Identikit is art

Delving into the Artistic Challenges: Unraveling the Complexities of Portraiture, Life Drawing, and Forensic Art

Phillip Ward-Jackson
929 words - 4 min read

In 1956 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioned a sort of identikit portrait sculpture of a murderer at large, to assist in his pursuit.

The sculptor, John Reginald Abbott, himself a member of the RCMP, had been sent to train as a sculptor at Columbia University in New York. He had already exhibited a certain skill in modelling, and it was thought that attending a course would help him to produce more effective tools for the detection of criminals. The head that he produced of the murderer, known at the time only under his alias of "John Cameron", was put together on the basis of eye-witness accounts and was, as usual with such reconstitutions, a rather weird looking thing. It didn't lead to an identification. Eight years later, the murderer, a man called Callaghan, turned himself in, but was found to be mentally unfit to stand trial. A Montreal newspaper, published an image of Abbott's head alongside a photo of the real-life Callaghan, commenting that the sculptor had not been very successful in capturing a likeness and that in view of this it was hardly surprising that Callaghan had contrived to remain at large for so long.

Anyone who has been in the habit of drawing portraits will laugh inwardly at this, knowing that a half millimetre discrepancy in the width of a mouth will produce an image of a person quite different from the sitter. There is a a one-in-a-million chance that an image put together from spoken testimonies will produce the goods. The French author Simone de Beauvoir tells us that when the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti decided to renounce Surrealism and learn to draw the human head, the inventor of Surrealism, André Breton quipped "Everyone knows what a head looks like". This story was retold in the 1980s by the Roumanian-Jewish artist Avigdor Arikha, who at that time felt what one might call a post-modern mission to reclaim drawing-from-life as an end in itself, as opposed to a preliminary to the creation of paintings. Breton had obviously intended to provoke and Arikha rose to the bait. Not only, he claimed, was every head different, but any preconception an artist might have about human features was tantamount to a parasitical growth, which had to be extirpated from the brain in order to see what was actually out there.

What concerns heads also applies to bodies, though some intellectuals have not shown a proper appreciation of this. The Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor famously said that when sunbathing in the nude beside the river Charwell, he was in the habit, when a boat full of people came by, whilst all the other naturists placed towels over their genitals, of putting his towel over his head, believing that this was the part by which he would be recognised. True, faces are generally the thing that people put names to, but bodies can be no less characterful. When King Harold was shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings, his face was so mutilated that, in a rather extraordinary anticipation of modern forensic proceedings, his lover, Edith-the-Fair, was called upon to identify the body, whose details she was familiar with. This interesting story, needless to say, I only learned as an adult. Despite the tendency over a large expanse of human history to make bodies conform to some kind of ideal, this characterfulness of the body is what life-drawing has come to be all about. At the same time, all bodies have common features, so that, pace Arikha, it is probable that some basic knowledge of anatomy and how the body works, nay even the long habit of drawing noses and ears, not to mention books with such titles as "How to Draw the Human Head", may have their uses. Such foreknowledge can also prevent grappling with the detail taking the eye off the overall configuration, and disturbing the flow, which in the end is the feature which distinguishes a drawing from a photograph.

Looking at Arikha's drawings I can see that he was not as "naïve" or so devoid of preconception as his writing might suggest. His ears, as well as being well placed, have all the necessary auricular curlicues. In a blockbuster exhibition of the work of Ingres, who famously pronounced that "drawing is the probity of art", I decided to check out all the ears in his life-drawings, as opposed to his much more precise presentation portrait drawings, and found that on the whole these were surprisingly slapdash in detail, though unerringly well-placed and proportioned. Those ears are just one of the things over which all life-drawers are compelled to make judgeents about how much or how little to say about a feature, in the interest of maintaining the overall impression, the most important thing being the unifying perception of the person making those choices.

When the Canadian police artist Abbott was sent to New York to train, it was made clear to him that the Canadian taxpayer was not subsidizing him to become a fine artist. Putting together a head of Callaghan from the vague memories of eye-witnesses was already an uphill task. The sense that he was something less than a real artist would have prejudiced still further his ability to conjure up a convincing likeness.

Sources: Avigdor Arikha, Peinture et Regard. Écrits sur l'art, 1965-1990, Paris, 1991, and Jamie Jelinski, "'This sculptor is a cop': John Reginald Abbott, murder in Montreal and the Royal CanadianMounted Police's criminal investigation masks", Sculpture Journal, vol.32, 3, 2023, pp.355-382.

Phillip Ward-Jackson

Philip worked in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute. His PhD thesis was on J.-K. Huysmans and the Visual Arts. Before that Phillip studied at St Martin's School of Art, and continues to draw regularly.

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