Authors: Hugh Aldersey-Williams
More natural, but certainly no easier. About twenty of us have assembled at a community centre in the windswept outskirts of Cambridge – two-thirds are women, and there is a good span of ages. We sit on cheap plastic chairs placed in a large circle on a floor marked out for basketball. In the middle of the circle are two young women, who I learn later are university students earning some cash. They have steps to sit on and handrails to grip in order to strike interesting poses. Without fuss, they shed their dressing gowns and get into positions as directed by the class instructor. We each choose one of the models and begin to draw. Immediately, I am in all sorts of trouble. I find it difficult to get the major proportions right between the torso and the limbs. My pencil creates hard, sharp lines that fail to communicate the softness of the skin and the diffuse fall of shadows across the body. It gets worse when I try shading, and my lack of technique is ruthlessly exposed. As the evening wears on, though, I feel I am discovering one or two tricks, such as extending a line beyond what I see in order to give a sense of movement and life to the muscles. The mere creation of a drawing, however poor, seems to produce a connection with all art. There are aspects of my paltry sketches that recall ancient heads and figures. The two women, standing naked in front of us, on paper have become, through no fault of theirs and no great skill of mine, nudes.
The second time I go along, one of the subjects is a stocky, muscular man, who is introduced to us as Andy. He has been asked to lie on his back with his head dropping low. He looks extremely uncomfortable, although he appears to be on the verge of dropping off to sleep. Oddly, he has a white bandage across the bridge of his nose. It is not clear whether this stems from some injury or has been placed there for artistic interest. Our instructor, Derek Batty, invites us to draw his face in this upside down position – ‘an interesting psychological challenge’. He’s referring to what is known as the Thatcher illusion. In 1980, Peter Thompson, a psychologist at the University of York, demonstrated the prime importance of the eyes and the mouth in facial recognition by taking a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s then new prime minister, and altering it by inverting only these features. When the altered head is seen upside down, it is easy to recognize who it is because the eyes and mouth appear correctly. But when the head is the right way up, with the eyes and mouth inverted, it appears monstrous. I note with amusement from his paper that Thompson thanked the York Conservative Association for supplying the ‘stimulus material’. Any way up, I find, a face is much harder to draw than a body.
After the classes, I stop the models and ask them how they feel that we have been granted this exceptional permission to stare intently at their bodies and faces. The thing that surprises them, they tell me, is how unaware of the class they quickly become. The nudity is not an issue. Their minds are elsewhere. Andy is psyching himself for tomorrow’s championship kickboxing match – which at last explains the bandage. The woman I have tried to draw, Rosie, passes the time thinking about her PhD thesis (on Soviet cinema). But, she adds, ‘if Derek mentions a body part, I immediately feel a need to move it.’ Her remark reminds me of Darwin’s exploration of blushing, which he regarded in the end as an involuntary response to another’s focus of attention on the body.
Our skin, all two square metres of it, about the area of a single bed sheet, is a screen. It carries the projection of who and what we are, like a film in a cinema. It is also a screen in another sense – like one that stands in the corner of a room, blocking the view and offering protection to the body on the other side. Biologically speaking, the skin is a formidable membrane between solid and air, between our innards and the world outside. In its depth lie the sensors by which we feel pleasure and pain, and our means of defence against many infections. And yet in cultural terms, the skin is the thinnest of barriers between interiority and exteriority. Its thickness counts for nothing when our health, our age and our race are displayed for all to see on its very surface. The skin is both our self-protection and our self-revelation.
This duality is at the heart of its meaning. Before modern medicine, the skin was seen as the guarantor of corporeal integrity, not so much part of the body as its appointed gatekeeper. To an extent, it was even regarded as dispensable; perhaps it was a barrier to the enlightenment of the self within. In the Bible, Job escapes the suffering to which he has been subjected as a test of his faith ‘by the skin of my teeth’ and rejoices: ‘after my skin is destroyed, this I know, / That in my flesh shall I see God’. Yet, to other ancient writers, the skin also comprised at least part of that self. In
, Ovid tells how the satyr Marsyas, flayed alive after being defeated in a contest with Apollo, begs: ‘Don’t rip me away from myself.’ Here the skin is the organ of our literal self-possession. It holds the rest of us in place. The ambiguous status of the skin – is it
of the body
, or is it a kind of disposable wrapper
? – perhaps reflects broader unease at the whole notion of human embodiment that is bound to spring from the dualistic idea of body and soul.
