In February 2005, Judith Schils exhibited PIANO'S at the Flagey Arts Centre in Brussels: 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.


Let us first examine the sequence in which the pianos have been created

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.

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 from below 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 of view.

But also this approach has its shortcomings. To be sure, the initial inertia has been transformed in a dynamic play of three axes standing perpendicular to one another, but the piano has not become more accessible. 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.


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 movement:

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:

thin line/ordinary line

Also parts like legs, pedals and music stand are intimated by thin lines. 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 apparent.

Next to the perspective in the literal sense, there is, hence, also a perspective in the figurative sense: a perspective of attention.


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 line

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 real world: 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 :

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 :

After this first breakthrough, our scale of lines looks as follows:

heavy line (1)
thin bundles/light bundle/normal line/ ↕ ↕ ↕
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.


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 panel:

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:

Which 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 :

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:

n piano 17 the movement is turned outward again. From the entire surface circumscribed through contours nothing more is left than some loose strokes,

and in piano 18 the bundles seem to have swept away any trace of contours:

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 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

How 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:  


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 another:

In 17 a similar crossing of bundles is still supported by a dividing line:

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 homogenised internally.

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 shake.


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 :

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 icons):


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 principle.

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, clouds, mist:


virgil brill

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).


redon (detail)



After this short interlude, we are ready to understand the true nature of PIANOS.

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 know why: 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)

Also Dürer renders the beams of light as lines, and we have to await Rembrandt for a more subtle approach.

rembrandt (detail)

dürer (detail)

In all these cases, 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.


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 :

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 surrounding space:

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.


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 to bring the piano to life nevertheless.


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 face.


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 an environment.


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 this fire...

© Stefan Beyst, October 2005.

 review of 'Judith Schils' pianos' by vladimir garcía morales (translation)

Visit the website of Judith Schils

Referrers: Stephen Brookes Reeaks

 facebookshare facebookvolg    twitter

image of the week:

eXTReMe Tracker