Finding the Common Denominator in Art

By: Yosef Rosenfield  |  February 13, 2021

By Yosef Rosenfield, Features Editor

To procure a drawing from before 1950 and one from after 1950 — this was my task for my Fall 2020 “Principles of Drawing” final with Professor Carla Aurich. First, I came across “Armor” (1891) by Odilon Redon. Redon was a 19th century French symbolist painter whose later work anticipated Dadaism and Surrealism. “Armor” is a charcoal drawing of a woman in a spiked helmet that covers her mouth area. What struck me was the timelessness of this image: during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the house wearing a protective mask made everyday errands feel like I was going out to battle. This, of course, was far from Redon’s mind in the year 1891; his drawing, rather, could have possibly represented a fear of female sexuality — with the subject’s masked face symbolizing a repression of women’s sexual identity and desire.

I also found a much more recent piece, from around 2015, titled “Untitled Study for Untitled (Policeman).” This work by American artist, Kerry James Marshall, who is known for his depictions of black figures, was a timely selection. The rough pencil sketch shows a man in a police uniform distinguishably sitting on the hood of what is presumably a police car. This drawing is no doubt a product of its time, a statement amidst the rising tensions between cops and the black community. As the title suggests, the sketch is not meant to be a stand-alone piece, but is a mere study for a more significant work of art. There are even multiple outlines for the policeman’s cap that are visible on the paper, and it was precisely this “history of a drawing” that first caught my eye.

Comparing and contrasting the two drawings, I noticed some obvious differences between them. Redon’s “Armor”, for example, is a charcoal drawing, whereas “Untitled Study for Untitled (Policeman)” is drawn in pencil. Furthermore, Redon takes a fairly detailed approach to his drawing, while Marshall’s sketch features many simple marks and lines. At the same time, however, each piece does portray an individual person, albeit from different angles — with “Armor” being a profile and “Untitled Study for Untitled (Policeman)” facing its subject head on. Both works use some degree of value, and — technical characteristics aside — they strategically depict their respective subjects in a certain position or state in order to convey a sociopolitical message. This shared quality fascinates me and perhaps reveals a common denominator that connects even the most disparate pieces of art.