childhood, her relations and her history, all her natural and living associations, begin to dissolve and fade from her. Her self-descriptions, my mental images of her, the relationship we have and the imagined relationships we might have invented between us, even her name, are falling away. In the process of my looking, my giving attention to her shape – the form of her nose and shoulders, hips and feet – she gradually steps forward from the shade of all that had accrued around her. The tales she told and that, between us, we invented to make sense of her, are slurring to silence. She comes from the shadows of waking consciousness into a new existence. She seems washed clean, free, but also trapped in her substance. Who is she? It is not valid question anymore. She is beyond names and words. Standing in the world she suddenly appears to have taken on both the mystery of things and the ordinary minutiae of stuff all at once. The image is both tragic and glorious, terrible and funny, and nothing, all at once. ‘Rosa’ has disappeared.
But all of this also applies to me – I seem to have disappeared with her. There are no inner conversations going on, my brain seems silent. This realisation is overwhelming and my eyes fill with tears – of what? For what? I don’t know. A word drifts in – compassion. It won’t do but it will have to stand there to one side for the present, until the language catches up with the experience. But we seem to have gained innocence.
What Rosa felt of this I cannot tell. She didn’t know. I didn’t tell her what was going on. When I became tired of the work and she became tired of standing we called it a day and went downstairs for a drink. She kept her kit off. She was playful, at one point pretending to be a pump-up sex doll, sitting on the floor with arms and legs out straight and her mouth open in an O, waiting for an insertion. I was too preoccupied to laugh much.
After Rosa had left I sat in the half dark room, feeling the material world and its strictures trickling back into my consciousness. As I sat still, a connecting memory occurred that took me to strangely similar instances when I stood looking at another person in extraordinary circumstances.
On both occasions, when each of my parents died, I insisted on seeing their bodies. I realise this is a common request. The reason for me was that it felt very strange, after the death of my father had been reported to me, that I would not see him again. I had not been there when it happened. I felt I needed his death verified personally. I phoned the undertaker and made an appointment.
The undertaker was Millers of Essex Road in Islington. The old man of the firm had been known in the local pub as Mick the Miller, after the famous greyhound. Apart from the name I could see no connection whatsoever between a greyhound and the burly funeral director. My father knew him. Mick had a few fingers missing which my dad attributed to coffin lids slamming down on them in careless moments. When Mick entered the pub he would put his arm round the shoulders of his friends in greeting. My father insisted that he then went to the toilet, got out his tape measure and made a note of the shoulder width for future reference.
Now, my father’s body had been measured and coffined by Mick the Miller’s sons and there I was at last standing at the foot of the box looking on. He seemed very small and not at all like the man I had known. He was swaddled in cloth with just his face showing. This face was pinched and thin. I recalled Mistress Quickly on Falstaff – ‘His nose was sharp as a pen’. Exactly so, exactly so. But I felt nothing much. This transformation had taken the body out of recognition.
The visit to my mother’s body was different. She was a small person – 4ft 11inches – and, as with my father, seemed even smaller in the box. Her face looked very sweet in its repose. She was not distorted and I recognised her well. But something else. For the first time I saw in front of me, in the still, dead form of my mum, a woman. Not the mother person, the caring, loud, embarrassing, witty, cooking, smoking, brandy swigging mum person. All that had gone from her. And there she was as a woman full of her sex, the woman as lover and as individual, away from us boys, away from the home, apart from our Dad and alone and powerfully alone and powerfully herself. But my vision was too late. It took death to clear my stuffed brain of my needs, desires and impositions and see all as innocent.
And to me Rosa was stripped also, not only of her clothes, but of her local character, history and purpose. She became an image of what in ages past might have been experienced as a goddess. And there she was, to me the great one, glowing with the mystery things and beyond herself and escaped from herself. There in front of me with her kit off.
At the end, in these experiences of our perceptions of nature stripped down in front of the dead and the living, when one has traveled beyond the sustaining narratives we impose on existence, one’s mind blanks and goes silent at the final devastating questions – ‘why this book, this screen, these words, and not nothing?’ ‘why Rosa, why me, and not nothing?’ ‘Why something, and not nothing?’
William Blake, who knew all of this, and indeed seems to have lived in this ‘cleansed’ state most of his waking life, was, as so often, there before us.
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
* Tennyson and several other literary figures of his day practiced a technique uncannily like the classic mantra yoga, which involves the silent repetition of a word to achieve an altered state. Tennyson repeated his name silently to himself. He once wrote of this induced state: ‘…..individuality seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this is not a confused state but the clearest of the clear, the surest of the sure, the weirdest of the weird, utterly beyond words – where death was an almost laughable impossibility.’ Tennyson told friends that he experienced a roaring in his ears, flashes of light, and a general feeling of enlargement, followed by tears.