Many years ago while walking through the centre of Sydney, I saw a woman crossing a road; from behind her I stood fascinated by her whispering figure of beauty. This image has remained with me always, though I never saw her face.
Have you ever fantasised about people from behind?
People walking down a street, the people you see in a train, a bus or in a movie theatre. Are people more alluring from behind? That presence or anticipation, the possibility of what is to come, the fascination of the unknown is in every one of us. Is that fascination heightened and do people offer greater possibility when viewed from behind?
You can’t really know someone from behind, but you can imagine, guess and even fantasise about another’s possibility before you come to the judgement of a front on view. There’s an undeniable allure that people exude from behind. Are we more beautiful, more intriguing from behind because of that mystery?
Painters have been capturing and rendering the view of the human from behind for hundreds of years. The German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) created many of his vast landscapes with a single person or several people in a central view. All overlooking his idealistic landscapes or interiors, but always with the secondary subject (people) viewed from behind. What was he trying to say to us?
- Is it the overwhelming magnificence of his romanticised landscape that should not be interfered with by the statement of a human face? If so why include them at all?
- Is it a declaration of spiritual expression; nature over humans?
- Is it a contemplation of stillness?
That stillness which obviously existed in Friedrich’s time, a stillness that is almost impossible to find today.
Like all artworks Friedrich’s have an individual meaning, but you can’t escape the view of a human from behind. The silent thoughts that radiate from these people are well known to anyone who has been in a position to experience such glorious and contemplative views.
What can we glean from such an artwork, with that view of a human from behind? To see a face in this allegorical, mystical landscape might confuse the viewer. What are we supposed to look at? And what are we held to feel here? What the landscape is telling us or what the human is telling us? The human from behind looking out onto that landscape adds much psychological depth to the work, but does it allow the presence of both the human and nature to articulate equally?
In nature there is perfection
Humans can’t be drawn as equals to nature, so nature must win out. So the human face must be hidden against the face of nature. Was this what Friedrich was trying to say? Arts theorisers have speculated on Friedrich’s ideas, like the majesty of nature over the imperfection of humans. If we are in awe and secondary to nature and we’re set back against it, why did Friedrich place us there at all?
I can’t accurately answer why Friedrich positioned humans from this view, other than what I have already expressed about my observations of humans from behind. But, I feel here is an opportunity for us to see and explore ourselves as a real part of nature, as we have to be.
How like a tree is a human? Our limbs like branches, skin like bark, and the top of our head like the elevated crown of a great tree. But only one of us is firmly connected to the earth. And how unlike nature we are when we crave for something; we will move mountains to get what we want – literally. But rarely let a mountain move us unless it’s in an artwork.
The power and beauty of the earth can be seen in a simple tree. And one tree could teach us more about who we are than all the philosophy that we can invent. Maybe this is what Friedrich was on about, trying to get us to look through nature as the focus of who we are. Perhaps the fascination that we place on our faces compares little to the fascination and endurance found in nature. For some artists the opposite view is held. Famous Russian artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985) said, “Great art picks up where nature ends.” Perhaps contradicting himself, Marc Chagall also said, “The habit of ignoring nature is deeply implanted in our times. This attitude reminds me of people who never look you in the eye; I find them disturbing and always have to look away.”
We are obviously fascinated by ourselves and fascinated with the ideas and possibilities in us when we can’t place a name to a face. Other artists have explored the views of us humans from behind.
Australian artist Mark Hislop finds the view of humans from behind hold special significance in explaining ourselves. In a selection of his works exhibited over three galleries in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria in 2009-2012, we find views of humans from behind and turning away. Such as his incredibly detailed pencil drawing as seen above.
It’s possible that there are aspects of the human in Mark’s artworks which are similar to the views or ideas as Friedrich expresses in his artworks.
Mark says there are similarities, even though the artists are born 188 years apart
“These works have developed in two stages; the first drawings of my son Henry and his friends were in part a portrait of a generation – all being a very particular group of young people between the ages of 10 to 12. It could be assumed that this group owns very little in terms of position and or power – unsure about their identity and place in the world.
We are constantly moving between states of surety and doubt about events and ourselves in our lives. These works were intended to see the subject as moving forward into an unknown space, while capturing the very minute details of their bodies, recognising that these textures of hair, skin, and clothing are about a very particular moment of time in their lives.
Some works showed the subjects in the act of turning away from the viewer. This presented a picture of an assertive gesture, saying in effect ‘I don’t want to be photographed, drawn or seen by you!
Other works in this period depict adults, again looking away from the viewer into a blank space; metaphorically, a space the viewer can only imagine. In two works the subjects are standing before an artwork, in effect having an experience or conversation with the work, replicating the experience of the gallery visitor.
The view from behind also makes the viewer aware of the act of looking. In effect placing the viewer in the position of the subject and at the same time being an observer of the scene. It provides a visual twist that is interesting and gives the work a dynamic device that offsets the stillness of the subject.
In works to come I’ll be exploring more of the conversational idea that depicts two people; one with their back to the viewer and partly obscuring the person who they are standing in front of, so that both subjects have their faces obscured. The two subjects are having a conversation, encounter, or an argument that the viewer will deduce from their actions, poses and gestures.
Anna Zagala made an acute observation of the works when she stated, “We not only express ourselves through gesture but are a product of them. Our lives could be seen as being determined by our actions and our actions are a result of the lives we lead.”
Mark’s words give us great insight into the sensitivity, passion and unique ideas that artists put into their works, they can also give us insights into the things we feel, yet might only be expressed in a visual art – a silent medium. A medium that can leave us enriched by the painted and drawn connections to whom we are.
From behind we are not the same; every day we fall in love with people we see in the street, sometimes from behind. We walk on and never see that person again, but they stay with us, they remain in us like constant companions and when we want them they are there again. Even without the knowledge of what they look like, they help to bring a stillness into our lives and a reflection of who we are and what we’re searching for. Humans from behind will always convey alluring possibilities and a fascination of what we might be.