Basquiat versus Banksy

“On the eve of the opening of a new exhibition of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in London, Banksy revealed two painted homages to his American predecessor. The contrast between the most famous exponents of two different generations of street art from opposite sides of the Atlantic could not be greater.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is widely considered the founder of the street art movement, which is the crossover of, on one side, graffiti art, mural painting and inscribed poetry and, on the other, the fine arts of museums and galleries. In theory, street art could be simply graffiti or posters from non-gallery settings relocated into museums and galleries, but in practice this is rarely the case. More often, creators who began by making graffiti start working on more portable supports (like the traditional artist’s canvas or board) when there is a commercial imperative. They also make prints or multiples with professional assistants.

“‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London; closes 28 January) collects a wide range of Basquiat’s art made over the whole of his short career. Visitors can judge for themselves Basquiat’s stellar status in the art world. (This year a painting by him sold at auction for $110million.) The art was made in a mixture of fine-art materials and ordinary materials from drugstores and discount stores. Paint, oil sticks, spraypaint, pencil and marker were used on canvas and board but also on more unusual supports such as foam rubber, doors, plates, a refrigerator and even a football helmet. Subjects include street life, modern life, racism, sports, music, popular culture, ancient history, the Western canon, anatomy and mortality. All manner of seemingly random fragments of history surface in Basquiat’s paintings. Simple icons, lists of words, graphic symbols, colourful abstract painting and meandering grids occupy a variety of surfaces…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 2 October 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/basquiat-versus-banksy/20383#.WdJ0X1uPLIU

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Protean-rich Richter

Richter seascape

Image: Gerhard Richter, “Seascape”

“The cataloguing of the art of Gerhard Richter (born 1932) has reached the years 1968-76. By this time an established international artist and leading teacher, he began to move away from the collective group activities of his early years. The period was also when Richter started painting series in different styles in fairly quick cycles. Blurred black and white photo paintings were superseded by colour variants, often with landscapes as subjects. At the same time, he was formulating abstract paintings of colour charts, painterly multicolour works and monochrome pieces. Fortunately for the reader, the paintings are listed in their different series as groups, so the sequence of images is not bewilderingly various.

“Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné Volume 2shows Richter at his most Romantic and most austerely modern. Colour paintings of clouds, seascapes and landscapes are mostly derived from his own photographs. They are contemporary Romantic landscapes: plangent, attractive, absent of figures. Sometimes single compositions are combinations of different photographs. The landscapes are flat and resist any Romantic immersion of the viewer in an environment. They are not picture-postcard pretty, but landscapes as seen from car or train window or viewed from a hotel balcony. The paintings have the disappointment of holiday photographs that fail to capture majestic panoramas and instead produce something lacking energy, depth and intensity. In that sense, these are landscapes of the snapshot generation. This is not a failure on Richter’s part but a deliberate choice and an intelligent one.

“Richter engaged with the Old Masters by painting versions of Titian’s Annunciation, obscuring the Virgin and angel under a queasy flurry of brushmarks. In later years, he approached Old Masters indirectly by lifting poses and echoing compositions…”

Read the full review online at The Art Newspaper, 30 August 2017 here:

http://theartnewspaper.com/review/protean-rich-on-the-gerhard-richter-catalogue-raisonne

America after the Fall

“America between the wars (and specifically between the Crash of 1929 and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack) was at a crossroads. The economic boom and expansion of American power following victory in the First World War had led to prosperity and optimism for many in the 1920s. The Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression and – in a way – a Great Retreat. America First, isolationism and a backlash against globalism and Modernism caused Americans to view modern and foreign influences with mistrust. A new exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy, explores American art at this crossroads.

“It includes pictures by some of the big names of American realist painting and includes an American icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). Although it is seen as typical of American homespun simplicity and Puritan honesty, the male figure is Wood’s dentist dressed as a farmer. The picture is subtle, well-painted and tinged by irony; it deserves its iconic status not only because of its popular appeal but also because of its artistry.

“Wood was part of the Regionalist movement, a group of artists who sought to depict American life and landscapes in a realist manner, often with sentimental or nostalgic overtones…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 5 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/america-after-the-fall/19775#.WQxuoWkrLIU

Lucio Fontana, Constellations and Injured Bodies

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Pillola (1961-5), polished and lacquered copper, 36 x 22 x 40cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, M&L Fine Art, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 (7 March-12 May 2017). Catalogue available.