These perceptions of the skin had important medical implications. Many diseases were not understood, as we would understand them now, as diseases ‘of the skin’, but were regarded as signs on the surface of bodily (and moral) decay below. Leprosy is especially abhorrent in biblical accounts. The book of Leviticus contains a long and almost clinical description of the various ways in which the disease might appear on the skin, and the precautionary measures to be taken according to the extent of skin affected and, crucially, whether the infection appears more than skin-deep, ranging from quarantining the patient to obliging him to shout out: ‘Unclean! Unclean!’
But while the skin may advertise diseases such as leprosy, smallpox or syphilis, it obscures the presence of others. The skin is opaque to us all. Unable to see past it, even expert physicians are apt to make startling misdiagnoses. Appendicitis was typically not identified until the patient began vomiting fecal matter, for example. One recommended treatment for the abdominal pains that were among the early symptoms was to eat quince, which was only likely to exacerbate the condition. But similar difficulties confront doctors today. A friend of mine, complaining of intermittent hearing loss, was seen first by a neurologist who suspected vasculitis, a disease that destroys blood vessels; she was also tested for syphilis and then put on a course of steroids, which proved ineffective. A second neurologist favoured multiple sclerosis, but tests on her epidural fluid proved negative. A series of hearing experts then stepped in, the third of whom discovered at last that all three bones of one middle ear had fractured. These were then surgically removed and replaced by metal prostheses. To be fair to the medical profession, the rest of us, too, use the skin as a convenient curtain to deny the messiness of what goes on beneath. Norbert Elias’s
, man ‘severed from all other people and things “outside” by the “wall” of the body’, has become a touchstone of the human condition. In cartoons, for example, convention demands that physical blows bounce resiliently off the body – or temporarily flatten it; they do not actually rupture the skin. We think to seal ourselves off against the world.
The psychological impenetrability of the skin – even to surgeons who hesitate to bring down the scalpel for fear of making matters worse (Hippocrates: first do no harm) – remains one of the most unshakeable truths about the human body. It explains the high value that we place on anything that gives, or appears to give, a picture of what is going on beneath – the humours, the phrenological head, the X-ray, the genetic profile, the ubiquitous ‘scan’, to which we gaily refer without regard for its technological means, or for that matter its diagnostic power, almost as if it were a modern miracle.
If the skin is a screen, then what’s on? The film of life begins as a blank. Innocent skin is ‘smooth as a baby’s bottom’: unmarked by disease, sin and the ravages of time. But how long can it remain so? The smoothness of the bottoms and the rest of, let’s say, Antonio Canova’s sculpture
The Three Graces
, an early nineteenth-century marble statue famed for its coolly erotic beauty, was not only a statement of artistic prowess but also a reaction to the ugly reality of the ‘rotting, eruptive and squamous skins that constituted the actual bodyscape in the eighteenth century’. The smoother the skin, the more impenetrable and therefore protective of the underlying body it seems. Unction – the consecrating anointment with oil of a priest or a monarch – smoothes the appearance of the skin, producing a glossy sheen that more sharply defines and, in a sense, hardens this barrier, sealing off these leaders from their unclean subjects. The application of suntan oil contains a secular echo of this ritual, sealing the body against damaging solar radiation. The oiled muscles of the bodybuilder, the rubber and leather sheaths of the fetishist, and the shiny, chrome bodies of CGI adventure heroes all aim, for their own particular reasons, to produce the same hermetic seal.
