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

Lost in New York

“New York City, home to great collections of art, is never short of key works by important artists to measure against one another. Autumn 2011, three displays have coincided to allow people to compare the skills of a modern master with those of a predecessor who influenced him. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) revered J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) for both his devotion to the human figure and technical skill (in drawing especially). De Kooning vowed he would never paint a tree and his art never strayed too far from the portrait or nude, even at its most abstracted. Likewise, Ingres never manifested much interest in landscape and still-life either. Both painters were noted by peers as being consummate painters of flesh, principally female.

“MoMA claim that De Kooning: A Retrospective (until 9 January) is the “first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning”. As the current survey includes work from 1983-7 not included in a much larger 1983 retrospective shown in Berlin and New York (the current show has 195 works, the earlier one had 280) the press release is technically accurate while being a touch grandiloquent.

“Filling the sixth floor of the new MoMA building for the first time, the retrospective provides some surprises and confirms some expectations…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, November 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=83

Rene Magritte, Post-Impressionism: Liverpool, 2011

“The effects of Liverpool’s time as City of Culture in 2008 are still becoming apparent as various building projects reach completion. Liverpool has many excellent museums, to which number the Museum of Liverpool is due to be added. My visit to Liverpool was before the museum’s opening on July 19th, so I made do with two significant shows which will run until the autumn: a survey of Magritte and a partial reconstruction of a pioneering exhibition of Post-Impressionist art held at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool in 1911. (The Bluecoat Gallery itself has recently been refurbished. The excellent diverse bookshop and the well-stocked art-materials store have both left and the gallery, which occasionally hosted worthwhile shows, now runs an exhibition programme of the driest and least engaging type. What was once a hub of artistic activity has been reduced to a deracinated husk. Best to bypass it entirely and visit the newly relocated Probe Records next door instead.)

“The 1910-11 display “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery, London is a celebrated landmark in British Modernism. What is less well-known is that the show (minus the Manets) travelled to Liverpool before the pictures were dispersed. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 (Walker Art Gallery, closes September 25th) is an investigation of the second display, which included local Liverpool artists alongside the French painters. The French artists included Denis, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Serusier, Signac, Vlaminck and others…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, September 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=81

Joan Miro: Brussels, 2011

“How often have we seen – of late – exhibitions of Modern masters with didactic subtitles? These subtitles tell us why we should visit this exhibition when we have seen so many on this particular artist before. It is the subtitle that gives us the curatorial slant. What happens is not that famous artists get “played out” but that curators and curatorial imperatives get played out. Museum directors and curators naturally want to show great artists but, unless inaccessible art is made available, there are really only two routes for monograph retrospectives: greatest hits or the hidden side of X. Recently we have seen a spate of the second approach; witness Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist.

“Two exhibitions of Joan Miró (1893-1983) in London and Brussels this summer take different approaches. The London display is subtitled “The Ladder of Escape” and aims to revise our view of the artist, while the Brussels display, one on a much smaller scale, is subtitled “Peintre Poète” and presents a more conventional view of the painter. The Brussels exhibition conceives of the artist as lyrical, straining to escape the boundaries of conventional restrictions and mores, whereas the London one purports to uncover an overlooked political dimension to Miró’s art. I visited the Brussels display in person but I am assessing the London one from the catalogue…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, June 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=78

Jenny Saville & the Theatre of Self-Importance

“Most YBAs achieved prominence by recasting genuine avant-garde art in a palatable commercial form, influenced by advertising and pop culture, and served up to a credulous public largely ignorant of the original sources of the art. (Something Julian Stallabrass discusses in his book High Art Lite.) Jenny Saville was seen as one exception by virtue of the facts she studied in Glasgow, not Goldsmith’s College, and painted figures representationally in a non-ironic manner. Yet on closer study, Saville is not dissimilar to her YBA peers. Since paintings were acquired from her college studio,  Saville’s paintings have changed from billboard Lucian Freuds to hybrids of Freud, Bacon and de Kooning. Her painting rests upon adapting recent art and presenting it in a more extreme form (larger than that by the original artists), shorn of the original art’s foundations and complex origins, just as the art of other YBAs does.

