In February 2005, Judith Schils
exhibited PIANO'S at the
Flagey Arts Centre
a series of 18 drawings - works of art in their own right, even
though at the same time part of an encompassing whole.
Drawings - not so evident
that such things are still made, let alone
exhibited. And that is a pity. For, in the course of the last decennia,
so much waste land has been reclaimed, that one would all too easily
forget that it still pays to cultivate grounds that have been
ploughed for centuries.
Let us therefore have a closer look at this most remarkable series.
Best viewed in full screen (F11)
Click on the icons for a lager view
Remember that the scans cannot possibly render the full richness of the
Let us first examine the sequence in
which the pianos have been created (click on the icons):
There is a clear development, propelled by three tendencies: a change in
point of view, an increasing complexity of the array of lines, and a
growing intensity of expression.
Let us describe the development of this dynamics step by step.
THE POINT OF VIEW
In the beginning, the
pianos are approached sideways. That is the way
the public gets to see the piano before the concert begins.
In this position, the closedness of the still silent piece of furniture
is already broken open by the lifting of the cover:
But the artist soon proceeds to a new point of view. For, in the view
from sideways, the opposition between the side and the cover is rather
feeble. Through approaching the piano oblique from behind, both parts
come to oppose one another as two perpendicular diagonals:
This lends the piano a new dynamic. But it is as if the piano turns its
back to us now, and thus
deprives us of the sight on the keyboard. That
is probably why there are only two versions of this approach.
Oblique from before, you get to see the inviting keyboard that appears
the lid. The closedness of the piano is thus further
broken up. The keyboard introduces two new
force lines. Read in
the breadth, it is a diagonal more that comes to reinforce the play of
forces between the two previous oppositions.
Read perpendicular to the breadth of the keyboard, the keys lend a
strong forward impetus to the length axis of the piano. The internal
dynamic of the piano is thus so enhanced, that only the strong downward
movement of the leg of the piano is able to hold the whole in balance:
The inert piece of furniture has become an internally moved whole. No
wonder that no less than seven piano's have been drawn from this point
But also this approach has its shortcomings. To be sure, the initial
has been transformed in a dynamic play of three axes standing
perpendicular to one another, but the piano has not become more
It only exposes itself fully when approached frontally:
Six drawings are made from this point of view. But the
by now full accessibility of the piano is paid with a
loss of power. Whereas in the previous versions the dynamics of the
revolving axes was buttressed by the downward movement of the leg, the
sideward movement of the keyboard pushes the legs apart, until the whole
breaks apart in the middle and finally collapses. That is probably why
the series of approaches from oblique from before gradually replaces the
frontal views. That does not prevent the series of frontal views of coming to a convincing apogee as
late as the third last drawing.
Apparently, the change of position is inspired by a double striving; the
desire to bring the inert piece of furniture to life and the desire to
break open its closedness.
THE LINE (1)
From the point of
view of the line, the series is characterised by a gradual unfolding
of an always more varied configuration of always more kinds of lines.
In the beginning, the pianos are drawn in long, elegant strokes that
circumscribe the contours of the piece of furniture in one single
These elegant strokes find an echo in a thinner line, that is situated
more to the background, and thus creates a kind of line-perspective:
This results in the following scale:
Also parts like legs, pedals and music stand are intimated by thin
Thus, the emphasis comes to lie on what is drawn in thicker liners:
the body of the piano:
The closedness now becomes all the more
Next to the perspective in the literal sense, there is, hence, also a
perspective in the figurative sense: a perspective of attention.
THE LINE (2)
The contrast between thin and normal lines is extended from piano
6 onward. The body of the piano is still circumscribed as before,
but on the keyboard, that we get to see for the first time in this
piano, we witness a new development:
To begin with, heavy black lines are added to the scale as a third step.
The scale now looks as follows:
||thin line/normal line/heavy
The heavy lines continue to court the circumference of the black keys,
but they no longer circumscribe it in its totality. It is as if the
movement with which the covers over strings and keys were opened, and
the movement with which finally the front of the piano is turned
to the onlooker, now extends to the laying open of the parts of the piano. With
the rendering of the white keys, this lead to a further step: they are no longer approached as a series of surfaces with a
circumference, but summarised in one single force line.