Conspicuous areas of bare skin may be a sign of vulnerability – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Christ on the Cross, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. But they may also be an assertion of power: Lady Godiva wins her fellow citizens a tax break in return for her naked gallop. The bare chest of the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has become such a political phenomenon that even the
Journal of Communist Studies
has been driven to comment on it. Frankly, I’m baffled as to how to react to this. Am I supposed to admire him, fear him, fancy him? What if Prime Minister ‘Dave’ Cameron stripped off his shirt? How would I feel about that? Knowing him as we do, we perhaps interpret Putin’s naked torso as an expression of his authoritarianism, and yet the figure of Liberty, too, in Eugène Delacroix’s painting
Liberty Leading the People
, is defiantly barefoot and bare-breasted. (Similar displays can lead to a curtailment of liberty today, however: in 2003, an Australian Member of Parliament was ushered out of the debating chamber for breast-feeding her baby, supposedly having infringed its rule of ‘no strangers in the house’. As the Australian cultural historian Ruth Barcan commented: ‘it was not so much the baby as the breast that was the stranger in the house.’)
The skin is a medical message board as well.
An Essay Concerning the Infinite Wisdom of God, Manifested in the Contrivance and Structure of the Skin
by ‘A Lover of Physick and Surgery’ is a typical early modern mixture: well-observed description of the body combined with frequent reminders of its divine ideality. Each chapter concludes with an incredulous attack on atheism. All body parts are just the right size and shape, notes the author, and there is much moralizing speculation that it would all have gone horribly wrong for humanity if anything had turned out otherwise. It is because our skin is naked, for example, that our nails are so useful for scratching. That the nails are transparent, the anonymous eighteenth-century writer continues, makes them the perfect thing to indicate the true colour of the blood beneath. They are like little windows through the skin, or indicator lamps on the ends of our fingers, that turn pale with ague, red with ‘plethora’ or high blood pressure, yellow, green or black with jaundice and other complaints.
The skin may also carry our own advertising messages in a very literal sense. As the skin is still used with such blithe confidence by those in authority to assign us to particular racial groups – London’s Metropolitan Police, for example, aspires to describe people of mixed ethnic origins under such muddled terms as ‘Asian & White’ – so it follows, to some anyway, that new marks might be applied to skin in order to create new categories of social distinction. Historically, marking the skin has often had a quasi-legal aspect to it – from the brands burned into the skin of slaves by slave-owners to the scars left by the lash, marking a person permanently as a criminal. This custom persists today in the benign form of rubber-stamping the back of the hand for entry to a night club, for example. But it is the idea that one might purposely choose to mark oneself that is so notably in the ascendant right now. Skin has never been more on display in Western society than it is today, and never more subjected to our own alterations – adaptations that are designed to communicate a new version of ourselves.
My publishers have recommended that I visit a tattoo artist whom they have previously commissioned to produce book covers. These are not covers of human skin, I should add, although that practice has not been uncommon in the past, especially for binding criminal records and medical works. One Russian poet even bound a volume of sonnets to his mistress in skin salvaged from his own leg, which he was having to have amputated.
The studio – ‘parlour’ seems an outdated term – is called ‘Into You’. It seems well named, with its piled-up suggestions of penetration of the body, physically, through the skin with needles, but also sexually and emotionally. Here I meet the proprietor, Duncan X, whose name, changed by deed poll, is itself a mark. His body is covered with bruise-blue designs: skulls, coffins, various slogans, a masonic symbol of some sort high on his forehead. His face is mostly clear except for a couple of teardrops coming from his left eye. He also has his mobile phone number tattooed on the back of his hand, a useful reminder for him, and a reminder to me that we all occasionally write on our skin for such purposes.
For Duncan, the individual motifs are not as important as the overall pattern, here lighter, here denser, broadly symmetrical, but with smaller asymmetries and chaotic details, just like the human body itself. ‘It was important it wasn’t a picture,’ he says of his first tattoo, gained at the age of twenty-one in an attempt to shock his parents, who were both medical doctors. ‘It was the tattoo concept, the ultimate rebellion.’ From there, he continued to cover himself. ‘I would feel really strange if I didn’t have them. They are like armour, I feel protected, but it is also like having the skin scraped off to reveal the real you.’