Revision, by Louise DeSalvo
March 31, 2010
I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City today. Yesterday I finished a revision of a piece for my father book – what I think will be the prologue, but who knows – and, though I wanted to sit right back down and get to work because finding the right voice for this book has been a long time coming, I decided to treat myself to an “art date,” to use Julia Cameron’s term. And, as always, when I venture out, I found something to apply to my writing a life. (Incidentally, have you ever noticed when you go out after surfacing from a project that you’re struck by all the people out and about during the hours when you’re usually squirreled away inside working at home?)
Revision. It was very much on my mind as a subject because I’ve just finished revising (I think) my own work, a piece I’m calling “Lifeboat.” So, when I entered “The Drawings of Bronzino” exhibit on the second floor of the Met, instead of perusing all the works on view, I began comparing Bronzino’s drawings – we can think of them as early drafts – with his paintings, presented in photographs next to the drawings. What I learned struck me as a lesson for us writers.
But first, a bit of background.
The exhibit at the Met is the first devoted to Agnolo Bronzino’s drawings – it gathers nearly all the drawings known to exist by this Italian Mannerist artist. He was the court painter to one of the Medicis – the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife, the Duchess Eleonara di Toledo. These facts were in the brochure to the exhibition which I read after I saw the exhibition. I usually don’t read the explanatory material when I go to a museum because I don’t like to be told what to see; I like to look for myself.
The first drawing I was struck by was the “Madonna and Child with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John.” It was dated 1540. There was a grid on the paper so that the drawing could more easily be transferred to canvas. The drawing was the basis for an oil, by the same name, painted between 1541 and 1543, now in the National Gallery. The differences between the two are stunning. In the drawing, Saint Elizabeth appears as if she is an old crone. The Madonna’s face seems sad, preoccupied. The drawing seems to look to Christ’s future, to predict that this child will one day be taken from his mother and that He will die a brutal death. The painting is, however has been sweetened. The crone has been transformed into a congenial enough looking old woman; the mother’s facial features are set in a benign semi-smile. Of the two, to my mind, the drawing is the more powerful work of art; the painting, more like decoration that a densely packed probing of the future of this mother, this child.
What happened? Bronzino has “revised” his earlier more complex vision into something approaching saccharine sweetness.
It happened again, in the next drawing I studied. Bronzino’s drawing “Dead Christ,” dated 1538-1539, is, again, very different from the fresco that used the drawing as sketch. The fresco is the famed “Pieta with Magdalen,” worked on from 1538-1539, at the Mercatale San Casciano Val di Pescia near Florence. The drawing presents Christ as a real man; his head is tilted to the left, but does not drop down upon his chest as it does in the painting. His forearm in the drawing is muscular. The overwhelming impression is of his strength, even in death. The wound, classically rendered, and depicted in the fresco is absent too. So this Christ does not come across as wounded, but as filled with resilience, purpose. I thought, too, that his features seemed Arabic. Again, I thought the drawing was a better work of art. The painting seemed to me more a depiction of a stock-in-trade kind of Jesus – a pitiful man, beaten, broken, dejected, his forearm more delicate, and surely not muscular.
What happened? Bronzino has revised this gorgeous, idiosyncratic, “authentic” portrait of Christ into something familiar rather than original.
The third work I studied was the drawing the preceded Bronzino’s oil on wood “Portrait of a Young Man with a Lute.” Both the drawing and the painting were completed between 1532 and 1534. The eyes of the young man in the drawing are defiant; the facial features are strong, even blunted; the hands are strong. In the drawing, the man’s hand clutches at something indefinite; it seems like a wad of fabric. In the painting, though, the man is elegant, sweet. His eyes lack strength; his hands aren’t coarse, but elegant; his mouth isn’t determined, it’s sweet. Again, for me, no contest: the drawing is by far the more complex, more interesting work of art.
And what happened here seems perfectly obvious, at least to me. Bronzino was blunting his authentic vision of the man’s spirit in the interests, it seems, of portraying his subject the way the subject or his family wanted the man portrayed. Bronzino needed to work, to be sure. But a comparison of the two illustrates as quickly as anything I can point to what can happen to a strong personal vision when the artist must bow to the desires of whoever is footing the bill. Thankfully, in this case, the drawing survives to show us the Bronzino’s insights into the nature of his subject.
A fourth work repeats this trend I’ve been describing. A drawing of a draped man, naked to the waist, leaning forward (1525-1526), was how Bronzino prepared for his painting of St. Mark, 1525-1528. The drawing depicts, well, a grotesque St. Mark, whose eyes are glazed, whose open mouth is set in a sneer, whose hair is disheveled, whose fist is clenched. This is a St. Mark you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near; he seems either demented or enraged. But he’s captivating. The painting is all sweetness; the saint’s mouth is closed, the lips set in a slight smile; the hand is relaxed; the curls are all arranged nicely. Again, a “revision,” if you will, to a sweeter, gentler depiction of what had been fury incarnate.
So, what lesson is there here for those of us writing a life?
Bronzino, in the employ of the rich and famous, blunted his authentic vision of his subject again and again. The finished version was nothing anyone could take exception to, nothing anyone could get angry about. And who could blame Bronzino? An artist has to live, an artist has to eat. Those Medici weren’t the nicest folks in the world; who knows what would happen to a painter who displeased one of them. Still, the finished versions, to me, were decoration rather than authentic art. And this happened in every pair I studied. What a shame that Bronzino’s brilliant earlier versions never became transformed into similarly robust completed works of art. That’s one consequence, I suppose, of depending on the rich and famous to support your work. Yet those drawings…. How magnificent they are!
I’ve taught several writing students who blunt their work as they revise. It doesn’t always happen. But it happens often enough that I would urge us all to witness ourselves revising and to see whether we do what Bronzino has done again and again.
As we approach our finished products, do we “regularize” our quirkiness? Do we sweeten our tough-mindedness? Do we transform our authentic, complex earlier portraits of people who are still alive, who we are afraid might read our work, into sugarcoated misrepresentations? Do we delete the defiance, the power of our work?
A surefire way of telling is to read our earlier drafts or our process journals against our latest revision. (This is one important reason why I think we should keep every version of our work as a separate document on our computers and that we should not just revise into the same document until we’re finished.) Do we see a trend, like the one I describe with Bronzino, one that needs to be rectified?
I once taught a student who I didn’t think was writing “real.” There was no “skin” in her work; her portraits were ethereal, idealized, cartoon-like figures. I knew it. And, thankfully, she knew it too. So one day I asked her to hand me her process journal and her earlier drafts. And there it all was in the earlier drafts, the authentic renderings, this writer’s equivalent of Bronzino’s drawings. Glorious, lucid, complex portraits of the people she’d rendered in her later drafts as vapid nonentities.
“Why do you think this happened?” I asked her. “I don’t want to upset them,” she said, treating her subjects as if they were the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, and perhaps, to her, they were.
I told her what I always tell students facing this challenge. That they have to decide what to do themselves. I don’t have an easy answer; every writer has to find her or his own way. But that they have to consider the consequences of waiting until all the people in their narratives are dead before writing about them.
My mother and father were both alive when I first wrote about them. My mother and sister were both dead, though, when I wrote my first book-length memoir, Vertigo, which, paradoxically, made their portraits harder to sketch, though my father was still living, and, again, contrary to what one might expect, I found it easier to write “real” about him. My husband was very much alive when I wrote my memoir Adultery. I told him not to read the book; he didn’t.
I’m lucky. I’m one of those writers who don’t worry about how the people I write about will take my work. If anything, I get more “real” as I revise. I don’t blunt my story as I move on. If anything, I find those tough moments that I wasn’t ready to look at in my earlier version as I move through my fourth, fifth, sixth versions.
But take a look at your earlier work. Check to see if you left out the muscle, the sneer, the strength. And if you did, consider putting it back in. Where it belongs.