Mimesis is no longer confined here to what there is to be seen in the
it enters the dimension of the imaginary.
And that is only really the case when the key, summarised in one single
line, also begins to break through the confines of the keyboard in a
vehement forward movement.
Once initiated, this threefold movement is no longer stoppable: from piano 7 to 10
it unfolds in each of its three dimension. On the one hand, the heavy lines break more and more loose from the circumference of the black keys.
The third step of the scale of lines is in its turn split up in a new
series of steps: from lines that, in an angular movement, follow the
circumference, to lines that begin or end with a short angular
countermovement, to single lines as such (click on the icons):
Our scale of lines now looks as follows:
||heavy line (1)
|light line/normal line/
||heavy line (n)
At the other extreme of the spectrum, a fourth step is added: very thin
lines adding up to bundles. These come to endorse the élan of the
single lines, wherein first the white keys and eventually also the black
keys came to be resolved. Even more than the force lines wherein the
keys have been resolved, they loosen the ties to what
there is to be seen in the real world: their movement seems to be
initiated far behind the panel that hides the strings, and extends far
beyond the frontal border of the
keyboard. They thereby transcend the momentum
of the white keys resolved in one single line, and altogether that of
the black keys that surely are opened up, but that, because of their
angualr, remain anchored on the place where the real keyboard is situated
(click on the icons):
After this first breakthrough, our scale of lines looks as follows:
||heavy line (1)
|thin bundles/light bundle/normal
||heavy line (n)
Let us remark that the
opening up of the keys goes hand in hand with the opening up of the
piano. Whereas in the foregoing side views, the line courted the contour
of het body of the piano, it now only indicates fragments of the
contour of the frontal view.
THE LINE (3)
In piano 11 there is a second breakthrough. The bundle of lines that
began to flow as an undercurrent beneath the outward movement of the keys,
suddenly emancipates itself entirely from those keys in an upward
flourish (click on the icon):
Further to the left, there can be seen an echo of this flourish. And we
find the movement also in the leg on the right. The expansion of the
emancipated bundle has begun:
Initially, it seems somewhat to recoil from the newly gained freedom.
Where the upward flourish has nothing do to whatsoever with the real
piano, the bundle now seeks to fit itself again in what is visibly given in
12: it willingly courts the frontal curve of the cover and the hind
That does not mean that the advent of the bundle has been stopped.
Within of the frame of the contours it penetrates deeper and deeper into
the interior of the piano:
inevitably leads to a further stride. When, in 15, we get to see
the piano from oblique before again, the bundles no longer move
centripetally to the centre of the interior space contained by the
mighty bough of the cover: in a new emancipatory impetus it breaks
centrifugally through the narrow confines of the piece of furniture
(click on the icons):
In 16 the dynamic turns inward again: while the contour of the cover
tries to contain the vehemence of the bundles, these annihilate every
difference between inner and outer in the interior space of the piano:
from the music stand, that formed the border between covered strings and
denudated keyboard, only a faint echo of the upper side is left:
In piano 17 the
movement is turned outward again. From the entire
surface circumscribed through contours nothing more is left than some
and in piano 18 the bundles seem to have swept away any trace of
What had begun as the opening of the cover over the strings and
lid over the
keyboard, what develops further into the dissolvement
of the contour of the keys into force lines, is here completed in the transformation
of the body of the piano in one surfaceless tangle of bundles.
THE LINE (4)
The unstoppable advent of the bundles, that announced itself as the
rather timid appearance of thin lines on the lowest extreme of the scale,
does not remain without consequences for the other lines of
the spectrum. The contour line, with which the whole development
initiated, is gradually referred to the background. In 13 and 14, it
survives only in peripheral parts like the stand
and the peripheral contours of the piano.
But in 15, 16 and 17 it resuscitates as force line: it no longer
circumscribes the surface around the piano, but rather structures the
unleashed vehemence of the line bundles. This shift in function is
accomplished (realised) in several phases. In piano 15
two such lines constitute a strong counterpoise
against the flow of the bundles (click on the icons):
necessary such counterpoise
is, becomes immediately apparent when is falls
away in 16, where the piano is approached frontally again. Because the
contour lines, that could contain the invasion of the line bundles, have
practically disappeared altogether, the collapse of the piano, that had
been announced by the expansion of the keyboard in the breadth, can no
longer be postponed.
