Two pictures from Henry Siddons's Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: top 'Jealous Rage'; above ' Terror'.
There will be times when the figure artist, like the actor, will wish to use gesture to show specific moods and emotions or convey a message. Posture and hand motions, as well as facial expression, are among the repertoire of signals by which we both understand other people and make ourselves understood.
The range of gestural expressions of emotion to be found in Gothic and Renaissance art is fairly small and appears to comprise aformalized set of accepted conventions. However- mainly for the benefit of actors and orators - a number of systems of expressive gesture have been formulated in the past 300 years. In the late 18th century a German 'rhetorician' called Engels, cited by Henry Siddons in the latter's Illustrations of Rhetorical Gestures and Action (1822), attempted a precise description of the actions of the body which 'most truly express' particular emotions. A single example (as translated by Siddons) will suffice to give the general trend of his writings: 'Choler [anger] adds energy to the arms which agitate themselves with convulsive violence. The inflamed eyes roll in their orbits and dart forth fiery glances. Hands and teeth manifest interior tumult by the grinding of one and agitation of the other...'
The French theorist François Delsarte (1811-1871), in the latter part of the 19th century, devised a series of exercises and offered actors a more subtle approach which gained some credence for a time but, like Engels's, eventually fell into disrepute.
In modern times, with television bringing us so close to the actor that the tiniest flicker of a quizzical eyebrow can be perceived and understood, we require a much more subtle approach to the physical expression of emotion, both in the theatre and in illustration.
The famous Stanislavsky method encourages actors to search their own experiences for feelings which parallel in some way the text they are working on, so that the actions and gestures they make arise from experience and understanding rather than from learned, rigid formal systems.
This is good advice for the figure artist, too. Melodramatic, overemphasized expressions of emotion look silly to the modern eye, and gestures are better played down than exaggerated. Such emotional content as a picture may be required to have can be emphasized in other, more subtle ways; we shall examine these in Chapter 7.
But, of course, gesture does play an important role in human social intercourse. Modem studies in nonverbal communication and unconscious gesture have produced valuable observations in this area, and they provide a rich source for the figure artist. Anthropologists in this field have coined the term 'body language'
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