M&L Fine Art is a new London exhibition venue which is a joint project of two Italian galleries. The current exhibition, Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, brings together work from different phases of the career of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) as a sculptor. It starts with a maquette the Italian-Argentinian sculptor made for a public commission in Italy. The bronze cast of two rearing horses (1936, no. 1) shows Fontana’s directness, lack of artifice and ability to convey an impression of energy.

Polychrome ceramics of the 1940s and early 1950s display the theatrical and baroque side to Fontana, which may have been imbued through his training and the influence of his sculptor father. These glazed, vigorously moulded figures are speckled by highlights, which give them a strongly pictorial appearance. In the large plates or plaques embellished with high relief motifs and scorings we notice a demonstration of Fontana’s hypertactility. His works are unusually tactile in form, baroque in character, full of flowing energy. The scene of a bull fight (executed at the same time as the early Spatial Concept (Concetto spaziale) series) is a masterpiece of dynamic form.

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1954), terracotta, 25 x 32cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most typical works are Spatial Concept works, started in the early 1950s. Those in the exhibition are fired clay tablets which have been punctured and scored while wet. In the 1954 example, white glaze has been applied to the holes, giving the impression of stars radiating light. The impression is further confirmed by gouaches on paper on the subject of constellations which were made as illustrations for the volume of poems Il prato del silenzio by Lina Angioletti. In these simple pieces the black void is punctuated by white dots, dotted lines and slashes. These are Fontana’s meditations on cosmic energy and spatial orders. The drawing-paintings balance chromatic austerity and formal exuberance.

The more highly coloured ceramics (Concetto spaziale: Natura morta (1957, nos. 15 and 16)) are altogether less successful. Restrained coloured forms on white discs look like nothing so much as nouvelle cuisine in ceramic shorthand. The glare of the areas of white and strongly coloured motifs work against each other and strain the eye, not least because the relief forms are unclear. (A case of Bataille’s informe revolting the eye which seeks clarity and order.) The more chromatically restrained yet dynamically energetic reliefs on circular supports – with their slashes of high relief and spatters of glaze – are very satisfying (1956, nos. 13 and 14). They are brusque and elegant, energetic and circumscribed.

The brightly coloured lacquer-surface ovoid forms dominated by single straight slashes are the Pillolas (1961-5, no. 20, red version and white version). As well as being the sculptures that come closest to Fontana’s slashes in canvases, these pieces (designed to be produced as multiples in different colours) are homages to industrial manufacturing and scientific progress. (Apparently, Fontana was impressed by the social liberation that contraceptive pills provided.) These Pillolas are mounted on rods above bases, similar to scientific models, something reinforced by the perfection of the surfaces. Even the slashes are immaculate.

The Pillolas can be interpreted in different ways. They could be seen as stagings of incisions (the creation of objects designed to carry or hold incisions). They could be seen as meditations on exteriority and interiority of forms. The incisions reveal the interiors of the body (or hint at it, they are inscrutably dark) but by doing so they literally make the interior a concave exterior of a form which no longer has a hermetically sealed interior. That is what makes them paradoxical. By ostensibly showing us the interior of a body, the very displaying of that interior eliminates that interior by making the interior part of the exterior which just happens to be extremely concave and illegible.

One could also see the holes as motifs. They are paradoxical kinds of motifs in that their only presence resides in the concentrated instances of an absence of ground.

Fontana, concetto spaziale, 1960-65

(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale (1960-5), terracotta, 21 x 45 x 21 cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most surprising work in the exhibition is Concetto spaziale (1960-5, no. 19). The black, terracotta ovoid form (a kind of Euclidean and Platonic solid) is puckered by a line of gouges and a single curving incised line is very sensual. The tiniest of wrinkles on the surface resemble skin, or the processed skin of leather; an impression which is deepened by the delicate soft surface texture of the whole of the body. It is the most visually arresting of the works here.

