Daumier, Honoré: The Burden (c.1865)

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About the artist

Here's an exercise for you. Take off your clothes. (Optional, but it will make things clearer.) Stand before a large full-length mirror. Make sure there's a pale wall behind you, so your body stands out against it. Strike a pose, nothing too difficult, a pose you can hold - and hold it, stock still. Notice the shape that your body makes. Notice especially its outside edge, its contour.

Now ask a friend to take a marker pen, and draw a line on to your body that follows this contour, tracing the very edge of your body shape as it appears in the mirror. When that's done, there should be a barely perceptible outline going all the way round you. However, this task will prove almost impossible.

It is almost impossible, partly because your friend will have to do it all under your guidance, since you alone can see the shape in question; and partly because your contour, though it may look sharp in the mirror, will turn out to follow a very erratic three-dimensional path as it travels about your body.

This outline will swerve back and forth as it crests the body's hills. It will jump between one body part and another. If you imagine the route of your contour as a wire construction in space, it would be a meandering, zigzagging and (from most viewpoints) meaningless configuration.

Yes, there are some things - a head seen in perfect pro-file, say - whose outline will lie almost entirely on a single flat plane, just like an outline in a picture. But most positions the human body can get itself into, viewed from most angles, will yield a contour that goes all over the place.

The lesson of this exercise is that shapes are strange entities. In pictures, they can look very plain, with every object bounded by a definite and continuous contour (and perhaps an actual outline tracing this contour). In 3D reality such simple boundaries don't exist. Our contours are chaotic. When someone's looking at you, you've little idea where your visual edges are. You may be very conscious of your figure, but you aren't a cardboard cut-out. Exactly where your body's contours lie is not something you can be aware of. (Another exercise: stand in front of someone, and try guessing.)

But figures in pictures are stranger still. They don't just have simple contours. Sometimes they seem to experience their contours - to be physically enclosed and bounded by them, as by an encasing mould. The figure feels con-fined, or fortified, or squeezed, or supported, within the shape its body makes. This is of course a completely fictional dimension of experience. It only happens in pictures. There is nothing in our three-dimensional lives that corresponds to it. The visual shapes our bodies make cannot physically impinge on us. Yet in the pictured world, the laws of nature change. The shapes of things exert a powerful hold. Look at the work of Honoré Daumier.

Daumier has been praised for showing, not what people look like, but what they feel like. He's not alone in that. The same compliment has been paid to Michelangelo and to Picasso and to the cartoonist H M Bateman. The depiction of physical sensation is something that cartoons, still or animated, are especially good at. (It is practically the whole point of Tom & Jerry.) Daumier was partly a cartoonist, partly a painter, sometimes a bit of both. It's no surprise to find that feelings are his forte.

Often he paints figures who are entirely given over to bodily sensation. They race through the air. They are slumped in exhaustion. They wrestle. They 're towing a barge or struggling with a weight. Their feelings subsume them, and their shapes embody these feelings.

Daumier painted this picture, called either The Burden or The Washerwoman, in several versions. The basic motif is the same in each. A woman is lugging a heavy basket of washing down the street, with a little child toddling beside her. Her strain is palpable. She is bending against the weight of her load, while pushing against an impeding wind. And so great is the sense of effort, you could believe she was tugging a barge too. She seems to be moving with the kind of motion you get in dreams, where you walk and make no headway at all. And this is not in fact the most ag-onised version of the image.

But it is the most shape-conscious, and shape is where its power lies. The woman and her burden make a firmly contoured and outlined shape, with several sub-shapes inside it. These shapes are clear; more than that, they have a strong identity in their own right, so that they are in tension with the natural shapes of her body. Her pictorial shaping applies a pressure, a bondage to her anatomy. It enacts and aggravates her bodily strain. These shapes are what make the figure's sensations so palpable.

Her contours hold her down, forcing her body against its human uprightness. The top edge of the figure, from laundry to head, bonds it into three climbing steps. The shoulder, the focus of her labour, juts up in a rounded right-angle hump. The face and neck, as they push forward, are drawn out into a pink phallus. The top edge of her face, and the contour of her shoulder, lie in an almost straight horizontal line, fixing the head low and rigid. Her right arm is pulled round into a curving hoop.

In the process, of course, there is distortion. The body is not just bound by its shapes into its strenuous position. It is reshaped to fit in with them. It is moulded to its exertions. It becomes a body that it's hard to imagine ever straightening up, or doing anything else. It lives only in this form, in these contours, in this labour, like one of the damned.

About the artist

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was the most singular figure in 19th-century French art. He was the age's greatest caricaturist, an outspoken social satirist, scourge of the bourgeoisie, a public voice for Republicanism.

At the same time, and far more low-profile, he was a radically experimental painter, whose free shape-making and brushwork were admired by Delacroix and Degas. And in his grotesque clay figurines of French politicians he was also one of the most original sculptors of the century.

The subject of his tragic-comic art is always the human body, its exaltations and oppressions. We'll never see anything like him again.