I posted the following three images one after the other on TRANSISTORADIO earlier today, but I have since had the thought that perhaps a few folks who don’t follow my tumblr but do follow this blog will appreciate the juxtaposition, too, so here the images are, together again for the first time in a single post:
“[…] its contrast of structure and dimension, rough against smooth, aerial photograph against close-up, perspective against flat surface, the utmost technical flexibility and the most lucid formal dialectics are equally possible[….] The ability to manage the most striking contrasts, to the achievement of perfect states of equilibrium […] ensures the medium a long and richly productive span of life[…]” — Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), “Definition of Photomontage,” quoted in Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art (Thames and Hudson: London, 1965), p.116.
“A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure. The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not depends entirely on what it is in itself, what is there to be seen.” — Lucian Freud
Freud’s paint handling seems to miraculously turn paint into flesh. His pictures owe a lot to the great English painter Sir Stanley Spencer. Actually, all painters who move thick paint around in a way that makes it seem as if it’s not paint, but real physical flesh, ultimately claim roots in Rembrandt and Velázquez. But where those two painting giants retrieved human dignity from out of its fleshly variations, Freud carried on in the more brutal, modern understanding of flesh — an approach that amounts to saying, “Nothing to do about it; we’re stuck in these things called bodies.”
Lucian Freud was frequently described as a contemporary old master, a Rembrandt for our times. But his work was in fact a radical breach of tradition. He painted people, but not quite (or not often) portraits. He painted from the life, but his life paintings were clearly not moments in the lives of those he painted — models, magnates, office workers, whippets, his many lovers, his many daughters — so much as scenes of their physical presence in his studio.
That bleak room in west London (its address carefully guarded), with its bare floor, discoloured walls and heaps of paint-smutched rags, was the constant theatre of his art. It became as familiar as his figures and their poses: huddled, sprawling, crouched or splayed, genitals dangling or parted, head thrown back or lolling, sometimes in pairs, but most often alone, bodies removed from their clothes, and perhaps even separated from their selves, their souls.
For the longest time, Freud seemed a throwback, someone who addressed and battled School of Paris painting. As the world lurched away from French traditions, toward abstraction, pop, and beyond, Freud seemed to stand still.
Yet this is his salvation — and what makes him such an important artist to come to terms with. He is so dogmatic and insistent on doing what he does in spite of whatever trends come and go, while at the same time being world-famous and famously consistent, that his art now exists as a champion island in the mainstream for artists. Every artist will one day face the moment when he or she is doing what he or she does after the style has passed and the art-world heat-seeking machine has moved on. Lucian Freud’s career affirms that the only thing an artist can do is remain true to whatever vision, (lack of) talent, or ideas that happened to pick them in order to be made known to the world.
His wildness, even in youth, was only half the truth. Lucian was also, as he put it, “very steady in his way”. He told the story of Augustus John’s son, Caspar, who in later life became an Admiral. Someone once remarked to him on the contrast between his career in the navy, and the rackety bohemian milieu of his father. “To be a painter”, answered Admiral John, “requires enormous discipline”. That was true of Lucian too: the astonishing determination needed to carry on painting, decade after decade, through every sort of discouragement, all day every day. His whole career was a tremendous gamble, on his own talent.
“I want paint to work as flesh, I know my idea of portraiture
came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having to look at the sitter, being them. As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” — Lucian Freud
Vincent van Gogh painted over thirty self-portraits during his lifetime; these two, from 1887 and 1888 respectively, have long been my favourites:
“I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me to work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” — Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, c. 16 September 1888
It’s a stock scenario in pulp-fantasy illustration: the man is the hero, the woman is the prize beyond price; the hero is armed, or at least, poised, for battle, the woman is under threat but too delicate to defend herself; the hero stands ready to sacrifice himself for the woman’s protection, the woman cowers, preferably sprawled right at the hero’s feet, preferably with as few clothes on as possible; the hero… well, you get the picture, and it’s not exactly “progressive.” So imagine my surprise when I saw the following painting by the great British realist painter, Lucian Freud:
Freud’s The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer is the sort of painting in which the artist wants to have cake and eat it: on the one hand, as a rich and famous heterosexual artist, he clearly loves the idea of naked women at his feet, and the truth is — we know it, and Freud definitely knows it — that many beautiful and famous women would leap (and have lept) at the chance to model for him, but on the other hand, Freud also wants us to know that he is aware of the absurdity of the situation, that he (unlike the model herself, apparently) is a paragon of self-control, that he is a dedicated observer and recorder, before all else. When the artist is at work, he is all focus and intensity, and neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor a naked woman fondling his leg, shall keep him from his appointed task.
Is Freud himself aware of the visual and thematic connection between The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer and pulp-fantasy art? I have no idea. But it would be hilarious if he isn’t!
Daily Express: Lucian Freud the Lothario (Friday, May 16, 2008), by Simon Edge — “He’s the irascible, reclusive creator of the world’s most expensive painting by a living artist, has a legendary appetite for much younger women and has as many as 40 children.”
Self-Portrait with Saxophone is not only my favourite of Max Beckmann’s many self-portraits but also one of my favourite self-portrait paintings of all time. Beckmann’s painting technique, which in his later works can sometimes be a bit messy and offhanded, is beautifully controlled and economical here. The quilted (silk?) robe, which in real life would be soft but sort of slick to the touch, reminds me also of the tough protective skin of a pineapple or a pangolin, though here the underbelly, so to speak, is open and unprotected, with the casual posture, meaty hands, steady gaze, and set jaw of the artist projecting boundless confidence and creative power such that even the ordinarily rigid metallic musical instrument seems to bend and twist in conformity with the artist’s pose and grip rather than vice versa.
ABOVE: Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Saxophone (1930), oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 27 3/8 in., Kunsthalle, Bremen.