The aesthetics of the cuts in the exhibited pieces is significant. There is the slit, the line, the hole, the wrinkled hole, the gouge, the puckered rip, the partially incomplete injury (the scratch, the scuff, the divot). It is hard to observe these markings as anything other than violent and anything other than corporeal. One is reminded of bodily injuries, surgical incisions, orifices, soft bodies afflicted by distortions. This is especially true of the forms in soft clay, less so for cuts in smooth hard surfaces, still less for slits in canvases, least of all for holes in paper. Fontana may have publicly discussed ideas of cosmology and atomic science, but the cuts and punctures in soft clay are often viewed of proxies for flesh. This does not seem an invalid response to the pieces. Our responses to seeing a hard object smashed or damaged by a blow is very different to how we see these pieces.

Our first response to all art is as viewers inhabiting human bodies, with bodily knowledge and concerns. We automatically relate material resembling flesh in terms of flesh, our own and that of others we have known.

When we view visibly and humanly manipulated material we understand how it feels to make such manipulations. We imagine making those marks. We mentally re-enact the manipulations and thus we experience a kind of theatre of the imagination where we participate in making the object before us. We imagine holding the stick and stabbing the clay tablet; we imagine holding the gouge and goring the perfect form; we imagine holding the knife and slashing the canvas. We are artist surrogates and the object is something we have – in our theatre of imagination – made. We take the art personally because we feel able to have done the act that made the art; we have imagined making it; we feel responsible for the art. Mentally, we run our hands over the surface, noticing the clamminess of the wet clay under our hands; we weigh the objects; we feel the tools in our hands. There is no mystery. It is our art. The only odd thing is that somehow the work we made in our theatre of the imagination happens to be on a plinth and happens to be venerated as art. Everything about it is fathomable and prosaic except that step of status elevation.

This well-chosen and carefully displayed exhibition reminds us of some of the fundamentals of what art is and how it operates.

26 April 2017

Review: Francis Bacon catalogue raisonne

francis-bacon-figure-with-meat

“It was an absurdity that until June of this year Francis Bacon (1909-92), the foremost British painter of the 20th century and one of the giants of Modernist art, did not have a catalogue raisonné. Researchers had to scour miscellaneous catalogues (including the incomplete 1964 catalogue raisonné compiled by Ronald Alley) in search of images and data. Now, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, a grand five-volume affair (boxed and bound in dark-grey cloth) documents 584 paintings by Bacon…”

Full review in The Art Newspaper, 21 July 2016

[link removed due to page on site unavailable]

Review: Early Jean Dubuffet

Dubuffet Bousquet

Jean DUBUFFET (1901-1985), Joe Bousquet au lit (1947), oil on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, MoMA

Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, New York City (15 April-10 June 2016)

While I was a student there was a revival of interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet. Unfortunately, it was the late work. I took a look at the books and magazines and decided there was nothing much to see. Encountering the occasional illustration of an early work in a general reference book or magazine did not really inform me and – with so much other art to look at – I never got around to educating myself on Dubuffet.

The current exhibition in New York is the logical place for all of us to rediscover early Dubuffet. His success at exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York ensured he was a constant presence in the New York art scene and many of his early mature-period paintings entered American public and private collections. The current exhibition includes loans from those collections and features 51 outstanding examples of Dubuffet’s painting and sculpture, all dating from before 1962. Wisely, with a single exception in a small hallway space (the 52nd item), drawings are excluded from the display. The inclusion of graphics would have diluted the powerful impact of the bold and visceral paintings.

During the occupation of France in the Second World War, former art student and then-current wine merchant Jean Dubuffet took up painting again. He was essentially starting from nothing. Having rehearsed styles and subjects popular during the pre-War period, Dubuffet had never developed any definite attachments to a movement or technique. He had no style to speak of. The works he began in 1942 were childlike drawn figures with colouring. Subjects were people on the street and daily life. This exhibition surveys these early colourful paintings and the rawer, more brutish paintings that followed in the later 1940s and 1950s. Topics include figures, portraits, landscapes, animals and street scenes; approaches include painting, collages and objets trouvés sculpture.

