Anonymous: West Bromwich Sweep (1850)

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There's nothing to beat seeing a man being beaten to a pulp. Before boxing-gloves were introduced by the Queensberry Rules of 1867, bare-knuckle fighting could cause horrible facial damage. And it is clear from images and written accounts that the mess was part of the fun. For instance, there's Thomas Rowlandson's Six Stages of Marring a Face (1792) - a cartoon strip, depicting step-by-step the wreckage of a boxer's features. No opponent is shown. All attention is on the bloody rearrangement.

And William Hazlitt wrote a repulsive little essay called "The Fight" (1822), in which he describes how he and other lovers of "The FANCY" take an excursion out of London to watch a big match between William Neate and The Gas-man (as he's nicknamed).Hazlitt coos at the prospect, and at the sight, of two fellows smashing each other to bits. He thrills with giggly self-consciousness at the crudely violent yet magnificent man liness of it all, and relishes exercising his powers of description, as the Gas-man gets the worst of it.

The Gas-man aimed "a mortal blow at his adversary's neck". But Neate "returned itwith his left at full swing, planted a tremendous blow on his cheek-bone and eyebrow, and made a red ruin of that side of his face. The Gas-man went down... all one side of his face was perfect scarlet, and his right eye was closed in dingy blackness." The fight continues. And "to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies' and then, before you recover from the shock, to see them rise up with new strength and courage...- this is the high and heroic state of man!"

But at last the Gas-man falls. "I never saw anything more terrific than his aspect just before he fell. All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him. His face was like a human skull, a death's head, spouting blood. The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed with blood, the mouth gaped blood." It is not this great English writer's finest hour.

Sometimes one piece of work can repair the damage done by another. And if there is a work thatmakes up for the frivolous sadism of "The Fight", it's a picture by an anonymous English folk artist entitled West Bromwich Sweep. Hazlitt's writing is fixated on the spectacle of violation. The picture imagines what it feels like. Its technique is pretty rough. Its evocation of pain is overwhelming.

"WESTBROMWICH SWEEP As he appeared at george Holdens after his fight with fred higgit being waited on by Jem Parker through wose superior Generalship he won his Battle in 1 hour and 26 mineets on the 7 January 1850" (sic), reads the semi-literate caption. And if you look at the pictures hanging on the wall of the pub, you can see how the Fancy was normally portrayed: the man posed, ready before the fight, dukes up. But here we see the aftermath, the tending of wounds. And it's in the depiction of the boxer's head that this image shocks, and exceeds all expectation.

It's not the Sweep's heavy bruising and swelling as such that the picture stresses - it's his searing pain, extreme tenderness, sensory confusion and general pitifulness. His head is inflated, too big for his body (the other figures' heads are all in scale). Its sensations become larger than anyone else's in the room. It also becomes baby like, helpless. And the head-body joint is not properly articulated at the jaw. The head simply grows out of the neck, it is itself a swelling, a ballooning lump of flesh without self-control' helpless again.

Or look at the features. There's the closed right eye formed like a black butterfly. The shape represents its contusion. But this symmetrical graphic sign also feels like it's stamped on to the face. The eye has been simply obliterated, turned into this blind and meaningless mark. And there's the left eye, bruised and blackened, and depicted as a negative shape, cut into the edge of the face like a slot.

The bruising of the cheek is made of pure blackness that stains or corrodes into the side of the face from the edge. And the extreme tenderness of this cheek is conveyed by the extreme gentleness of the flannel that is dabbing against it. It only barely touches it. The bounding contours of cheek and flannel just meet, tangentially. The image winces at their point of contact.

Most of all, there is the man's mouth. Its contusion curves it upwards into a pathetic involuntary smile (more pitiful helplessness). And as it curves up, the arc of the upper-lip becomes not quite readable. If you try to follow it along, you can't tell where this lip-line is meant to stop, or what path it takes. It could stop smartly at the edge of the face. It could seamlessly curve into and become one with the contour of the blackened cheek (the swollen mouth losing all identity). Or it could curve back more sharply, becoming the edge of the pink area round the nose (making an especially fat lip).

Now, a viewer doesn't need to have these specific alternatives in mind. All you need register is that you can't grasp what the boxer's face is doing at this point - and nor can the boxer himself. The uncertainty of the image mimes his sensory disorientation, the thickening and blurring of the sensations of severely ruined flesh. This is picturing as empathy, the image fully inward with the agony it shows. There's nothing like it outside Picasso.