Saturday, July 31, 2021


Feet can tell you everything you need to know about a relationship.

Jon Whitcomb sells silverware

ad for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau

In these two pictures, the women are obviously in control while the men dither.  

But linger a while.  Consider the subtler shades of meaning that pictures are able to communicate:  In the first picture the woman leans in, but her hands remain clasped demurely over her knees because she ain't giving anything away until the deal is sealed.  

The man leans in too; his legs are spread and his arm buttresses his stance-- he knows what he wants.  Yet, his wobbly feet betray his confusion because he's not in control of the negotiations and doesn't know what it will cost him.  

By comparison, the woman's legs are aimed like an Exocet missile.  He has the color of putty while she has the high contrast, red and white coloration of fight-or-flight.  Fire.  Blood. 

All this is conveyed without a single facial expression or word.

Now contrast the first picture with the second picture.  The ring box on the floor tells us why the woman is acting with more abandon.  The lighting in the apartment is lower.  The man's feet go from wobbly in the first picture to almost panicking in the second picture.  (Is his leg even raised a little defensively against the angle of her attack? He knows what he wants but seems a little unsettled by the prospect of getting it.) The sponsor's coffee only appears at the very edge of the picture, a product the company somehow wants us to associate with happy times on a sofa.  And of course, couples can enjoy coffee without requiring a bridal registry, unlike silverware.

In this next picture, we know right away we are dealing with a younger couple.  The artist has shown us malt shop chairs and bobby sox.

ad for Griffith Shoe Polish

Even at this younger age, the girl understands things the boy doesn't.  We don't need to see the boy's blushing face to tell that he is tense and confused.   His feet are straight, rigid and facing forward, rather than mirroring the angle of the girl's feet.  He knows he likes it but he isn't clear what he's supposed to do.

Art equips us with a richer vocabulary for exploring the range of complex human emotions.  The language of pictures can use feet to convey complicated feelings but it can also use hands, or folds in clothing, or shadows on a wall, or the tilt of a picture or its coloration.  It can use activity or quiescence, it can convey meaning with gaps or overlapping layers.  It might even use facial expressions.  The language of words can't hope to keep up.  And if we look at pictures with some self-awareness, we may get sensitized in the process.

What's going to happen to the people in these relationships?  Perhaps some of the women pictured here will get married, become disappointed in their loutish husbands and ultimately decide they can't take it anymore.

Well, feet can tell that story too: 


chris bennett said...

Great post David.
Understanding is embodiment.

Anonymous said...

How many people today recognize this depth in a picture? It's there but people are too ignorant and impatient.


kev ferrara said...

Rockwell 1924

Rockwell 1927

Rockwell 1928

Rockwell 1930

Rockwell 1930

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- yes, but sometimes it seems increasingly scarce.

JSL-- I think the internet level attention span will get the basic joke, but not the nuances.

Kev Ferrara-- Rockwell was brilliant with feet (as well as with hands and faces) but I don't think I ever saw him crop a subject this aggressively. He was capable of squeezing a lot of character into feet but he always seemed to frame his pictures more conventionally.

kev ferrara said...

Rockwell 1941

There are, of course, many forms of suggestive occlusion in stand alone narrative art without lopping off heads a la close ups/inserts in movies, tv, comic strips, and comic books.

Would be curious to see when this convention of lopping heads and letting the bodies tell the story first cropped up in illustration. But in films, this specific head-cropped 'fumbling lovers on the couch' bit go back to the silent era; I remember the joke from films of both Chaplin and Keaton.

Incidentally, the Griffith Shoe Polish bobby soxer on the stool - that right ankle might need some medical attention.