The definition “mixed media” might have been coined to describe Dubuffet’s paintings. He spurned pure artist’s oil paint and instead concocted his own media, mixing pastes incorporating household and commercial paints to which he added sand, gravel, dirt, charcoal, resin, coal, straw and plaster. This would sometimes be applied over heavily textured surfaces built up in plaster or putty. (Dubuffet had been alerted to the potential of textured surfaces by seeing Jean Fautrier’s Hostage series when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1945.) All of this heavy material demanded strong supports such as wood or Masonite. The coloured paste was applied with trowels and furrowed with sticks. At times it seems that Dubuffet’s aversion to beaux-arts was almost more of an imperative than any other motivation. Contemporaneous with Pollock, Dubuffet was working his own horizontally oriented planes the way a farmer ploughs a field. Dubuffet thought of himself as closer to an artisan or a labourer than a practitioner of fine art. However inaccurate that belief, it was clearly a productive and sustaining one: Dubuffet’s art shows evidence of his sustained engagement and consideration throughout his career.

The vital, unruly and uncultured figures here are an expression of hope in humanity and humanism as a counterbalance to the horror and grinding inhumanity of genocide, war and nuclear annihilation. Their depictions exist within the Existential discourse within French culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Dubuffet knew and painted many of the leading thinkers of French world of art, literature and philosophy. Dubuffet’s figures are literally earthy: they are formed of coloured dirt, sand and pebbles. They are fertile as the soil – aggressively so – with their genitals roughly outlined. In Will to Power (1946), a portly man with body hair of gravel sports his sex organ like a club. These are uncouth men and women who can (and will) procreate, regardless of bourgeois anxiety.

A small selection of portraits shows how Dubuffet negotiated the issue of description within figure paintings. “For a portrait to be useful to me, I need the features of the figure not to be too fixed. Not at all outlined – to the contrary, more erased. Confidential, even. […] In portraits you need a lot of general, very little of specific. Usually there is too much specificity, always too much. Maast says that before the portrait of Monsieur Dubois can look like Monsieur Dubois it should begin, more than anything, by looking like a man. He says that in many portraits we are in the habit of seeing, an artist has forgotten to make a man, and to manage to give him life, before making him look like Monsieur Dubois.”[1]

The fierce and accurate likeness of Joë Bousquet (1947) is loaned from MoMA. In it the paraplegic writer is shown in his bed surrounded by his books and papers. It is like a sgraffito panel excavated from some primitive Pompeii. In this case, the painting-as-object has personality – almost a history and integrity in itself. This lends the object a certain authority, aside from its pictorial attributes. The painting as object in Dubuffet’s art would be a fruitful subject for study.

Other portraits shown here have great immediacy and directness which bypass more aesthetic depictions. It is a fictional sheen of authenticity of course: Dubuffet applies aesthetic criteria during the creation of his art objects as other artists do, the only difference being that Dubuffet’s affiliations are for outsider, naïve and children’s art.

The works exhibited demonstrate the artist’s mental dexterity and sensitivity. The abstract paintings rely on delicately patterned surfaces to build up an organic or mineral shimmer. The patinas can be sumptuous, with glazes puddles suspended on a surface of gold foil. One could compare Dubuffet’s abstracts to Asger Jorn’s decorative Luxury Paintings, in which the Pollock drip method has been neutered and applied as an all-over surface pattern, yet Dubuffet’s surfaces have stubborn substantiality. Dubuffet’s surfaces have geological and cartological aspects in that they both describe surfaces and exist as surfaces, complex, compacted and distressed. The collages including butterfly wings and tobacco leaves echo Surrealist experiments of the inter-war period: Ernst’s forests and devastated decalcomanie landscapes. Dubuffet must have known Klee’s paintings and drawings and one wonders how they might have influenced his collages. Perhaps all collages of vegetal matter and tessellated surfaces inevitably share certain characteristics with Klee’s herbarium-inspired drawings.

The most unexpected items in the exhibition are wooden statuettes composed of lightly modified pieces of driftwood. The eroded fragments have a richly striated surface like weathered skin and with a hole here and there and an astute combination Dubuffet summons golems he entitles The Old Man of the Beach and Long Face (both 1959). The Astonished Man (1959) is a rubbery faced figure who gawps at us in incredulity, unable to believe what he sees. His silver-foil surfaced form is alchemically unstable, part vegetable, part mineral. These are sculptures Arcimboldo might have made, yet with greater wit, elegance and intellectual litheness than that painter had. The sculptures are comic and grotesque, pathetic and sinister and really startle.

