24/4/12 14:22 - Some impressions of Lucian Freud - Portrait
Note: For want of better terms in the following if I talk about something being painted flatly, I mean something like being painted with invisible brushstrokes, and by something being painted roughly I mean using visible brushstrokes, or impasto effects - something like painterliness.
A short while ago I saw Lucian Freud Portraits with Tanya at the National Portrait gallery. It's one of those blockbuster shows, busy even during the middle of a week day. I don't want to think about what it would be like during a weekend. Obviously it was brilliant, but I found it cold, and left feeling like I didn't remotely understand it.
I was reminded of Edward Hopper, because of the way the subjects don't meet your eyes, and when there is more than one subject they don't look at each other. Sad is the first word you reach for when describing these people, but that's simplistic, they're the faces of people too full of thought to have their social masks on. But even if sad is simplistic, the detachment, the pensiveness feels unavoidably melancholy.
At first I found myself feeling that I preferred Hopper. Part of that is how his obessesions are similar to mine, how his pictures influenced cinema, and they way his paintings look exactly like how Raymond Chandler stories feel. But more than that, pictures like Nighthawks and Automat seem immediately intriguing, and hint at a world and stories you'd want to explore. Initially Freud's pictures seem like closed doors.
As I moved through the exhibition I began to appreciate that he cared as much for drama as Hopper; in the accompanying booklet it says "He believed that if a painting did not have drama, it did not work. It was just paint out of a tube". But still at first the paintings did just seem like studies of flesh and hair to me.
Unlike Hopper the backgrounds are usually sparse, and that makes it harder to find a way into the story, but occasionaly comments from the booklet gave me the sense that stories were there, if you understood the code, or looked hard enough. So I, and I guess Tanya, did the only thing I know to do when art seems impossibly mysterious: accept its reality, and try to unravel its internal logic, by picking out details and thinking what they have to do with the whole, or just appreciating the details.
Doing this, whilst looking at a picture with a characteristically strange composition, Tanya asked why there was a picture of one of the earlier subjects in the background, then laughed and said I guess the more obvious question is why are the childen in the front holding ducks. While I don't understand why the picture of Leigh Bowery is there, or what the fuck the ducks doing are there, I trust they are there for a reason, and the single detail of webbed feet held in a small child's hand makes the whole picture feel worthwhile.
Part of what's interesting about Lucian Freud's pictures is the contrast between parts of the picture that are very detailed and flat in affect, and the parts that that are rough and expressive. It's easy to reach for the word "realistic" to describe the parts that are flat and detailed, and perhaps something approaching "photo-realistic" would be accurate. But to say "realistic" is to accept the reality that photographs show us, and it seems that one of the major points of painting after the invention of the photograph is to undermine that idea.
This is a side point, but while there is good work at the BP Portrait Prize, there's a formula I see repeated there that I find depressingly tedious. The painting has astonishing photorealistic detail, down to the level of reproducing photographic blur, the subject gazes soulfully out from a blank background. There are so many of these paintings. The soulful look conveys nothing, it's just fake-authenticity. There is no personality in the picture, it feels like the artist spent 5-minutes taking snaps of the subject in the artist's studio, never got to know them and never saw them again, then spent days reproducing this photo. I can't help but feel that these pictures only technically qualify as portraits, and their only artistic statement is: look at my mad skillz.
Anyway the point I wanted to note down had nothing to do with the question of which is a more accurate vision of reality the flat or the rough style. What I wanted to note down was the way he uses both to manipulate your gaze.
In a picture of his mother lying in a bed the pattern of the bed cover and her dress are painted flatly, and your eyes glide over them and focus in on her flesh. It's as if your eyes quickly understand the simple repeating patterns, and then screen them out, but can never quite take in the range of colours and textures of flesh, and so they demand your continued attention.
While flesh is always painted roughly (except in his early paintings) it's not simply that the rest of the picture is painted flatly so the flesh pops, sometimes the background swirls and blends into the subject. To what effect? I don't know. Perhaps he lets the boundaries between the subject and background blur when they are less emotionally contained, less stable. Perhaps, but I note that my first attempts to explain grasp at synonyms of "blurry", and I suspect more is going on than simple visual punning.
As you move away from some of the pictures, parts that seem rough resolve into smoothness, just like the dots of a pointillist resolve into a coherent whole when you view it from a distance. The rougher the painting the further away you need to move for it to resolve into apparent smoothness. One of the impressive things is that he uses that fact, varying the roughness in different parts of the painting and combines it with the technique of guiding your eye to the rougher parts of the painting, so that at different distances your eye focuses on slightly different parts of the painting. This effect somewhat counters the way you'd normally view the painting differently as you view it on a different scale - though I can't seem to articulate how right now.
In case I gave the wrong impression by going on about Freud so much: I don't particularly like him or his work and I don't agree with the view he gives of humanity, but he gives me a lot worth thinking about and I couldn't understand someone who argued he isn't great.
It's been 3 weeks since I saw the exhibition and starting to write this post, and it's worth noting that his pictures are still affecting me. When I see random people on the tube I find myself looking at their flesh and noticing the networks of blue veins, and blossoms of red beneath the skin, beautiful but completely different creatures to photoshopped models.