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The hands have it

by Angus Trumble, 8 June 2016

Angus Trumble treats the gallery’s collection with a dab hand.

Dame Mabel Brookes, c.1955 by William Dargie
Dame Mabel Brookes, c.1955 by William Dargie

When they appear in portraits, and they appear very often, hands may perform any number of useful functions. They can be set to work doing something useful. They can be exploited as a refinement or elaboration of elements of the character of the sitter. They can enhance the composition through gesture—demonstrative, particular or vague as the case may be. They can place real emphasis upon qualities of grace, strength, endurance, frailty, delicacy or plain old age. They can be made to hold onto something, or to let it go. They can be clasped, or in repose. And the hands can be brought into suggestive dialogue with the face itself. As Montaigne put it (in 1580),

What doe we with our hands? Doe we not sue and entreat, promise and performe, call men unto us and discharge them, bid them farewell and be gone, threaten, pray, beseech, deny, refuse, demand, admire, number, confesse, repent, feare, bee ashamed, doubt, instruct, command, incite, encourage, sweare, witnesse, accuse, condemne, absolve, injure, despise, defie, despight, flatter, applaud, blesse, humble, mocke, reconcile, recommend, exalt, shew gladnesse, rejoyce, complaine, waile, sorrow, discomfort, dispaire, cry out, forbid, declare silence and astonishment: and what not? with so great variation, and amplifying as if they would contend with the tongue.

In general terms, it would seem that, if indeed we do all of these things with gesture, artists have always taken full advantage of their capacity to seize upon our hands, and capture parts of us in that way. En grande tenue, for example, Dame Mabel Brookes is shown to be partial to spry red nail varnish. In his laboratory, Macfarlane Burnet handles an egg just firmly enough to provide stability. There is a hint of reserve in the conjoined disposition of the hands, in each case, of Dora Byrne and Frank Fenner. Ann Moyal toys with her sautoir. George Judah Cohen literally applies the hand of experience to his business affairs. One hand may be shown somehow dealing with a glove that partly conceals the other – which often raises the question whether the sitter was captured in the act of putting them on or taking them off – such is the case with Herbert Badham and Charles Lloyd Jones, who also holds his pipe, that now forgotten emblem of depth of thought. Repose itself, meanwhile, covers wide territory: Kate Hattam’s attenuated wrists embody personal style, while Lowitja O’Donoghue’s hands carry the eminence of age and experience.

On the other hand – sorry – the passage of time, the action of history, often steers us towards the perception of larger cultural, even national tendencies – at odds with purely individual traits. Surely one can trace, for example, a taste in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist sculpture for sinuously curving fingers, a gentle resistance to the whole notion of joint articulation possibly arising from conventions of dance, of delicate motions, as much as one can point to a whole-of-life interest on the part of German and Austrian painters from Dürer and Grünewald all the way down to Klimt, Schiele, and Beckmann in the expressive potential of long, bony fingers, or sunken phalanges, or swollen joints, and creeping, protruding veins. French art, meanwhile, from the School of Fontainebleau, through Rigaud, Boucher and Fragonard, Vigée-Lebrun, Greuze and Boilly, to Bouguereau, even Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, exhibits what seems to me an undeniable taste for elegantly tapering fingers, tiny, not to say minuscule fingertips, and winningly dimpled knuckles. When in Marivaux’ play Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (1730), about to take Lisette’s hand in marriage, the character of Arlequin describes it affectionately as “rondelette et potelée” (strictly speaking the equivalent of ‘pottled,’ meaning plump, but surely also implying the presence of dimples) he could be describing exactly the hand of a Boucher shepherdess. Softness, delicacy, and an impressively independent, free-ranging cocked little finger seem to characterise the hand in French art.

It may seem bizarre, therefore, to speculate whether, 300 years hence, any such thing as an ‘Australian’ hand will then be discerned in the portraits of our own time and place, when it is, of course, quite invisible to us. The diverse character of our society may well militate against such a tendency, but equally nobody could sustain the argument that all French hands of the eighteenth century, for example, actually conformed to the Boucher type – any more than that all Viennese fingers of the Belle Epoque were bony – yet that is how the visual culture of those times and places now powerfully urge us to remember them.