Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lucien Freud: The Bohemian Monk and His Mounds of Feelings

Lucien Freud was a painfully niche artist. He was a realist portrait painter- perhaps the best in modern times. His realism is unwavering and is defining feature of his artistic output. Realism and portrait painting are the two anathemas of modern day art world. Advent of photography must have played on Freud’s mind when he made the genre of portrait painting his own. He set out to define realism for a realist and even a cursory look at his oeuvre is sufficient to highlight the deficiencies of photo-realism. He made human skin his arena and his weapon of choice was colour- loads of thick throbbing pigments creating fascinating mounds of feeling. If photography was ever a concern, it was not the picture postcard variety; it may well have been the family album. Lucien Freud never painted professional models. His subjects were his friends, relative, wives even daughters. “I work from the people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know,” he is quoted in the

(For credit details of above painting- see comment at OR
New York Times. From this somewhat incestuous world of indoors and intimates emerged ‘easy to admire, difficult to like’ art of this grandson of Sigmund Freud.  

Arena of skin
He never called his figurative paintings ‘nudes’ he calls them naked portraits. When painting people without any cloths, he was dealing with the whole ethos and feeling ecosystem of nakedness. He was ‘normally’ miles away from sensuality when painting these nudes. His sitters were generally the people he knew, his friends, assistant, daughters and sons. He did not capture them in any airbrushed digestible form that glorifies human body- a tradition that goes a long back to masters of classical period or even to primal cave paintings with exaggerated organs.  In Lucien Freud’s paintings ‘decorum of nudity’ is given a rude go by. His subjects don’t convey splendour of human body or the sensuality of nudity. Here he conveys the everydayness of nudity which is very discomforting to the artistic eyes trained on classical tradition of glorified nudes. He is almost clinical in getting the correct hue of human skin. He was liberal in applying paint-his principal weapon and painstaking in coercing the paint to come out with the spirit of the nakedness of the subject. It is a nakedness that is stark in its completeness, poignant in its vulnerability, almost repulsive in its details.  He is neither photographic nor pornographic. Dead verisimilitude of the photographs and cheap and easy tantalization of   pornographic are the last sensations that come to the mind of the viewers. He creates feelings that are dreary, heavy and above all true about humanity and its vulnerability. Robert Hughes wrote “in his own way Freud has done  what Velazquez did: assimilate the life of the subject to the life of the paint surface and of each gesture held in it. Very few painters can do this. It is not a trick. This is the difference between painting something and merely rendering it -- between Freud's fat woman, which is radical art of the highest intensity, and, say, Fernando Botero's fat women, which are boring essays in the pneumatics of style.”

He was not being sadistic or cruel to his subject when he painted them in such unflattering details. In fact, to a discerning eye it will appear a work of sympathy and attachment. Here comes in his insistence of avoiding professional models. He was intimate with is subjects as lover, friend or father. This intimacy excluded domination and exploitation. In fact, many of his subjects, including his daughters who posed nude for him- have found the arduous experience of sitting- that was normally long stretching to months and sometimes years and physically exacting- the best way of bonding with the artist. His extraordinarily remarkable personality often made these bonding an experience to cherish. 

The Old School Bohemian
Lucien Freud came from an impeccable pedigree. Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on Dec. 8, 1922, and grew up in prosperous circumstances. His father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect was Sigmund Freud’s youngest son. His mother Lucie Brasch, who was painted by him after his father’s death, was the heiress to a timber fortune. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Freuds moved to London. He was not a very promising students and was a difficult teenager. “In 1938, he was expelled from Bryanston, in Dorset, after dropping his trousers on a dare on a street in Bournemouth. But his sandstone sculpture of a horse earned him entry into the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He left there after a year to enroll in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting in Dedham.... In 1941, hoping to make his way to New York, Mr. Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy, where he served on a convoy ship crossing the Atlantic. He got no nearer to New York than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after returning to Liverpool developed tonsillitis and was given a medical discharge from the service.” 
 His obituary in New York Times describes him as a bohemian of the old school who set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a ‘Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly’. In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Kitty was subject of many of his early important works like “Girl With Roses,” “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Lady Caroline Blackwood. He is survived by at least 14 acknowledged children from his first marriage and from a series of romantic relationships. 

His early works were linear and thinly painted. Under the decisive influence of his friend Francis Bacon in mid 50s, Freud abandoned this style and started moving “toward the brushy, searching portrait style of his mature work, with its severely muted palette of browns and yellows.” This style kept on getting ‘refined’ into more coarse and robust style complete with more voluminous application of paint and thicker brushes. Later, he had the luck of having a flush of late renaissance of talent. I will use late Robert Hughes tribute to Freud here “Most artists, one imagines, dream of achieving a great late style -- the uprush and resolution in old age, careless of aesthetic risk, sometimes even a little mad, that carry a life's effort into profundity. Few, obviously, manage anything of the sort. The retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud, 71 (at that time), which opened last week at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, sets before us one who has.” This rush continued till very last when he died in July 2011 at 88. 

