by Steven Perkins, Anatomy Instuctor AAU
Ecorche is a French word meaning “flayed figure. When you think of those muscle man figures without the skin, those are ecorche figures. Ecorche in the larger sense is a method by which artists can study anatomy in a comprehensive and highly effective manner. Flesh coats and obscures the forms of the body, so without that, the forms become more obvious. It is this definition that artists seek in order to make their work more believable, meaningful, beautiful and capable of conveying meaning.
Glancing over the large arc of figurative art, one thing is clear. The elevation of the art form has gone hand in hand with the understanding of the artist. A large part of that understanding has been the knowledge of how to depict their most important subject, a human being. There are other subjects. Landscape if you think about it is our home and we are dearly in love with this planet in all its variety. Still life are our things, our possessions. We tend to collect things that we love as well. The human figure however, is who we are. There is no more important subject, nothing that stirs us so profoundly. We fall in love with it, tell infinite stories about it, judge everything by it. The human figure is who we are and so it is that the history of art has at its center, this most basic subject.
If we as artists are to spend a lifetime using this form in countless ways to tell stories, emote feelings, create arch types etc. then it is incumbent on us to understand that form profoundly. People know what other people are supposed to look like. We are hard wired in that way. That means that everyone is an art critic and we as artists have to be very good in order to engage them. Paint on a canvas or charcoal on paper or clay or bronze, none of these is a human being. In a sense, artists are liars, trying to get others to believe that this stuff is a person or landscape. We have to be good to do that. Michelangelo is reported to have said that Tintoretto's figures looked like “bags of walnuts”. What he meant was that each form looked like the next, rather than having its particular characteristics that make it appear as what it is. You have to know that. If you don't know it, you won't see it and you won't get it in your work.
Ecorche is a method of anatomical study that essentially takes a student through the entire figure, creating it from the ground up. You start by making a skeleton in clay. This sounds simple enough but it is literally half the class. Essentially the class is like a reverse dissection in that you build a figure up rather than tear it down. In doing so, each layer of the form is examined and one sees how the layers depend on each other to create the form that we see on the surface. After the skeleton is massed in, and this is a very important part as the large masses always are, then the focus switches to sections and examination in detail of each area. Eventually, you get a skeleton rendered in clay, in detail, with all its beauty and wonder.
The next stage is the myology or the application of the muscles. For this, we add one muscle at a time, examining its characteristics of shape and volume, form and function. The muscles go on starting with the deepest. They layer on top of each other so each is dependent on the deeper form. They are all dependent on the skeleton. The cartoon of Gary Larson's “Boneless Chicken Ranch” comes to mind with all the boneless chicken, flopping around, formless, on the ground.
There is a last stage that is not included in the class due to time restraints. That is the morphology or surface form, the addition of skin and fat tissue essentially. This coating of skin brings us to the human form that we all know. But the process of creating a figure from the inside out allows us to know it all over again, in a far more profound manner. We've all perhaps had the experience of seeing something that we have seen a million times but seeing it with different eyes. Ecorche does this for the artist. For and artist, to understand what one is looking at is everything. For all of this , we have the help of a man
who has been dead for 100 years or so, Dr. Paul Richer. When Rodin was trying in vain to get into the Beauxs-Arts in Paris, along with every other young artist in the world, Richer was the man teaching them all anatomy. His book, Artistic Anatomy, 130 years old or so is still by far the best thing ever written on artistic anatomy.
In the end, the students get a figure that looks very human and yet without skin. Creating an ecorche figure is something like reading a large dictionary of human forms. You want to know the definition of those forms, what their characteristics are. If I looked like a giraffe and you looked like a jaguar then there wouldn't be much point to this as everything would change from one person to the next. But humans are not like that. It is kind of a wonderful thought that we as humans are all the same, we are all identical in the pattern of our forms. If you see and understand one ear, you know them all. At the same time that we are all the same, we are all completely unique. That uniqueness manifests in the proportional ratios in our bodies. Even the color of our skin is a proportion of melanin. The large form differences between the genders are more proportional than anything. We are all the same, we are all unique. It is a comforting thought.
The human figure, for all its complexity is a form that can be learned and understood. We are visual artists speaking a visual language. When you get to the human figure as part of that visual language, ecorche can be thought of as a large visual dictionary of its forms. To express in any language, one must be fluent. One must know the definition of words and how they go together to make sentences. We do the same thing with visual forms. They must be defined in order to resonate with the viewer. They must be convincing so that the viewer transcends to that place where they believe the work is a person. They must show the inherent beauty that all humans possess. That understanding is available to all of us as artists in the twenty-first century. It isn't the only thing that is needed as an artist but it is a big thing nevertheless. With it, the human figure becomes an instrument of artistic expression.