A person writhes over a black table. In the back and to the sides are dark brown plank walls. Long black hair covers the downward head, neck, shoulders, and face. The most immediately recognizable human body parts are two stretched arms of tan skin tone. They support the torso bent over the table. The right ends in a claw-like fist, and the left, featuring a ring, lays flat on the table. A white rectangle of equal proportion to the tabletop acts as visual anchor. In the depicted hair there’s a light brown orangey crown suggesting roots of a lighter color. These two brighter areas, the white rectangle and orange aureole, make eyes go down, up, down again. Otherwise it is pretty much dark brown, tan, and black—hair, skin, timber. The visible brushstrokes that double as wood grain, the gravity of the loose hair, and the stretched arms pull the line of sight to the bottom part of the painting, to the rectangle whose whiteness and flatness are reinforced by the surrounding darkness of the table.
Meet the alluring terror of the blank page.
The year is 1946. The title of the painting is The Letter. It measures 50.8 by 40.3 centimeters and is made of egg tempera on composition board. Its maker is Jacob Lawrence, who, until a year beforehand, had been an artist for the United States Coast Guard.
Despite the clarity of the label and the legible visual elements, we lack concrete, workable data. No face is visible. There are hardly any details about the space. Nor is there a hint of text on the painted page. The blank letter piercing through the dark picture rubs this in even more: there is nothing personal to go on here. What to do in the face of this faceless blankness, when the gravity of the war context at hand demands my individual sympathy and understanding?
I am wont to treat that page as a projection screen but first need to deal with the hunched mediator who completes this triangle of emotional expectation between myself and the letter. I, the viewer, stand on the opposite end of the table. There is hardly any communication between the body in the painting and my own: I want to connect while the other one refuses. From here on, I am left alone with my drive for emotional narrative, for pity, with my urge to fill in the blanks, with my need to feel good and involved. Conjecture, if not metaphor, is the primary tool at hand.
The letter appears as cut into the surface, like a portal toward the nothingness on the other end, echoing the visual cliché of cinematic near-death experiences featuring a dark tunnel and bright, stupefying white light at the just-not-reached end.
The hair hangs like an arrested arrow over the letter, freezing this charged moment in time.
The wood in the back and the confined, windowless space are echoes of a coffin.
This person hinges between human and animal, between civilization and nature—present through organic matter (hair, skin), and bending over, almost as if on all fours.
Metaphor and feeling aside, I am also neatly programmed to fill in the gaps in a more pragmatic, genre-derived sense. War movies and TV documentaries have taught me that epistolary exchanges in times of war come with a particular gendered dynamic: men are in remote landscapes waging war, they are the epitome of action, and therefore write hastily from a tent or makeshift barrack at night. Meanwhile, women are at home, possibly with the children, possibly assembling artillery in a factory, and certainly reading and rereading the letters they receive whenever there is a free moment to do so. Here there is no sign of a battle landscape, of hurried writing, of provisional residence. As by conditioned elimination, I assume this is a person on the receiving end. The long hair, typically not allowed in the armed forces, and also a conventional fashion for women, is an additional visual cue that brings me from hypothesis to proof: this person is not man, hence, woman.
The ambivalent skin color does not allow my positive/negative deductive operation to come to a successful conclusion about race. The lighter hair at the crown of the head, however, does aid the apparatus in establishing age: it is safe to assume not man has passed forty. Add to this the presence of the ring on the left hand around a finger usually reserved for wedding bands, and conclude that not man is likely married. Class is somewhat tricky, but the lack of adornment in the space, the poorly dyed hair, the sober clothing, all of these suggest not higher class.
Looking at abstract realist painting is profiling through yes/no stereotypes. What I know for sure is what it is not.
There is nothing in this image that indicates place or time. I only know a bit more through the author’s biography: this is the United States during World War II. The universalism in this image is irksome. But perhaps there is another way of reading the lack of spatiotemporal particulars by saying that the scene, as emotional as it may be, is simply generic?