That is why, in 17, the whole is contained by the upward movement of the
leg that lends its power to the force line that supports it:
And, when the vehemence of the line bundles comes to its apogee in 18,
only the remarkable architecture below seems to be able to sustain it:
THE LINE (5)
We said: a 'remarkable architecture'. For, the force line that knew to
sustain the vehemence unleashed in 17, is here dissolved in an interplay
of a new kind of lines: virtual lines that appear where several line
bundles cross one another.
These virtual lines do pop up from nowhere: they have already a long
history. In the beginning, the bundles had no(cleru?) outspoken
beginning or ending. In 13 and 14 they appear from behind the surface of
the (music stand). They surely continue behind and below this tand, but
on the drawing, the stop at an angle with the contours of the stand.
In piano 15, the bundle is not longer at an angles with a line, but
rather with another bundle. Whereas elsewhere the bundles continue to
cross one another, here it is as if one bundles looms up from behind
In 17 a similar crossing of bundles is still supported by a dividing
But from 18 onwards, it
is no longer an outspoken line that spates the crossing bundles:
the bundles themselves begin to produce a virtual dividing line:
The 'normal line', that was initially opposed to the subtle lines of the
first step, is now gradually generated by it: the scale comes to be
Such homogenising of the steps of the scale entails a new
differentiation within the lowest extreme of the spectrum. The bundles
that end up in nothingness on both sides come to be opposed to bundles
that end in a real or virtual line. While the first kind of bundles
threatened to dissolve the piano in one surfaceless bundle of energy, the
bundles of the second kind tend to contain the energy within fixed
structures. Foremost in 18, they thus take over the role of the force
lines that had to prevent the collapse of the piano as in 13, 14 and 16.
On first sight, it might appear as if the crosshatched surface has
reappeared again. But there is a difference between crosshatching and
crossing bundles: we continue to experience them as streams that
penetrate one another. For, the virtual lines are not so much the edges
of a surface: they rather retain the character of a contour, although it
is a contour around a completely transparent or permeable surface - ribs
rather than edges. That impression is further strengthened in that often
several planes seem to superposed - as if the exploding piano begins to
THE LINE (6)
Precisely because an architecture of virtual lines contains the
vehemence of the line bundles in the body of the piano, it can fully be
unleashed from the opening at the front of the piano. The keys, that
from piano 6 onwards began to break through the confines of the keyboard
timidly, now begin to stream with full vehemence from the mouth of the
piano (click on the icons):
Whereas the proceedings in the body were determined by the opposition
between bundles and contour lines developed into virtual lines (step 1 & 3
of the scale); the movement from within the opening in the front is
propelled through a combination of the bundles with the entire scale of
heavy black lines (step 1 & 4 of the scale). Unhampered they poor
out from within the body and they drag along the whole array of heavy
black lines. It seems as if the hell fire is unleashed; we cannot but be
reminded of the flames that break from the opening of a burning oven, if
not of the fire spitting mouth of a hellhound! (click on the
LINE AND STAIN (1)
However much the line is eventually entwined into a dense fabric, never
it turns into a stain. Not so in the technical sense, as when they would
have been wiped out into a ... . And ven less in a mimetic sense, as
when they would unfold into hatching or crosshatching that comes to
evoke a surface.
And that reminds us of
the fact that drawing is all too often understood as a kind of reduced
painting in black and white - or conversely: painting as a drawing
completed with colours. Far more fertile is it to start from an
opposition between both. The fundamental given of the painter is the
stain, which naturally coincides with the plane of the painting. With
the stain, the painter differentiates the plain colouristically and
luministically so that eventually a world is conjured up. The basic
given of the draughtsman, conversely, is the line. As opposed to the
stain, the line is opposed to the plane in every respect: they only
share the circumference - and that is the place where the plane ceases
to exist. That is why drawing and painting are one another's opposites in
But they have also many things in common: the plane is the natural
habitat of both, and both do conjure up a world. That world is read by
the eye as a compilation of figures against a background
and the border between the figure and the background as a line. As long
as pencil and brush are opposing one another - as long as their
opposition is not dissolved in grain or 'pixels' as in photography -
this leads to a natural division of labour between both. The line is
destined to render the contour with which the figure is detached from the
background, whereas the stain is destined to fill the surface
circumscribed by the contour line - especially when what is
circumscribed is an even surface, as is the case with the visual object
par excellence: the nude.