Cruelly crippled and clownish, these grotesques menace us but also seem to beseech. “We are no different from you”, their presence suggests, even though one feels these freaks should not exist and that their existence mocks our own. They are counterpoints to Giacometti’s gnarled slivers of humanity. These country personages seem in rude health (wizened yet energetic), full of spiteful humour and gleeful buffoonery, in contrast to Giacometti’s anguished, frail dwellers of plazas and streets. Dubuffet’s personages are like wild animals or crude peasants brought into the dining room. Brut et informel , knowing and caring nothing for etiquette, they pull faces, gawp, guffaw, belch and fart.

The intelligent selections and careful placement of works enhances one’s understanding of – and sympathy for – Dubuffet’s art. Seeing such excellent examples first hand in the tranquil setting of Acquavella’s belle-époque townhouse is the best possible way to re-discover Dubuffet’s early art. This is vintage Dubuffet.

Gallery website: http://www.acquavellagalleries.com/

Fondation Jean Dubuffet: http://www.dubuffetfondation.com/home.php?lang=en

30 April 2016

[1] pp. 68-9, Mark Rosenthal et al., Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, 2016, HB, 208pp, ISBN 0 8478 5851 4

Jackson Pollock, Max Beckmann & Prud’hon: Jackdaw, no. 123

“Out of the Web

“Bruised by negative reactions to his solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in winter 1950, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was intent on proving himself in 1951. When the weather warmed enough to start painting in his studio-shed he embarked on a series of large paintings – diluted black enamel on raw cotton duck. From May to September 1951 Pollock produced 28 paintings, which came to be called the Black Paintings. Some of these Black Paintings and associated work is now gathered on display in Liverpool (Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, Tate Liverpool, closes 18 October).

“Pollock felt that to counter criticisms that his work was becoming decorative and insubstantial, he should use figurative elements and a single colour. The grand subjects of conflict, war, death and the nude must also have seemed suitably powerful as a riposte to the accusation of insubstantiality. Pollock was deeply attached to imagery of atavistic intensity. His admiration for Albert Pinkham Ryder and his studies of history painting under Thomas Hart Benton suggested an American artist could draw from a kitty of essential themes. His experience of drawing dreams as part of Jungian analysis showed that the deep wellspring of unconscious symbols was something he could use.

“All the time Pollock painted the Black Paintings, he had to struggle with the problem of representation as seen through the prism of critical debates of the era. How could an abstract artist prove he had skill and seriousness without resorting to conventional figuration?…”

Read the full article on Jackson Pollock, a review of the Prud’hon exhibition in London and a review of a new book on Max Beckmann only in the print version of THE JACKDAW no.123, Sept/Oct 2015, single issues and subscriptions available here: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/

Lucian Freud, Accidental Mannerist

There are times when circumstances prevent an accurate view of living artists. Mostly this is due to the necessity of allowing time to elapse between creation of art and its assessment. Sometimes it is to do with the critical atmosphere of a period or an artist engineering a false impression of his work. Critics’ ranking games can turn artists into figureheads or sticks with which to beat bogeymen. It is a rare writer on art who does not have a favourite living artist.

If an artist is well known enough the cult of personality can almost occlude the art. A peculiarity of the received truths about Lucian Freud is that most are untrue (or at least no longer true). “He is a recluse.” Never has a recluse been so often spotted at expensive restaurants, night clubs and exclusive art events. For someone so private we are remarkably well supplied with anecdotes about his life and opinions. “He rarely grants interviews,” yet you will find a number of books and magazines including interviews. His one-hour televised interview recorded in the late 1980s seems to have been overlooked. He “remains aloof from the art market” yet he exhibits internationally with commercial art dealers. He co-operates with curators and uses his old-master status to take full advantage of opportunities open to few other painters (exhibiting in the Wallace Collection, for example). Few artists would refuse these temptations and Freud is no different. “He is rarely photographed.” This last was actually true up to the 1970s but since then whole coffee-table books of photographs of the artist in his studio have been published.

The most pervasive myth is that Freud is a realist and that his realism that has been becoming progressively more acute. The early paintings employed a naïve style (enlarged eyes and oversize heads) which was soon replaced a more straightforward approach. At this time Freud was most engaged with realism. It was only a brief interlude. In the early 1960s new traits emerged: elongated figures and floorboards zooming away in one-point perspective. The painter began to emphasise the high viewpoint from the late 1960s. (These tendencies became stomach-sinking features of many student entries for the BP Portrait Award, demonstrating how Freud has been taken as a model for aspiring realists.) There was a phase in the 1980s when the paint surface became clotted and granular, which we were told was a by-product of Freud’s perfectionism and extended periods of reworking. Why then did this vanish within ten years? Did Freud solve a problem, drop a mannerism or find an effect counterproductive? The enlarged feet, attenuated limbs and undersize heads of subjects have persisted for years and undermine otherwise persuasive depictions. His mannerisms have ossified into the Freud Style.

