Lines - A Brief History takes an original view of drawing and lines from 1925 to the present day. It expands the definition of drawing to consider how lines form part of our daily lives and environment. Permanent or ephemeral, physical or metaphorical, lines are everywhere: in writing, in furrows across the landscape, and in the traces our gestures and movements leave behind.
It is freely inspired by the book of the same name by the social anthropologist Tim Ingold(1). His premise is that “to study both people and things is to study the lines they are made of”. Walking, writing, weaving all belong to this making of lines.
The exhibition continues this exploration and sets off on the trail of the drawn or imagined line, on scales as diverse as a leaf, a wall, the body or the landscape. Its anthropomorphic view of drawing seeks to highlight the spiritual and poetic connections that exist between lines and the world.
Building on the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Lines - A Brief History presents an important body of works from the Department of Drawings. It is joined by loans from the Museum’s collections of photography, visual arts, architecture, film and new media, together with works from the Bibliothèque Kandinsky.
Hélène Guenin, Head of Programming, Centre Pompidou-Metz.
Christian Briend, Curator, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Drawings Department.
(1) "Lines: a brief history", Tim Ingold, 2007, Routledge: London. ISBN 978-0-415-42427-1
I - A taxonomy of lines
Artists have elaborated numerous taxonomies of the line, which is a major component of artistic creation. In the 1920s, for example, teachers at the Bauhaus classified types of line according to objective criteria. Whether the strictly geometrical straight line or a free-flowing meander, lines are always a powerful means of expression. The pure line is a constant in Minimal and Conceptual art. For proponents of action painting, influenced by Far Eastern philosophies, the line is a seismograph of the body in motion. Ramrod straight or swirling, single or multiple, the line in its many guises is inextricably linked to its means of production.
II - “The long poem of walking”
In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), the philosopher and historian Michel de Certeau describes walking, and its interaction with events and encounters along the way, as a “long poem”. This section considers how the line and the movement that makes it are one. Lines that “walk” across a sheet of paper or a reel of film leave a trace of their passage. Both trajectory and process, a drawing emerges from the progression of lines across the page. It is the continuous, physical movement of a line that forms a pattern in the back and forth motion of the hand; that traces the meanders we follow with our eye, or suspends and recomposes a trail to suggest an act in which the traveller and the line he makes are one and the same.
III - Tracing boundaries, narrating experience
Like medieval maps that recorded the encounters travellers were likely to make, the different stages in the journey and how long it would take to walk between them, the works in this section are all “describers of itineraries.” (Michel de Certeau) As alternatives to abstract, conventional maps, these pencilled cartographies inscribe an experience or a journey. They record motion, flow and changes of direction. Their lines are the floating traces of a moving, subjective geography; illustrations of a territory lived first-hand. Through these interplays of lines, “a migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.” (Michel de Certeau) The works can spring from poetic, political, exploratory, militant or subversive motivations.
IV - Space/measure
Geometry – literally “to measure the land” – is a branch of mathematics applied to a territory that is surveyed, contained, occupied and ultimately possessed by a line stretched between two points. The artists in this section envisage different ways of delimiting or redefining space; not in an authoritative way but using pencil, materials sourced in situ, or their own movements. Space, be it the space on a page, in nature, or inside the studio, is defined here on the scale of the artist’s body, trajectories and movement, and no longer by a fixed boundary. The body becomes a yardstick with which to measure the environment, highlighting the relative nature of accepted standards and offering scientificpoetic alternatives to the metric system.
V - Ghostly lines
From the curve of a branch to the contours of land carved by erosion; from the wind-sculpted ripples of dunes to the furrows man leaves in the earth, this section demonstrates the omnipresence of lines in nature. From the École de Paris to Minimalism, artists have represented this aspect of nature in landscapes reduced to abstraction. Ravines, geological movement and sinuous hillsides are stripped to their essence, to their vital force. In the 1960s, artists began to leave the studio and invent new forms on the scale of nature. Some inscribed lines on the landscape, using photography to record the invisible or reversible traces of their solitary path. Others saw themselves as demiurges, adding ephemeral lines to those of nature itself.
VI - Writing
Whether handwritten or printed, writing is entirely composed of lines, of upstrokes and downstrokes which, combined into text, produce more lines that run across the page. These two facets of writing are a rich source of inspiration for the artists presented here. Letters and numbers, some barely legible, take over the page, the canvas, even a wall, replacing their primary function to communicate meaning with the aesthetic of a purely visual language. Other works, when not inventing languages, replace characters with abstract signs or endlessly repeated minimalist motifs, still conserving the alignment of text or musical notation.
VII - Lifelines
Like plants criss-crossed with nervures and cavities, the human body is made up of innumerable lines, beginning with the internal network of veins and arteries. The palm of the hand maps out our existence with lines whose meaning the fortune-teller has traditionally deciphered. This final section sets out correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm. They are reflected in the format of works which exaggerate a detail of the body, or in contrast propose a diminutive mapping of the individual. While life expectancy can be read in the lines of the hand, our fragile existence, on reaching its term, hangs by a thread: the ultimate metaphor of the line.