But because stain and line are one another's opposite, the marriage
between both turns out to be problematic. No wonder that they often try
to do without one another. As soon as the line closes itself, the eye
reads what it circumscribes as an - albeit virtual - surface that
detaches itself from a background. Add to that that the line can easily
render the rounding of that surface through all kinds of hatching.
Conversely, the stain is finite, and the eye reads its edge as an -
albeit again: only virtual - line that separates one colour from another
of from the background.
Another method of solving the problem is to choose an appropriate
domain: the choice of becoming subjects.
The line can maintain its autonomy through rendering objects that have
practically no surface and are so to speak only circumference: grass,
the branches and leaves of trees. Also surfaces apply when they have a
linear structure, as is the case with fur, ( drake pluvial in keen)
and what have you.
or when the surface
consists of countless other surfaces, like the scales of fish of the
structures Dürer imagined to exist on the skin of the rhinoceros:
Conversely, the stain can maintain its autonomy by restricting itself to
the rendering of figures that nearly discern themselves from a
background - in that the emerge from darkness or mist (Carravagesques),
or in that they simply have no edges or surfaces: think of water, skies,
A special effect is
achieved when the line is only willing to close itself to contour, while
the subject continues to ask for a rendering of the undulations of the
surface, as in the drawing of Matisse below.
Because he accentuates the curves in the contour, he knows to intimate
the rounding of the body far more convincingly than with hatching - with
the additional charm that the unblemished evenness of the surface within
the contour maintains the evenness of juvenile skin:
Not always do the line
and the stain try to manage without each other. More often they conclude
a successful marriage, which is the more happy, the more both try to
retain their ownness, as in many a lavis, the technique of the 'cloisonné' (Gauguin, Redon) or
abstract paintings as those of Kandinsky and Klee (that often bring the
opposition to a head through the introduction of lines that do are not
closed to circumferences, contours).
LINE AND STAIN (2)
After this short interlude, we are ready to understand the true nature
The first drawings of the series are essentially line drawings that
restrict themselves to (catching) the contours, as with the Matisse
above - although here no nude is circumscribed, but the equally even
surface of the body of a piano. From the frontal views 7-9 onwards, the
line increasingly grows loose of the circumference and develops into
force. In that the line is not closed, it is no longer debased to a
contour that has to circumscribe a figure: as uncurbed line it continues
to radiate the movement to which it owes its existence (see: 'Visual
music'). And that becomes fully true when these open lines are
bundled at that. Here we enter rather virginal ground. Rather than to
develop into a kind of parallel hatching that has to make visible a
surface, the lines dissolve the surface and thereby transform the
enclosed volume in a kind of streaming energy. What initially was a
closed piece of furniture, is thus dissolved in a fully transparent,
permeable entity. No surfaces separate inner from outer here:
we are facing a kind of ethereal cloud where we, having become ethereal
ourselves, could easily glide through.
Such energetic cloud is nowhere to be found in the visible world. At
best it is comparable with mist, air, water or clouds - precisely the
objects that belong to the mimetic domain of the stain. But they do so
only when they do not or nearly move. Nearly related, but fast moving
phenomena like light bundles, flames, streaming water or storming winds,
are far less or not at all suited to be rendered with stains. These
phenomena - in as far as they appear in the image altogether - are
rendered with an unbroken line that does not close on itself. We already
because, in the open line, the momentum of the movement to which it owes
its existence can be read. Of all painters da Vinci, the man who
considered the world of the permeable, surfaceless phenomena as the
domain par excellence of painting, resorts to lines - more precisely: to
bundles of lines - when he wants to render the raging of wind, turbulent
clouds and swirling water:
da vinci (detail)
renders the beams of light as lines, and we have to await Rembrandt for
a more subtle approach.
these case, the use of lines is inspired by the presence of 'lines' in
the real examples: that goes not only for the beams of light that break
through the clouds, but also for the whirl of water and wind: think of
tornados. The rendering of these real 'lines' through drawn lines lends
their movement an additional impetus.
