Ronald Searle (1920 – 2011), famous for his St. Trinian’s girls and New Yorker cover cats, was a young enlistee in the Royal Engineers who had just arrived in Singapore when it fell to the
Japanese in 1942. He would be a prisoner until the end of the war in 1945. During that time he made hundreds of drawings which he hid in the beds of the cholera patients since the camp guards wouldn’t go near them. He was just out of art school; his drawings are not stylish, but their power, arising from a combination of attitude and directness, is unsurpassed.
He did them as evidence of how the POWs were treated, not thinking he would survive.
It’s true, of course, that the intimate nature of such small-scale works can’t touch the big picture. The drawings are small, and war is huge. But when the picture is big enough, the small scale–where war happens–gets lost.
It seems we have to choose. Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings, like Searle’s drawings, are close-ups of this or that appalling moment. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the famously grand, symbolic representation of war, but its labored imagery, enthralled as it is to decorative effectiveness, doesn’t hold a candle to Goya or to Searle if the point is understanding of the subject. Some art is meant to be self-referential and life-enhancing, while some is meant to be instructive. Both purposes are worthy, but when, as in the case of “Guernica,” they get muddled, our thinking gets muddled as well. As his drawings show, the young Ronald Searle knew exactly what he thought.
Illustrations from Searle’s 1986 book To the Kwai – and Back War Drawings 1939-1945
So much so, indeed, that I’m reminded of Paul Cezanne’s looser pieces from two hundred years later, which in their freedom and abstract boldness are strikingly reminiscent of van de Velde. Compare the lively touch and texture of these two pieces.
Which demonstrates the common design elements that underlie all visual art. And which, in strong hands, far from being concealed, are right up front, and part of the delight.
I wasn’t aware of this piece by Norman Rockwell before it sold the other day for $3.2 million. That’s a sum glamorous enough to catch one’s attention.
What jumped out at me are the threatening, if absurd, faces in the two principal buildings. Their oddness doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Rockwell does, but I have too much respect for him to suppose that there are any accidents in his paintings.
The effect of the faces is to impart to the geeky family a certain moral grandeur. Here they are, determined worshippers braving the racy “Silver Slipper Grill” with its malevolent stare and bared teeth and tongue. They are also so grotesque that it would seem unkind to notice them, except that there are many such people in Rockwell’s work, and he views them all with the same cool, anthropological eye. Yes, this is what we are like, but awareness doesn’t rule out sympathy.
Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011) built his later reputation on the grossness of his images—unideal bodies flopping around in poses that most models, amateur or pro, wouldn’t take without being coaxed. Which they wouldn’t be, by most artists. But Freud’s in-you-faceness tends to blind us to the suave design and execution that tames his subjects, and makes them (or many of them, at any rate) engaging and even attractive.
For example, the two figures above form a single warm, wriggly shape between the warm gray blanket and the cooler black screen. The light tones on their bodies are the bright focus of the composition. The center white is a centuries-old painter’s device; together with the frequent little sharp darks of the shadows that anchor the flesh tones and keep them from seeming soft or vague, it commands the eye and makes the slightly darker blanket seem full of action. The screen is a nice, simple, contrasting shape; the side bits of wall and floor make the space seem more “real,” less arty, than if the blanket were continued from side to side, which would make the artful posing of the figures more obvious. In sum, a masterful work with a strong decorative element.
Similarly, the etching to the right, while going out of its way to emphasize Lord Goodman’s unheroic aspect, domesticates the subject by the power of its design. The shoulders swoop smoothly from left to right, forming one simple, stable mass that anchors the head.* Unity of head and shoulders is reinforced by the fuzzy margin that surrounds the shoulders and is repeated, more descriptively, in the hair. The head is very actively but abstractly rendered in jerky little shapes and shadows and odd, improbable brights that unite the face with the empty background. The background, sharp and coherent, is not a passive surround, but a positive shape pressing down on the figure. So: another masterful work with a strong decorative element.
But in both of these examples, the tension between what is nice and what isn’t never goes away. That tension between order and disorder is a major preoccupation in Freud’s work.
*As a sidelight, while the image consisting of a dominant mass is common in portraiture, it can be applied elsewhere—as in this landscape by Wayne Thiebaud.