“The paintings have been described as “monumental” by writers who cannot differentiate between monumental and big. Likewise, painting something from a very close viewpoint (a Saville tic) does not convey monumentality or help us comprehend the mass of a figure.  Monumentality has nothing to do with size; it has do with the impression of size, which can be conveyed through adjusting the size of a motif relative to the picture surface, elimination of detail, lowering the observer’s viewpoint of the motif, reduction of colour, simplification of form and emphasis on the mass of a motif. Picasso could achieve this concisely in modestly sized paintings and drawings  (those of the Boisgeloup period, the Dinard bathers and the Gosol figures), as can any artist who applies the principles. Painting fat figures on large surfaces tells us nothing about fatness but it reveals the painter’s insecurity, her need to bolster insubstantial depictions of bodies by expanding them to cinema-screen scale…”

Read the full article on THE JACKDAW, May 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=69

Musee Wiertz, Musee Meunier, Brussels

“Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) was born to an impoverished family in Dinant, Wallonia (later Belgium). After studying at Antwerp Art Academy, he won the (Belgian) Prix de Rome at a second try, in 1832.  His grand manner was Romantic and painterly, derived from Rubens. His subjects anticipate those of the Symbolists. Though Wiertz made his name with historical and religious compositions, the allegories and  (often gruesome) scenes of contemporary life are his most distinctive contributions to art.

“In 1850, partly in order to establish Belgian art as independent of French influence (led by the School of David; J-L David (1714-1825) spent his last years in Brussels) the newly formed state agreed to build a studio and dwelling for the benefit of Wiertz, the first truly “Belgian” artist. The initial agreement was that the artist would donate works to the state but it seems Wiertz early on had the idea of turning the studio into a permanent museum. The government drew the line at Wiertz’s proposal to fund the construction of a ruined temple in the studio grounds. Upon the artist’s death the combined house and studio became possessions of the state. Both building and grounds have remained unchanged since 1868, now a fragment of a lost age lodged under the glass towers of the European Parliament….”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, January 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=64

Islamism & Identity Politics

“On 14 February 2015 an Islamist gunman attacked a café in Copenhagen where a debate on free speech was being held. Speaking at the meeting was Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who received death threats after he drew cartoons in 2007 of the Prophet Muhammad that were considered insulting by some Muslims (and some non-Muslims). Vilks was unhurt, but a documentary filmmaker, Finn Nørgaard, was killed. A month earlier, Islamists murdered cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. On one level, the Danish attack was prosaically ineffective. On another level, it marks a new standard, where anyone associating with ‘insulters of the prophet’ can expect to be a target for extremists.

“This essay will not discuss the cartoons of Vilks and Charlie Hebdo. Instead it will evaluate what recent assaults on controversial art and satirical journalism – and the assaults yet to come – mean for the arts in the West. It is also worth considering how Islamists – some of them born and raised in wholly (or largely) secular European countries – have not rejected Western values, but have absorbed aspects of Western secular culture. This essay cannot be a full account. Though arguments and positions here are simplified, they are not – hopefully – misrepresented…”

Read the short form of the essay on SPIKED, 14 August 2015 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/islamism-and-identity-politics-a-destructive-mix/17290#.Vd-U2fldU5k

Read the long form of the essay on THE JACKDAW, originally published in May 2015: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1632

Paul Delvaux Museum, St Idesbald

“If you have heard of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) then it is likely to have been in connection with Surrealism. He gets a couple of illustrations in thematic surveys of Surrealism, rarely more. Unless you locate a specialist publication on the artist, it is hard to get an overview of his development. Delvaux is poorly represented in British public collections.

“Born near Liège in 1897, Delvaux initially studied architecture in Brussels, though he abandoned his studies because his grades in mathematics were insufficient, transferring to the painting course.  Delvaux’s earliest pieces are landscapes composed with a naturalistic palette, later leavened by Impressionism. As is usual for Belgians of this period, the Impressionism is more a form of vivacious naturalism with vibrant lighting effects and vigorous brushwork rather than sustained application of complimentary colour theory. Throughout the late 1920s he picked up and attempted to blend a welter of (often conflicting) influences: Renoir, Cézanne, Modigliani, Ensor. After 1925 one constant emerges: the human figure, often as a nude, as the principal subject. In the late 1920s Delvaux came into the orbit of Flemish Expressionists (less bold and strident than the Germans, they evolved a dull-hued, restrained style dwelling on figures in domestic settings, clearly displaying an attachment to realism)…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, March 2011:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=66