He concluded this volume with an essay titled "In Praise of Hands." In its opening section, Focillon notes that "all great artists have paid close attention to the study of hands, they have sensed the peculiar power that lies in them." In recognition of this, this post, composed of experts from Focillon's essay, is illustrated with the studies of hands by the German painter Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), of which his study of hands in prayer is the most famous.
Perhaps in 1934 Focillon had a premonition of the degree to which we would lose the use of our hands in much of our daily lives, for other than typing or tapping, or of the increasing replacement of manual human labor with the prescribed performance of robots, or the extreme mechanization of agriculture that has practically removed the human hand from the soil. So far, in the plastic arts, the hands have not been replaced. The hands of the artist remain intrinsic to the creation of the work of art, to a far greater extent than in industry or the activities of daily life.
As if to address the increasingly "virtual world" that we inhabit, where our perception is divorced from physical reality and the natural world, Focillon notes:
"Sight slips over the surface of the universe. The hand knows that an object has physical bulk, that it is smooth or rough, that it is not soldered to heaven or earth from which it appears to be inseparable. The hand's action defines the cavity of space and the fullness of the objects that occupy it. Surface, volume, density, and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned about them between his fingers and in the hollow of his palm. He does not measure space with his eyes, but with his hands and feet. The sense of touch fills nature with mysterious forces. Without it, nature is like the pleasant landscapes of the magic lantern, slight, flat, and chimerical. ...
"Without hands there is no geometry, for we need straight lines and circles to speculate on the properties of extension. ... Man's hands set before his eyes the evidence of variable numbers, greater or smaller, according to the folding and unfolding of his fingers. ...
Did not the hand, moreover, set number in order, being a number itself and thus an instrument for counting and a master of rhythm?"
"For touch is at the very beginning of Creation. Adam was molded of clay, like a statue. In Romanesque iconography, God does not breathe on the globe of the world to send it off into the ether. He sets it in place by laying his hand upon it."The hand makes possible a relationship with objects--tools--with vast potentials for experimentation, Focillon indicates.
"... Between hand and implement begins an association that will endure forever. One communicates to the other its living warmth, and continually affects it. The new implement is never 'finished.' A harmony must be established between it and the fingers that hold it, an accord born of gradual possession, of delicate and complicated gestures, of reciprocal habits and even of a certain wear and tear. Now the inert instrument becomes alive. To this association no material lends itself better than wood, which, even when mutilated by and shaped to the arts of man, maintains in another form the original suppleness and flexibility that characterized it when growing in the forest. ... Contact and usage humanized the inert object... Anyone who has not known men who live by their hands cannot understand the strength of these hidden relationships, the positive effects of this association in which are found friendship, respect, the daily communion of work, the instinct and pride of ownership, and on the highest plane, the concern for experimentation."
Durer Self-Portrait, Hand, and Pillow
"When one realizes that the quality of a tone or of a value depends not only on the way in which it is made, but also in the way in which it is set down, then one understands that the god in five persons [the senses] manifests itself everywhere. Such will be the future of the hands, until the day when artists paint by machine, as with airbrush. Then at least the cruel inertia of the photograph will be attained by a handless eye, repelling our sympathy even while attracting it, a marvel of light, but a passive monster. Photography is like the art of another planet, where music might be a mere graph of sonorities, and ideas might be exchanged without words, by wavelengths. Even when the photograph represents crowds of people, it is the image of solitude, because the hand never intervenes to spread over it the warmth and flow of human life."
Christ Among the Doctors (detail of hands) by Albrecht Durer