Thus far nothing new under the son. But, with Judith Schils, we are not
dealing with the rendering of existing phenomena, but with the streaming
of something that is invisible altogether: a kind of 'energy'.
Further below we will try to specify the precise nature of this energy.
Here, we only have to make it clear that, in PIANOS, the autonomy of the
line - of the open line, not closed to contour - is safeguarded and
enhanced through an extension of the mimetic domain. What in the
beginning was a mere piece of furniture, unfolds into a tangle of
bundled energy in the end. Time to concentrate on the mimetic dimension.
FIGURE AND BACKGROUND
Because the line preserves its autonomy, also the tension between
the black of the line and the white of the paper is preserved throughout
the entire series. As the fabric of lines condensates, the tension
between the drawing that grows always more black and the paper that
seems always more white only increases.
Never is the paper concealed by the lines like the canvas is by the
stains: even through the most dense concentration of lines is the most
dense bundles does the white of the paper continue to shimmer through.
That the line wants to remain black line on white paper, has its
bearings son the relation between figure and background. For, even where
the line circumscribes a contour, like in the first drawings, the piano
is not really read as a figure that covers a background, precisely
because only the contour is rendered.
That effect is only enhanced in that the lines increasingly refrain from
courting the entire circumference, and in that they increasingly come to
embody the invisible energy that begins to radiate from the piano.
This double evolution of the line is in its turn endorsed by the opening
of the cover and the growing accessibility of the keyboard through the
(wending to the front). All these movements gradually transform the
piano form a closed piece of furniture into a kind of radiating source
of energy that penetrates the surrounding space and lets that
surrounding space penetrate itself as well.
In such reciprocal penetration of radiating source of power and
surrounding space the balance of power is changing. Where the piano
exposes itself most
- in 13, 14 and 16 - the white of the surrounding space enters deep into
the black of the interior body of the piano and thus drives a wedge
between the two receding extremes through which the body of the piano
seems to bleed dry (click on the icons):
Where the piano averts itself somewhat, the energy pours with full force
from the inner of the body out of a kernel that is about to explode:
here, it is the black of the hell fire that penetrates in the white of
The opposition between figure and background, so characteristic of the
black stain that covers a white background, is thus replaced with the
opposition between radiation and surrounding space that interpenetrate
one another reciprocally. And that implies that the white, in as far as
it is no longer read as paper, but as space, is no longer referred to
the background, but surrounds the piano from all sides - also from the
sides and the front.
For the same reason, the pianos are not really conceived within a frame,
although they are drawn on a rectangular sheet of paper. The frame is as
it were the negative of the black stain that appears on a white
background: while the stain excludes the plane, the frame encloses it.
Both movements push the white of the paper hindward, where is continues
behind the frame and the stain. In PIANO'S, on the other hand, the
white is pushing forward rather than backward. Such ethereal space
surrounding an ethereal object does not ask for a frame: it does not
want to run into a surface and neither to be contained within a frame.
That is why the paper is loosely hung on two pins on a
passe-partout of the same substance but of another size.
And that passe-partout is in its turn contained in a frame perpendicular
to its surface in real space.
MIMESIS (1): THE VISUALISING OF SOUND
The shift in point of view, the gradual extension of the array of lines,
the preservation of the autonomy of the line and the concomitant
penetration of surrounding space and radiating object: all this has
everything to do with the gradual epiphany of a world that the artist
unveils step by step before our eyes: through and in the process of
drawing, the vision of what was in the beginning only potentially
present is imposing itself in all its splendour.
Let us summarise the whole process from a slightly different angle.
Everything begins with the piano as a closed piece of furniture - a
ponderous, inert thing, that contains music only as a potentiality. The
opening of the cover is a first movement through which the closedness is
(undone), although the sides continue to hide the inner from view.
