Talk with Your Hands

How many times have you held an extended conversation with your friend completely unbeknownst to everyone around you? No, I’m not talking about telepathy, I’m talking about your hands. I think that hand expression is one of our most underappreciated skills. Hands can tell so much: when I’m in an orchestra, the shapes and movements of the conductor’s hands show me how to play the music; with nothing more than a thumb I can show you my approval; and with a quick cutoff I can tell you “stop talking about Susie’s embarrassing fall, she’s standing right behind you.”

Hand gestures add nuance to our words and depth to our interactions with each other; and because their meanings are universal, artists often use them with great effect to imbue their works with subtle and profound meaning.

The Call, 1902. Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903). Oil on fabric. Gift of the Hanna Fund.

Paul Gauguin painted The Call during his self-imposed exile from the mainstream Parisian art scene in the remote islands of Polynesia. Many works belonging to this period of Gauguin’s oeuvre explore the mysteries of life and death, and this dreamlike image is certainly no different; in fact, it was completed only a year before his own death. We are immediately drawn to the two women standing in the middle with bare feet as if on sacred ground. What do their hands mean? What are they telling us? The woman on the left, fully clothed and head under a shawl, looks us in the eye while holding her hand across her chest—signaling humility? Resignation? Sympathy? Comfort? The woman on the right beckons to someone or something off to the right—perhaps a response or a call of fate?

Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance, 1000s. South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period (900-13th century). Bronze. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund.

This elegant and dynamic sculptural form embodies some of Hinduism’s fundamental tenets, tenets that can seem daunting and unforgiving. Shiva is responsible for the world’s creation and destruction: the ring of fire and flame in his left hand represent destruction, and the drum in his upper right refers to the relentless and unforgiving beat of time. Yet somehow we feel comforted. Shiva’s lower right hand reaches toward us with palm facing out in reassurance, telling us to not be afraid because devotion leads to liberation from the impending destruction.

La Vie, 1903. Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Oil on canvas. Gift of the Hanna Fund. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

La Vie is an iconic work of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period when, desperately poor and depressed over the suicide of a close friend, he restricted his palette to cold colors evoking feelings of human misery, melancholy, and social alienation. The brooding palette seems to doom the painting’s characters, each in various stages of their lives. The man’s hand, reaching out with his finger, dominates the center. We are struck with a sense of longing…what is he reaching toward? Perhaps Picasso is evoking the famous image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Adam reaches out for the hand of God. 

Guest Author

Benjamin Francisco

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Benjamin Francisco is a Cello Performance major at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and an intern in the Communications and Marketing Department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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