Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


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All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of chilly rainswept islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Ours is an indoors country.

This basic fact about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. It is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black-and-white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of fine society ladies or women with parasols lounging in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines, which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it was his use of thick impasto which influenced his students and went on to become the distinguishing characteristic of the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works later in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

The smear-and-daub tradition (Sickert-Bomberg-Auerbach) which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art is represented in our day bt the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’) thus omitting quite a lot of other artists active during this period.

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon, who dominates rooms two and seven with his screaming popes, tortured dogs and baboons, men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing which show interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It tends to confirm your prejudices to learn that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose strikingly large paintings are done in an edgy, angular, primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, dark and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. I actually liked them, they have a terrific style, but God the mood they convey is wretched.

Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example: can you feel yourself being drawn into it and becoming complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power?

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Obviously, the more you look at it, the more disturbing it becomes. Maybe that’s what the commentary meant. For me the disturbing element is the way the schoolgirl fiddling with the man’s trousers in a way which in recent times we’ve been taught to think of as pedophilia, as being a sex crime. Yet she has the head of an adult woman. So…

Livid corpses

There aren’t any actual corpses on display, that’s just a short hand way of describing a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

The exhibition decisively shows the strong tradition in English art of arranging and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. It is as unsensual and unsexy as it is possible to be.

One recurrent cliché or trope of this styleis to depict a woman mostly wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing way possible. We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover – but for some reason it’s always the saggy-boobed and flaccid-penised nudes which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of the cheerfully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that Freud’s mature style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes which produced a more modern, slightly blotchy style. And that he moved away from the sitter – instead of being close and smooth, his portraits become more distant, more mottled.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are. Just how ugly can he make his people, before the viewer cries ‘Enough!’

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

Saville broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition of 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeezed and compressed right into your face. All her works are awesomely big.

For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy penises and ragged vulvas make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English ‘school of ugly’.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews. In line with the general vibe two of his paintings here are of gloomy roughly-sketched interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et al. hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And for that matter, scenes simply set outdoors are few and far between in this show: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room. Even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it, so buried are the motifs in layers of industrial thickness sludge.

No – happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses.

It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the opposite – the product of a cloistered, hermetically-sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the actual lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise grids to help construct a realistic image, deliberately leaving bits of grid visible to hint at the geometric framework beneath the ‘reality’.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh, up close, you can see traces of the lines of the grid which Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed by the crossing of lines remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture – or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting).

All confirming that ‘Art’ is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four of them women – including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul (all mentioned and illustrated above).

The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. And, alas, as so often with contemporary artists, their work turns out – according to the (female) curators – to be all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid and intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints, and the ability to create mood and expression.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Still, though – very dark aren’t they? Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.


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Frank Auerbach @ Tate Britain

Frank Auerbach was born in 1931 and is a German-born British painter. He has been a naturalised British citizen since 1947. He was sent from Germany to England aged 7, as part of the Kindertransport scheme for the children of persecuted Jews. His parents died in a concentration camp in 1942. This might partly explain the misery of his earliest paintings, which is only slowly transmuted, as his career progresses, into depressing gloominess.

This major retrospective brings together some 62 oil paintings and 11 charcoal works in seven rooms at Tate Britain. They were arranged in rough chronological order from the 1950s to the present day (he is still very active) by the artist with the final large room chosen and arranged by curator Catherine Lampert.

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85) Private collection © Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85) Private collection © Frank Auerbach

Oil like mud

Auerbach’s painting is famous for piling on layer after layer of oil paint until it is centimetres thick. In the earliest works it stands up off the canvas in swirls and gloops, which he scrapes and reshapes and then pours more oil onto. The colours he chooses are black and brown and ochres, creating the impression of thick mud which has been mixed with carburettor oil from a particularly ancient car.

In the first room, the 1950s, this technique is put to the purpose of portraits of people who look like they have been incinerated at Belsen or Hiroshima. The impression is certainly of horror and extreme unease.

Or London ‘landscapes’, which look similarly blasted.

As we move into the 1960s the oil, if anything, gets deeper and gloopier. A woman I spoke to, herself an artist, said one of the pieces looked like an much-used artist’s palette, about 18 inches square with twills and swirls of oil paint randomly splurged onto it in overlapping and murky tones. Imagine a meringue before it’s cooked, and spattered with black and brown and blue and red colours all mixed together.

His three subjects appear to be portraits, interiors of his studio in Mornington Crescent North London, and the streets nearby. These he has been painting obsessively for the past 60 years. Primrose Hill Spring Sunshine (1964) made me laugh. Was there ever a painting that looked less spring-y and less sunshine-y?

In a way I admired the boldness of Studio with figure on bed because he appears to have simply squeezed thick red paint onto the already deeply mired canvas as a child might do elementary icing. There is a definite progression or change in the style over the decades: the paint gets a lot less thick, though the approach is still to lay it on thick and then draw great lines across it with an implement. And the tonal range lightens up to introduce muddy yellows.

Frank Auerbach, Head of William Feaver (2003) Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Frank Auerbach, Head of William Feaver (2003) Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

But the style remains recognisable and the subject matter monotonously the same right up to the present day.

When the commentary said that Auerbach ‘exercises special vigilance to avoid repetition’ I at first thought that was a joke, since one of the most obvious features of his subjects is their obsessive repetitiveness, treating the same London streets and the same people to the same ‘landscape’ approach and the same ‘portrait’ approach, again and again, as the numbering of the paintings themselves indicate.

Charcoal works

In the first room were more or less the only works I liked, two charcoal-on-paper heads. I responded to the damaged surface, the torn edges, the distortion of a recognisably human face. I always enjoy strong lines, line drawing, lines used figuratively, but I also like the implication in them of extreme damage by the trauma of war.

There are some 11 charcoal works in the show, all portraits, in later years some of them coming close to the scoured portraits of Giacometti recently on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Conclusions

Auerbach was one of the painters of murky, gloomy, depressed, dark gloopy paintings who put me off pursuing art at school. Thirty years later this body of work looks like the absolute fag end of the decline of western art. Although the palette lightens a bit and the amount of oil splodged onto the canvas decreases into the 1980s and 90s, all of his work for me lacks focus, precision, insight, wit or charm. It is very Germanic in its grim humourlessness. It felt like Francis Bacon without Bacon’s showmanship. There’s an old story about the philistine British classical music conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, who was asked if he’d ever conducted any Stockhausen, and replied, ‘No, but I’ve trodden in some.’ This show made me feel the same.

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Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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Other museums and galleries

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