Distortions do not detract from Degas’s art; they reintroduce us to the human form in a startling way. With Freud’s art one gets a feeling these are unintended deficiencies he finds uncorrectable. Degas wanted the artificial and to add an accent of nature to it. Freud starts from life and finds his paintings deviating, becoming wayward beneath his brush. In itself this is a curious phenomenon; it does not accord with the view of the painter as a realist. Freud’s deviations seem unintentional; they are certainly distracting. To admire Freud for an attribute, pitiless realism, he does not possess diminishes his actual achievements. Is Freud being cast as a realist only in order to be used by writers to disparage other artists? The painter now less of a realist than he was in 1955.

None of these falsehoods are entirely the painter’s fault. However, he does exert a high degree of influence over the critics close to him and is responsible for engineering an “authorised version”. Every artist has this right and some exercise it more than Freud. However, it should not go unchallenged.

For years he did not reveal the identities of his sitters. Now they are frequently named in titles. Many sitters are famous. When it comes to celebrity, Freud has more in common with Warhol than Vermeer, which is not a criticism, just something that goes unremarked upon too often by critics who think of him as a modern Velázquez. The irony is that far from being a Velázquez, Freud is a court painter the way Picasso was – painting subjects at his own court.

One distinctive feature is Freud’s enduring trouble with composition. Often paintings are started only for the painter to have the canvas extended in order for him to compensate for his initial mistake. For an artist who actually sketches his work in charcoal on the canvas before he starts, these lapses are startling. Degas was a predecessor who extended grounds after starting work. If one studies Degas’s pastels it becomes apparent that the majority of these extensions are to expand the space around figures, allowing more air into the pictures, not to accommodate central motifs. In Freud’s case it is almost invariably because substantial parts of subjects are lopped off by the support edge. It is reasonable to argue that repositioning the ground around a motif is equivalent to moving that motif on the ground. What that does not do is explain why a painter might be having such serious and persistent problems tackling relatively simple compositions. That major alterations to his canvases are treated by his advocates as merely anecdotal asides rather than diagnosed as the symptom of an underlying problem tells us all we need to know about the standards Freud’s art is held to. Numerous sheets where he has drawn in pastel over etchings, extending a forehead cropped by a plate edge, are exercises in compensation compared to Degas’s nuancing of monotypes with pastel.

An artist who had studied figure painting in a conventional manner might be less prone to these tendencies – or would at least work harder to curb them. Freud studied only briefly at Goldsmiths College and Central School (sources differ on this) and was greatly influenced by his teacher at East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Morris was a self-taught naïve artist. There is little to distinguish between Freud’s approach in his earliest paintings and Morris’s own. The naïve style allows an artist at the very beginning of his career to make finished works of art, circumventing the trial and error that characterises the usual trajectory of a student striving for naturalism. The naïve approach prioritises making complete statements. It cloaks deficiencies of a practitioner. That is not what the naïve style is for but what it effectively does. Facilitated by his ability to produce finished pictures before his apprenticeship was over, Freud had an attentive and appreciative public from his teenage years, lauded by distinguished mentors (Francis Bacon, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender and Christian Bérard). While his peers were formulating their languages, Freud was feted and selling work.

This is not to denigrate Freud’s accomplishments. He is a dedicated artist. He is, considering the prolonged gestations of his pictures, a prolific artist. He created some of the best figure paintings of the second half of the Twentieth Century, admittedly a thin field. His Reflection (Self-portrait) (1985) is one of the best of all self-portraits of any century. It is unsparing, full of presence and power, painted with energy and economy. Had he been in competition with a really talented and committed realist he would likely have painted many more comparable pictures. Stamina is in itself admirable but greatness rests on more than one outstanding trait.