Creating art without artifice

Freud’s paintings often flirt with the danger of falling in the caricature trap. Heightened realism can get cartoonish and Freud in his time engaged with obvious caricatures (no I am not talking of queen of England whom he painted). He share with Salvador Dali the penchant of realism and love for details but he rejected Surrealism after initial forays into it. “The Painter’s Room” (1943) has strong Surrealistic traits. He was totally divorced from the weird imagination that was the mainstay of Surrealism. “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me,” he quoted to tell Robert Hughes. “That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness.” This is an astounding achievement that he survived caricature trap despite hyper reality and, may be more importantly, created art while abhorring artfulness
Artifice is what makes art differ from documentary reality. As poetry is art of ‘sweet excesses’ art also needs sweet excess. Freud achieved the near impossible task of getting this excess by being fanatically rooted in reality. He captured everydayness of his subjects. Anything more would fall in the ambit of ‘mere bit of artfulness’. The traction of artistic appeal is gained by intensity of his feeling of getting to the soul of reality. He keeps on chisel with his hog hair brush till the reality came out. This process made his pursuit of fidelity transcend mere similarity and art was born. 

This load of intensity kept him away from Non European, particularly, American fame. He wasn’t modern enough as he was a realist portrait artist and Warhol infused America was not fine-tuned enough for his dreary realistic works. It later changed. He gained respect of the New World and was made very rich too by insane demand for his paintings in the well heeled connoisseurs. 

He created art by obsessing with his subject. He was brutally slow (though his vast output may indicate otherwise). He was a monk in his studio. He was doggedly unsentimental and unwavering in teasing the soul out of his renderings without resorting to fireworks. He has come to be synonymous with intense art of high calibre and epithet of ‘greatest realist painter of modern times’ has stuck.

-Dhiraj Singh

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Robert Hughes- The consummate curmudgeon

He always had the right words to describe it and his explanation always seemed complete. It was this knack of zooming in to the crux of the appeal of an artwork that made Robert Hughes the formidable force in the world of art-criticism. His charisma was rooted in uber intellectualism nurtured by encyclopaedic knowledge and tempered by street fighter brawn. He was very literate and very contentious. True to his profession he had strong opinions and enough ammunition to defend those opinions against anyone. Many of his obituaries have conveyed the impression that he did not realize his full potential. There was an undercurrent there that may be due to his involvement with media juggernaut he could not contribute in more enduring way.  There was a struggle to convey what he stood for.    On the other hand, there were mentions of the criticism that he was seen as a reactionary critic who failed to fully appreciate later day developments. In an otherwise glowing tribute Benjamin Genocchio wrote in the New York Times “I am not going to venture any views on his critical opinions of art and artists, most of which were shaped in the early 1960s and which, by the 1990s, increasingly seemed out of touch with developments in contemporary art. He found little to like, turning into a kind of reactionary crank.”  Not that he was being criticized- far from it; his death last month brought a surge of undiluted admiration from his fraternity. These negative strands spoken with a combative camaraderie of critics which is not supposed to be dimmed by the funeral shadow do need rebuttal as Robert Hughes is not just famous but he is important too. His contribution should not come under shadow because of the arc lights that he courted with such bruising intensity.
Enduring Appeal

Question of a lasting importance of Hughes often comes from the very narrow interpretation of the notion of importance. Many feel that Hughes could have given a theory or a framework of art appreciation. There is a nagging impression that in the ephemeral world of media he failed to contribute in a durable way. More than anything else many of his admirers fail to identify him with any particular type of art. Hughes was not an academician. Notwithstanding his erudition and vast knowledge, he wasn’t a pedant. He has created enduring and academically sound work in the form of books and monographs but they only partially define his contribution.  He has written definitive treatise on world’s most important cities, art and artists. He has given a true classic in ‘Fatal Shores’ an account of settling of Australia. On account of these only he is an enduring intellectual figure in the fields of history and art. However he is important from a far deeper perspective. Academic tomes are needed and have a place and Hughes has a first rate academic oeuvre. But beyond ivory towers of academia art criticism has a very public purpose -   that of identifying, analyzing,  and most importantly refining public taste. 

 Arbiter of Public Taste

Art critic is not just doing the analysis of present trends but also carries the burden of making art accessible to public. In him or her resides the custodian of aesthetic heritage of mankind. He is able to tell western public what does it mean to be a Hon'ami Koetsu in 16th century Japan or what made Reubens what he was or what torturous demons propelled Goya or Van Gogh. Is there exist, if at all, any redeeming feature in Warhol. The critic is arbiter of public taste, its aggregator its disseminator. He sits on judgement about the public sensibilities and in turn forms them. Many artists need such interpreters to convey their appeal and Robert Hughes had this knack of spotting greatness and intellectual and communicative wherewithal to make this greatness mainstream. He interpreted Lucian Freud for US public. He declared Freud to be the greatest realist painter alive (at that time) and said “... the extraordinary flavor of the nudes and portraits by Lucien Freud, the 52-year-old grandson of Sigmund: more psychic territory is crossed in Freud's scrutiny of a few square inches of worn flesh than one might find in a whole roomful of recent American realism”- America agreed. Lucian Freud will be Freud without Hughes also but with him he is accessible to a larger chunk of humanity and with far deeper intensity- the pleasure increases many times over. The point here is that art needs public arbiters equally or, may be, more than the academic pronouncements. From this perspective, Robert Hughes is a figure of historical importance. 