By default, I have imagined that not man is reading. There is a torso facing a page that is, as per the painting’s title, presumed to be a letter. I make a simple sum of the givens: 1 (letter) +1 (head over letter) = 2 (reading). But not necessarily so. Not man leans over the page very much unlike a more typical reader who would pick up a letter with her hands and hold it somewhere between face and table surface. This body language articulates distance rather than absorption. I conclude: not man is potentially not reader or, more likely, no longer reader.
There is a common way in which women are presented as readers in painting. The Letter is not one of them. A Google search of “woman reading painting” will yield a large number of variations on the Olympia-like trope: a young, white female lays or lounges in an armchair or on a blanket as she reads (novels). Her environment signals comfortable leisure, a sign of class. She can be outside or in a bourgeois boudoir, and she mostly has an OK bosom and OK hips, the curvature of which can be suggested by pleated and draped clothing. She is absorbed in what she reads and does not look at the viewer. Her absorption and pleasure in reading provide the perfect license for the viewer’s eye to survey her body without being caught or reprimanded. She delves into fiction, while the viewers feed their thirsty gaze. Sanja Iveković’s Triangle (1979), where the artist poses as masturbating reader to be observed from afar by military police, co-opts this painterly model.
But in The Letter, none of this scopic desire is satisfied. Not man is behaving like not woman. Equally leaving me, the viewer, without go-to rules of behavior.
More, the letter is also misbehaving: in paintings letters often do what non-diegetic sound does in film. When they feature written text (sometimes even oriented to suit the viewer’s point of view), they provide contextual information that cannot be visualized and so guides the interpretation of the image, or, as ego-driven product-placement devices, they have served to insert the artist’s name directly into the world of the picture plane. With text-less letters in painting, content may be suggested through spatial attributes—think Vermeer: there is staring at an open window to signal amorous, remote longing. Lawrence gives neither. The point in The Letter is that the letter is blank and that it remains so. Film, in fact, could use the same ‘eyewitness’ scenography as Lawrence’s and lean on narrative voiceover to fill in the blanks, to overcome the representational problem of silent reading or that of the invisibility of the written words. In this film, though, we would be left to imagine silence as voiceover, an effect that would possibly charge the cliché even more.
The nots in aggregate, the allure of the emptiness fading into cliché, and the viewer’s stock desires and modes of behavior left un-corresponded, actually indicate that The Letter says more about a medium and its material constrictions—that of (war) letter writing—than about emotive content.
It was accepted and expected that letters from the combat zone were censored, that they were written around de facto hiatuses—things were, for the safety of all, left unsaid. They took long to make it to their destination, or sometimes several of them arrived all together as regular postal service in war zones was often suspended. Their writers had to reckon with spatial and standardized limitations (not more than one letter-sized page for airmail). Here, writing is as much done by ready-made, generic parameters as by an individual hand and soul. These compositions provide as much as possible in a context that delimits information.
With snail mail, it is a fact that there is a longer perceived gap between the compositional present and the reading present, hence the nostalgia of the future perfect embedded in the medium. But more intensely than other letters, war letters are capsules of an already past present in which one proves to the future to still be alive and well. The arrival of a war letter briefly suspends the receiver’s low expectations.
This painted war letter’s hole-in-the-table effect literalizes absence. It confirms what metaphor (the wailing pose, the suspension of time, the downward burial movement) suspected all along: a terminal end—death—is near. There is lower than low expectation on the reader’s part.
It is a stretch, borne from projection and genre-derived conditioning, but table and letter, as representatives of solidity and hiatus, and as black broken up by white, are a visual premonition of a customized template of equal rhythm that may very well arrive someday soon:
Army Form B.101-82.
____________ Record Office
It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of (No)____________ (Rank) ____________ (Name)____________ (Regiment) ____________ which occurred at ____________ on the ____________ of ____________, and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council at your loss. The cause of death was ____________.
And so generics, both depicted and projected, phase into unrestrained sentiment.