Sunday, November 25, 2007

I, Hippopotamus

On Wednesday of last week the Music Department had invited Bruce Fertman to give a workshop for faculty and staff interested in the Alexander Technique, which in essence consists of making physical adjustments to your posture and carriage, and mental adjustments to you ways of intereacting with the world. According to web site of the Alexander Alliance, the Alexander Technique "gives us a working knowledge of the principles which govern human coordination. Through study, we become capable of redirecting excessive effort into useful energy. We learn how to transform tension into attention, fatigue into kinesthetic lightness. Regaining deep structural support, we experience, once again, the sheer pleasure of movement."

It was a varied group at the workshop: some musicians, a conductor, a librarian, a secretary, and some teachers. Fertman spent part of the day explaining some of the background principles of the Alexander Technique and linking them to other disciplines like Taoism and Tai Chi, and a large part of the day working with us individually on posture and technique and presence. It was fascinating to see what adjustments he was making, and to see the more or less immediate changes. He spoke to us about how all of us are programmed to work hard, when what we could be doing instead is learning how to work soft. There's a followup workshop next week, so I may have more to say about it then.

During the early part of the afternoon session we spent some time looking at some line drawings by the mid-eighteenth-century anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus. I had never seen them before, and was quite taken with them. When I got home, I did some scouting around online and found this archive of his drawings, and began looking them over again.

Here is a representative image. It depicts a human skeleton and includes some of the musculature around the neck, shoulders and rib cage and legs. I'm sure that it is instructive from a strictly anatomical point of view, and in fact in the workshop we were encouraged to make observations about the physical structures of the body, and to consider what implications those observations might have for how we inhabit our own bodily structures. But what interested me then, and continues to fascinate me now, is the context in which the skeleton is placed. The backgrounds were apparently added to the images by Albinus's engraver, Jan Wandelaar. The main focus of attention is still on the anatomy study, but why place the skeleton in front of a) a hippopotamus, b) a heavy stone building, and c) an uprooted tree? Why the juxtaposition? According to the Wikipedia, the backgrounds were "highly criticized by such engravers as Petrus Camper, especially for the whimsical backgrounds added to many of the pieces by Wandelaar, but Albinus staunchly defended Wandelaar and his work."

I don't think that "whimsical" is the right word. For me, it's about contrast. The hippo, the building, the tree are all images of bulk and weight and thickness. There's even a heavy gnarled root in the foreground. Against that backdrop, the amazing lightness and fragility and gracefulness (and, to use one of Fertman's words, "verticality") of the human figure is accentuated. I just love the way the two outstretched arms of the skeleton frame and call attention to the rounded back of the grazing hippo. And the fingers of both hands are floating in ways that seem to suggest that the skeleton is still possessed of both life and consciousness. The left hand is making a gesture; it appears to be rising, as if in response to heard or imagined music. It's just a beautiful image, at once a description and a celebration.

The other one that just kills me (if you'll forgive the verbal-visual pun) is this one:

Once again the skeleton, out for a stroll, is placed up against a building or monument of stone, and there are boulders strewn at his feet. But he walks with, again, extraordinary lightness and grace, and the outstretched fingers of his leading hand call our attention to the trees in the background, and the wonderful lightness of their appendages, which are emphasized again, even lighter and more evanescently, in their reflection in the water. And in both pictures there are leafy plants in the foreground which seem somehow to connect to the main figure. In the presence of weight, lightness. In the presence of darkness, light. And in the presence of inanimate objects, life. In these pictures, the skeleton, most often an image of death, is presented, with all due deliberation and respect, as an image of life.


Anonymous said...

I did a little web surfing and found this site which seems to connect to everything about the Alexander Technique:

Bruce Schauble said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Schauble said...

've done some further reading as well. Here is Bruce Fertman's assessment of the drawings of Albinus, from an essay available on the web site (

Albinus draws the skeleton as a living, animated, human being. He allows us to see that we are not just superficial. That we have layers to us. That we have depth. That we are palimpsests - layers of writing, layers of meaning. Albinus is also reminding us, through the backgrounds of his work, that we are human beings in relation to a world filled with meaning, symbol, and metaphor, a world that is natural, beautiful, mysterious. As you meditate on these drawings you will discover that the backgrounds elucidate the figures, subtly directing your attention to particular content within the figure, within yourself. Very wonderful!

C. Watson said...

Bruce, Kind of unrelated, but your post reminded of this site: