Love, it is said, was the inventor of drawing

Dani Leventhal, Untitled, 1999

This startling quotation comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language, which I stumbled across while idly leafing through Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind. The statement is a reference to the famous anecdote about the origin of drawing or painting that was first described by Pliny the Elder (35. 15), when he tells how Butades of Corinth, ‘who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp’. Derrida has several intriguing interpretations of this passage in Rousseau, not the least being how it rephrases the origin of language in terms of the origin of art (cf. his earlier discussion of the Rousseau essay in Of Grammatology). However what I want to share with you here originates in my immediate response to reading the Rousseau quotation in Derrida’s text. Instead of thinking of Butades, perhaps thanks to Rousseau’s capital letter ‘L’ in ‘Love’, I imagined the god Eros or Cupid as somehow the literal inventor of drawing, in the same way as Hermes invented the lyre. Given this misleading interpretation, I must admit that I was disappointed to discover that it was in terms of the Butades story that Rousseau and Derrida were discussing the role of lowercase love in the invention of drawing. Then, something happened, and there appeared to me, in one of Derrida’s footnotes, a faint hope for my fantasy of Eros/Cupid as the god of drawing. In tracing the discussions of the the story through a series of art historians (George Levitine and Robert Rosenblum), Derrida, who had previously linked the tale of Butades’ skiagraphia to Plato’s analogy of the cave (what he calls ‘the Platonic speleology’), relishes the back-tracking of these scholars in finding the origin of the origin of drawing, and, specifically, in finding a role for the god Eros/Cupid along the way. Derrida writes:  

In his “Addendum” to Rosenblum’s study (in The Art Bulletin, vol. 40 [1958]), Levitine directs us back to some anterior, and thus, in sum, more originary “origins of drawing.” The first would be an engraving inspired by a drawing of Charles Le Brun (before 1676), the other, an engraving inspired by a drawing of Charles-Nicolas Cochin, Jr. (1769). In both cases, one sees the young Corinthian woman, her lover, and Cupid. In Le Brun’s version Cupid guides Butades’ hand

Sadly I was not able to find any of these ‘original’ versions of the inventor of drawing to share with you here. Instead, you have above a reproduction of a drawing by Dani Leventhal. I have given you this because I have to confess that the excitement I felt at my fantasy of the god Love as the inventor of drawing can be traced back to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Dani about drawing and desire. Furthermore, looking forward, Derrida’s playful note on the search for the origin of the origin of drawing in a sequence of engraving-inspired drawings seemed like a great demonstration of a project that Dani and I are embarking on called Rough Draft (watch this space!)

For more info on Dani Leventhal’s work, go here.

One thought on “Love, it is said, was the inventor of drawing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *