Since the discovery of their ability to paint, artists have naturally been fascinated by their hand, the hand that holds the brush – this instrument of creation. Witness Cuevas de la Manos in Argentina: a somewhat disturbing sea of waving hands have been stencilled by a graffiti artist using his right hand to spray colour around his left, which was resting on the wall. The work is dated at around 7300 BC. I like to imagine this artist, nearly 100 centuries ago, looking at his own hand with wonder, the way babies do, then admiring its image on the wall of the cave.
Conforming to restrictions imposed by the Bible – as it suffered many translations and interpretations – Jewish and early Christian artists did not feature God in their work. To express his actions, or his influence, or even his voice, they would use the hand as synecdoche, more precisely his right hand (Dextera domini). This metaphorical reference remains in usage in modern English – and possibly other languages too. Indeed, languages remain rich in idioms featuring the hand in a variety of roles: hand in hand, hand in glove, free hand, heavy hand, bite the hand that feeds you, upper hand, safe hands, etc.
The complex expressiveness of hands continued to be a subject of fasciation to Renaissance artists. They studied hands in a variety of poses and movements, trying to represent them as close to reality as possible.
Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock, and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.
(Michel de Montaigne)
The desire to portray the human body as lifelike as possible led painters and sculptors to the study of anatomy and to the creation of some remarkable images. Leonardo da Vinci has made a series of anatomical studies of hands, his drawings detailing the delicate bones and cartilages of the fingers, as well as a variety of expressive poses, to be transposed in some of his most famous paintings. The hands of Durer, Rafael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt – are not just anatomically correct, but charged with a complexity that gives their paintings a vibrant, dynamic significance.
Actions, as well as expression – from tenderness to strength, human interaction (shaking hands, holding hands, kissing a hand) the relationship between man and God, hope and order - can be read in the hands. In Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, God’s hand doesn’t quite reach the hand of his creation, Adam, but the nearly touching index fingers belong to nearly identical hands and arms; a reminder that man was created in God’s image, destined to be himself a creator.
From the realistic working hands of Van Gogh’s peasants to the surreal, scarlet fingernailed hands of Salvador Dali’s passionate woman, the representation of hands was instrumental in the creation of character, atmosphere, mood, message.
Diego Rivera painted The Hands of Dr Moore in 1940 – the hands of the surgeon who creates, modifies or destroys. The hands that sever the root from the tree, that cut through the female body.
In contrast, Maurizio Cattelan’s L.O.V.E., a giant veiny hand sculpted in white marble, is a middle finger on a 7 metre base in front of the Milano Stock Exchange. The fascist salute in front of the fascist-style building is a sight to behold, and before deciding between offence and amusement, the viewer notices the other fingers are severed. Does the artist show a finger to fascism, to the financial sector, or to us, its admirers?
Artists have focused on the expressive possibilities of the hand to represent emotions, identities, conflict and collaboration.
The tool of tools, as Aristoteles defined them, hands are the instrument of creation: the spirit becomes material through the action of hands.
It follows that the artist’s hand is of major interest to himself.
Like the graffiti artist who decorated the walls of the Cuevas de la Manos, Theodore Gericault examined and drew his left hand. (Gericault made several studies of hands, feet and male torso in preparation for his best known work The Raft of the Medusa, 1819).
In her Self-portrait, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun delights in painting her own hands holding a palette and her brush – the tools of her trade (while her portraits of Marie Antoinette often depicts her with a rose in her hand).
Henry Moore looked at and drew his own hands, as a record of the aging process. He was in his 80’s and suffering from ill health when he made these drawings, following a long tradition of artists expressing their feelings through the representation of hands.
M.C. Escher’s hands appear to be drawing each other, in a continuously repeating pattern, while a photo of Yves Klein shows the artist proudly presenting his palm, dripping with International Klein Blue acrylic.
Giving and taking, accepting or rejecting, comfort or coldness are themes represented in Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures of hands. Hands that protect and nurture, hands open in acceptance and comfort, closed in rejection and animosity. Used to express her hopes and anxieties, but also fundamental feelings like friendship and dependency, a desire to protect and nurture. This ambivalence is concisely illustrated by Give or Take, a bronze sculpture of two forearms fused together, one hand outstretched, the other closed.
As a metaphor, the anatomical precision matters less than its role in the composition. Giorgio de Chirico can therefore borrow the right hand and forearm of a famous sculpture and place it in a frame at the centre of his canvas in Metaphysical Interior with Hand of David.
Liberated from the chains of life-like detailed drawing, artists have moved from hands-on (as it were) practice to conceptually based work.
Like Magritte, Nelu Wolfensohn associates the hand with the eye, the seeing with conveying the vision. At the centre of the hand that holds the pencil/USB there is the all-seeing iris, the photographic image of a perfectly round, black surrounded by yellow, iris. The hand that creates, as well as the hand that protects (The Future of Wildlife) is the hand that sees.
Victory signs. Thumbs up. Fist. Holding hands. The hands of humans can communicate a vast range of expressions, immortalised by artists in some of the greatest works created by their hands.