Wherefore the artist eventually approaches it from the front, where,
after the opening of yet
another cover, the keyboard comes to lay bare. Which makes is all the more apparent that the keys are not
played: the piano is open now, but there is nothing to be heard. There
is not much to be done about that in a drawing. And that is why the
artist proceeds to further break the piano open by additionally
dissolving the keys in streaming lines that begin to radiate from the
piano. And that is only the prelude to the broader movement wit which
the surfaces that enclose the sound are dissolved in a streaming that
penetrates everything and that is penetrated from everywhere: a kind of
visual representation of the audible vehemence that would resound from
the piano where it played.
Instead of music sounding from a tangible instrument: a piano dissolved
in visible bundles of radiation. Such visualising is inspired by a
double frustration. The artist cannot sit down before the piano himself
and is thus referred to the role of a contemplating draughtsman who can
render only the source of sound, not the sound itself, let alone music.
But the very hands tan are forbidden to play, are able to draw and thus
the piano to life
MIMESIS (2): THE ANIMATION OF THE PIANO
We can phrase this development otherwise: the dead piece of furniture
seems to gradually turn into an animated being wherein an unbridled
energy is enclosed, that gradually begins to stir and soon breaks with
all its vehemence from the confines wherein it is enclosed, whereby it
now succumbs under the unleashed violence, and then again bundles all
its forces to radiate fully with renewed energy.
No longer the tension between the inert piece of furniture and the
vehemence of the
music is at stake here. Rather does the drawing
hand play the role of the fingers of the pianist who knows to transmit
the music via keys and hammers to the strings of the instrument: it is
as if the artist transferred his own inner via the movements of the
pencil on the piano and is thus transformed into the onlooker on the
metamorphosis he undergoes precisely by drawing.
That is why it is so easy fro him to dissolve the surfaces in bundles of
lines. For, on closer view, these are rather embodiments of unbridled
life energy that explodes, than visualisations of the sound that
emanates from the piano. It is, besides, rather misleading to talk here
of visualisation of sound. For, although sound is sometimes represented
as a (mostly sinuous) radiation, the streams that break from the piano
are rather embodiments of the vehemence that speaks through the music
than the sounds through which this vehemence is expressed. And that
musical violence is equally invisible as inaudible - not otherwise than
the energy in the artist. That is why the line bundles that visualise
the violence in the music so easily merger with the energy enclosed in
the artist himself and which he knew to disclose in the piano.
In that sense, PIANOS is a series of 'self-portraits', which are all the
more convincing since the artist is no longer hindered by the necessity
to render the particular physiognomy and expressions of a particular
MIMESIS (3): IN THE MIRROR
Ich bin eine Sonne und trinke meine Flammen in mir zurück.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Zarathustra.
The image of a (shimmering) piano is not exhausted through a referral at
the visualisation of the music and the transference of inner energy into
the piano in the image. There is also the silent drama developing
between the black radiation and the white ether that penetrate one
another in a changing balance of power. Now - in 9, 14-15 en 16-18 -
the piano pour itself out into surrounding space, but meets with no
response there: it dies out in the white void like streams of electrons
from a start in the black of space (universe). Conversely, in 10,12, 13
and 17 the white of the empty space enters the body of the piano, only
to hollow it out and to make it collapse eventually.
Only now do we realise that the piano stands (stays) radiating there on
its own in an empty space. And that reminds us in its turn of the fact
that not only the playing pianist fails in the image, but also a
listening public, or - in as far as we read the piano in a broader sense
as the exteriorised soul of the artist: the social fabric wherein man
should have been embedded/woven. The whole (structure) is shortened to a
mirror relation between pianist or piano, or between the inner of the
draughtsman and its outer vehicle: in such dyad there is no room for a
third party, let alone for the fabric of the group.
But that the surrounding space, even when it is empty, continues to
penetrate an energetic body nevertheless, is an expression anyhow of the
longing for the reciprocal relation that should have existed with such
Thus, through the visualisation of music in
the piano and the energy in the artist, the unfolding of the line
finally also stages the drama of man in a emptied world. Three layers
that, one after another, begin to emerge form black lines on white
paper. Or, how - in a still deeper layer - not so much the inert body of
a piano is transformed into an energetic body, but rather the dead
matter of the lifeless line into deeply moving reality...
We can only hope that PIANOS has been merely the first flaring up of
© Stefan Beyst, October 2005
review of 'Judith Schils' pianos' by
stefan beyst on contemporary artists
the website of