The prerequisite for being a great artist is more than painting some good paintings (and the occasional wonderful one). It demands consistency. He is a hit-and-miss artist partly because he has never been subjected to the competition and companionship of a cohort of talented realists. A number of works should never have left the studio. Balthus, with all his limitations, painted only when he had something to paint and never let a bad work out of his studio. Balthus was a model of integrity and discipline. Consider Vermeer, who is in part highly regarded because, in his less than 40 extant paintings, he hardly ever put a foot wrong. He had a magical combination of brilliance and originality allied to a consistency which is absent only in his pre-mature works and wavered in only a handful of late paintings. Whether this high standard in surviving work was due to Vermeer’s slow rate of production or to depredation (or a touch of both) we cannot now tell.

Freud’s late self-portraits (Self-portrait: Reflection (2002) and The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-5)) are painfully poor. The modelling is deficient and the physiognomy wayward. In one of his stronger paintings, Lying by the Rags (1989-90), Freud captures well the model’s weight pushing out the backs of her thighs. Observation and recording are in confluence. It is a wonderfully well-judged work, vivid and visually engaging. In the late self-portraits that sense of volume and weight has gone. However, this is not to imply Freud is worsening; he is as erratic as he has always been. In that respect alone he is consistent. The point is that only the most peculiar of artists could be capable of the 1985 self-portrait and have considered the later paintings adequate. Could none of his acquaintances criticise the canvases whilst they were in the studio? Freud is a poor editor of his own work and no dealer or curator has the stature or courage to do the editing for him. Why does he make so much of his variable output public?

The painter, for all his talk about “not wanting to repeat himself” compositionally, seems incapable of not perpetuating his errors and mannerisms. Quite beyond the contingent problems of the picture at hand, the best painters seek to correct themselves. Freud’s early success as a naïve artist may have suggested to him that he need not be subject to the same constraints and apprenticeship most painters are. His painting has changed but not evolved.

Though an artist cannot be blamed for the distortions of his advocates, he must be held accountable for his own shortcomings. If proponents of Freud’s art suggest he is an upholder of figurative standards stretching back to Rubens (whatever that means), why has his art not been subjected to comparable scrutiny? It could be because realism has a somewhat degraded status today and that painting from life is now an activity marginal to most practising artists. There are plenty of reasons not to tackle life painting, that anachronistic spur that juts so awkwardly from the main body of contemporary art. It is much easier for critics to discuss issues related to Conceptual and video art than it is to analyse the art. Has it been tacitly accepted that Freud is a realist mainly because there are no realists of stature working today who would show him to be the Mannerist he is? Has this blind spot developed because of a dearth of astute criticism on Freud?

Freud is not in the mould of a Sixteenth-Century Mannerist, who distorts knowingly and systematically to highlight the artificiality of practise and to oppose the restraint and order of Classicism, but is an artist unwittingly at the mercy of his technical deficiencies, which distort his attempt to paint realistically. He is closer to Alberto Giacometti than to Parmigianino, and should be looked at not next to Rubens and Watteau but Stanley Spencer, Marlene Dumas, Odd Nerdrum and Jean Rustin. Then we might be able to see what Freud does and not what his proponents claim he does.

Written December 2008, published in THE JACKDAW, March 2009

Gustave Moreau

“”Moreau’s diverse and often paradoxical oeuvre lies at the crossroads of apparently contradictory trends in 19th-century art”, Peter Cooke observes at the end of his monographic study of Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Often described as a proto-Symbolist—and less often as a history painter—Moreau has proved hard to classify. The best of his elaborate biblical and mythological tableaux are hauntingly memorable but they are difficult to decode. Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism succeeds in illuminating a very peculiar and compelling figure on the margins of French art.

“Moreau’s classic oil compositions feature figures in isolated areas of light surrounded by large areas dark enlivened with coloured highlights, bestowing these grottoes and throne rooms with a bejewelled appearance. The expressions of the characters are restrained and their gestures anti-naturalistic and hieratic. Intricate decoration covers garments and architecture, causing paintings to exude a pseudo-organic quality.

“By the end of the Second Empire salon history painting had sometimes become an exercise in sensationalism, titillating with visions of gratuitous horror and nudity. It is difficult not to see Moreau as—to some degree—wilfully martyring himself by adhering to the history-painting tradition which he suspected was moribund…”

Read the full review at THE ART NEWSPAPER, 1 May 2015 here:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/books/155001/