It is a bit of a surprise that there is very little clarity about what he stood for. He was nothing if not opinionated. It was his trade to have an opinion and clear cut biases. He liked, and liked strongly, Lucian Freud, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and other modern masters. He absolutely adores Goya. He was pretty clear that art is about imagination, colour scheme, symmetry of execution and draftsman ship. He liked his art to break new grounds but for him art was about aesthetics and feeling. It had to conform to basic minimum of aesthetic inventiveness or even ‘beauty’. After watching Matisse exhibition he wrote “Such is our fin-de-siecle. On every side, the idea of quality is ritually attacked, so that many young artists have come to doubt the most basic experience involved in comparing one artwork with another -- namely, that there are differences of intensity, articulateness, radiance, between works of art; that some speak more convincingly than others; and that this is not a political matter.” It was on the grounds of ‘intensity, articulateness, radiance’ he did not like much “wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.” He was brutal when he found that something that is not ‘art’ for him is being touted as one. One such unfortunate soul was Basquiat, graffiti painter who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, Hughes' ‘tribute’ ran under the headline, "Requiem for a Featherweight." Basquiat, he wrote, was "a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics." He really disliked the crass commercialization of the art world.  This often propped him up for the attack as a reactionary or a conservative who was not in tune with the new developments. 

Master of Putdown

It is true that his first instinct towards the new trends of installation art and extreme experiments in public tastes was that of anger and contempt. However, he always argued cogently for his contempt and was brutal with his put down. New York Times quotes him describing the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed that it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original.”  However,  he is not averse to inventiveness. He is not very enthusiastic about Warhol but he recognizes his genius. In fact his evaluation of Warhol puts the artists in proper perspective. He writes “His (Warhol’s)contribution was the image taken from advertising or tabloid journalism: grainy, immediate, a slice of unexplained life half-registered over and over, full of slippages and visual stutters. Marilyn Monroe repeated 50 times, 200 Campbell's soup cans, a canvas filled edge to edge with effigies of Liz, Jackie, dollar bills or Elvis. Absurd though, these pictures looked at first, Warhol's fixation on repetition and glut emerged as the most powerful statement ever made by an American artist on the subject of a consumer economy. The cranking out of designed objects of desire was so faithfully mirrored in Warhol's images and so approvingly mimicked in his sense of culture that no one, in fact, could be sure what he thought.” This makes it clear that Warhol was about presentation rather than representation. While acknowledging the value of Warhol he is very clear “Warhol's early works were the ones that mattered. He began as a commercial artist, became for a time (between about 1962 and 1968) a fine artist with something akin to genius and then lapsed back into a barely disguised form of commercial art.” He is acidic about the rampant commercialization. This sharpness of opinion may have contributed to his image as out of sync curmudgeon. However, this may be noted he had a fine eye, howsoever conservative,  which was always open to the value of art.

Nothing demonstrates his opinionated self than the description in his New York Time obituary- “About artists he admired, like Lucian Freud, he cast the stakes in nothing less than heroic terms. “Every inch of the surface has to be won,” he wrote of Freud’s canvases in The Guardian in 2004, “must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition — above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.” ....“Nothing of this kind happens with Warhol, or Gilbert and George, or any of the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.”

He is arguably the most successful art evangelist in the television era. His forthright manner, his conviction and confrontationist personality shone on the screen. “The Shock of the New,” his eight-part documentary about the development of modernism from the Impressionists through Warhol, was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it ran first on BBC and then on PBS and the book that he spun off from it was a “stunning critical performance” and  hugely popular. 

To conclude-
His comments on the two of the greatest artists are the best way to demonstrate how he made high art accessible to us without pandering to the lowest common denominator. 

On Picasso- “In his work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. He conveyed it with tremendous plastic force, making you feel the weight of forms and the tension of their relationships mainly by drawing and tonal structure. He was never a great colorist, like Matisse or Pierre Bonnard. But through metaphor, he crammed layers of meaning together to produce flashes of revelation. In the process, he reversed one of the currents of modern art. Modernism had rejected storytelling: what mattered was formal relationships. But Picasso brought it back in a disguised form, as a psychic narrative, told through metaphors, puns and equivalences. The most powerful element in the story--at least after Cubism--was sex.”
On Matisse- “In its thoughtfulness, steady development, benign lucidity, and wide range of historical sources, Matisse's work utterly refutes the notion that the great discoveries of modernism were made by violently rejecting the past. His work was grounded in tradition - and in a much less restless and ironic approach to it than Picasso's.”...... “His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected.”

-Dhiraj Singh