The Silence of the Sculpture

There was nothing. Shortly, in the darkness the scant light of the night diffused sufficiently for a vaguely discernible shape to be visible against a slightly lighter shape. Deeper in the unlit darkness occasional sounds hinted at a second presence. Sustained attention suggested two human forms in the room. None of this was certain.

Slowly, as the earliest graying of dawn allowed further suggestions, it seemed that there was a human figure silently seated at a table in front of a window. Vague shapes and imagination allowed this impression. Further attention to the sounds of a slight creaking and what seemed to be a sigh enabled a sense of a sleeping person in a bed.

As the blue sky tinted lighter, imperceptibly changing with the coming dawn, a man could be seen seated at a small table gazing forwards, through what was now clearly a window. His back was straight and both hands rested lightly on the table in loose contact with each other. He was motionless. As the light grew his immobile face could be seen, and he was gazing into the far distance of hill and cloud or into the intimate space immediately before his face. It seemed almost as if the two were the same.

As it became clear enough to see him, so he became able to see. What was an uncertainty of figure and ground assumes form and although it was still dark a sense of seeing was coming into life. His eyes moved.

He looked down to the surface of the table. There, before his loosely resting hands was a pale square; as his gaze found it so his fingers in slow sequence gained the life that moved them to touch the shape. His hand moved, and now his arm and with the gentlest caress that touching could be, he drew his the tips of his fingers over the square of palest blue. It was a slight, almost idle caress but once it had been stroked the hand swept gently across the surface as if to wipe something from what was an empty smoothness.

The man gazed intently at the square and without moving his gaze he reached his hand into the darkness of the window-sill to take hold of something. As his hand slowly moved back into the dimly lit arena of the table it could be seen that his hand was folded about an object so that it was forming a grip. The man leant forward moving his weight onto his other arm. Hand, arm and elbow moved in separated sequence into propping him. His back curved forward and his arm moved slowly so that the object was drawn lightly across the surface of the square. With pensive deliberation the hand moved about the square in all directions.

Now the blueness beyond the window had the cobalt hue of an early sky and the man’s face had a visible air of deliberation. In his hand was a small knife and he scribed the white square, small flakes of which fell away onto the dark surface of the table. The light revealed that he was carving into a slab of hard plaster or soft stone. The gliding sound of the cutting knife was a light echo of his clear breathing.

The dormant figure lay easy in the bed, breathing lightly as relaxed as the limp resting of sleeping limbs on crumpled sheets.

Until now the light had been sufficient only for the man to see just enough to affirm his mental image. Now the dawn’s light fell across the table and it could be seen that he was carving the profile of a face. He had scribed in a contour line of the profile and he chipped away the material on one side of the line. Again, he swept his hand across the square but now chippings and dust fell to the darkness of the table. A face was revealed as a single line without eyes or other features. He carved a second face into the slab and two faces posed in eyeless gaze upon each other.

It seemed that the sleeping figure dreamed for it turned and rolled, with quiet mumbling, long hair falling from its face and across the pillow. The brow furrowed slightly in a frown and the lips tensed and relaxed as the breathing again deepened the woman’s face assumed its own calm.

He was now carving deeply, cutting, scraping and rubbing the surface. The daylight was strengthening to show that in the low-relief sculpture the two faces were posed and paused as if to kiss. Smooth and textured surfaces contrasted so that the space between the faces was as pictorially significant as the profiles themselves. The image of the sculptor grew from the waning darkness just as the carved form emerged from the solidity of the material; the substance of the material seemed to fall away as if before the growth of the light.

The coming day brightened the white surface to reveal a complexity of facets, planes, gouged lines and scratched texture. Shadows and highlight grew from variations in the tilt and direction of the surfaces. The light throwing the image into relief formed the linear shadows that defined the pursed lips and furrowed brow of the sculptor’s face. The light falling upon the sleeping face was the same but in place of line it cast on her a subtle variety of smooth tones. Their two forms were so like those of the carved alabaster but with a glow of life that the illuminated stone could only approximate in its act of silent witness.

Without the light there could be no knowing of the man, nor of the knowing that he portrayed.

He shifted his weight on the chair and he horizontally rotated the square in order to carve a finer detail. As the sculpture moved the fall of light threw new shadows so that the carved faces seemed to change in expression. Where there was shape there now was mood. Gray became white and white black. Another shift and the background seemed to come forward, and with each subsequent change of light and dark what may be seen and interpreted changed and grew. He leaned closely over his work in close attention to carve one eye in shallow relief.

The woman woke and with no more movement than the opening of one eyelid she contemplated the silhouette of the sculptor against the light. She saw a dark shape of back and shoulders large against the small square of the window. The light now shined cleanly and cold across the table surface, the cut edges of soft stone crisp as drawn lines on a bluish surface that warmed lightly in hue with the coming of the sun. He paused occasionally at his work in order to hold the slab at this or that angle against the light so that shadows danced to reveal his images. She observed silently.

She turned slightly, her skin gliding audibly over the sheets, so that she could extend one arm. She turned on the electric light. The man stopped and stared at his work as if perplexed. The white slab now appeared as plain and featureless as before he first marked it, for the light – now falling from above – shone flat against the picture plane so that no shadows, and therefore no shapes appeared on it. The colour had changed too as the harsh yellow of the electric light contrasted with the now dull seeming blue-gray of the morning sky. He turned slowly towards her and as his open, half smiling gaze met her narrowly focussed look she spoke,

Can’t you see?

He faltered a half sound and hesitated before quietly asking,


The gentleness of his question seemed naive before the pointedness of hers.

Won’t you see? she asked.

There was a long silence that seemed so much more immediate that the quiet of the passed night. He met her irate scrutiny with a perplexed curiosity.

What do you…,

Nothing! she said with a quick if resigned finality, turning briskly to pull the sheets up so that he was faced with the empty smoothness of her curved back. He leant behind him and switched off the light.

Turning back again he looked into the warming daylight sweeping across his carving. He carved the other eye. Clearly delineated again the two faces contemplated each other with an uneasy gaze. Each seeming to see itself observed and their common act of silent seeing. The man’s face seemed reflective as if he was looking into himself.

The two figures were defined by the brightly dawning, flooding light as facing apart. He sat before the window as she faced into the crumpled sheets.

Beyond the window, the sun broke through a cloud-bank above the distant hill to reveal the valley in a flood of bright, coloured light as it cascaded through crisp air. It threw the broad landscape into a clear relief of sharp shadows and edged detail. The sunlight swept in through the window bathing the room in focussed light that brought to dancing life the colours and shapes of domestic life, things that seemed at home in the embrace of the room.

The sudden magic of penetrating light informed the room with its sense of realness and she suddenly sat up to turn towards him.

The clarity of light on her face revealed personality, life, and seeing.

She sat up straight.

He turned towards her, the side of his face lit by the sharply angled light to reveal the grain and texture of the human substance of his skin.

They looked into each other’s face with a sense of seeing that could define light. They seemed to know well what they saw for there was no sense of seeking in their eyes, there was only the empty space between them obscuring what might have been in their faces.

Their faces were immobile, their knowing only assumed and not known, in a poise of perfect sculptural composition. And silence.