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.
If that naughty Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908 – 2001) were still alive and posing pre-adolescent girls for crotch views today, all you could really talk about is how quickly he ought to be taken into custody. But he’s gone, whatever damage was done is done, and it’s reasonable now to consider the shadings of his work. The current exhibition at the Met in New York offers an interesting sweep through his oeuvre.If Balthus hadn’t done “the guitar lesson” and suchlike famous pieces, we’d probably never hear his name–one more mid-list European eccentric. Having seen them, it’s easy to dismiss all his nudes as nasty. Which would be too bad. It’s a mistake to put them all in the same category. When he creates images with some complexity, some ambiguity, as in “La Chambre,” he gets interesting.
The stern, square-faced child pushing back the drapes makes this more than simply a view of girlish abandon. There is nothing subtle about “the guitar lesson,” but “La Chambre” is more elusive. The design is more diffuse, the light more complex, the girl soft-focused like everything else. The narrative of girl and child, whatever it may be, keeps the eye moving and discovering the details of the room, reticent as they are.
In “guitar” the peripheral details are there simply to provide some visual action; in “La Chambre” the details are not peripheral, they are integral to the whole. As they are in “Nude with cat,” below, another mildly provocative piece in which the figure is not so defiantly underaged, and the bold simplicity of the modeling, the happy coloring, and the active design delight the eye without unease. And the cat. Funny. If we hadn’t started with “the guitar lesson” we wouldn’t think twice about moral implications.
And in the middle of all his sensational stuff, Balthus also painted landscapes. Who knew?
In the print and drawing corridor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (to the left at the top of the stairs) is (or at any rate, recently was) a small but fascinating display of snapshots from an immense collection donated by Peter J. Cohen. Two panels are shown here.
The disposition of the pieces is deft. They are staggered and far enough apart that you see them as individual shots, but
close enough together that you can’t miss the enormous variety of similar images. Which is the point: amateurish though they are, and frequently cliched (what? another little boy standing at attention?) the repetition of observations common to us all–all those little kids, all those picnics, all those grandmothers–imparts a wonderful sense of the richness and intricacy of the world. It’s a visual evocation of Rilke’s line, that when speaking of people there are no plurals, “but only countless singulars.”
One of the unconventional delights of New York’s Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums of art are their open storage rooms. The snaps here are from the American Wing at the Met; the displays at the Brooklyn are narrower and darker, which makes them seem even more exoticly back-roomy. With such variety, not everything you find in these displays is going to be of interest, but then not everything in the main galleries is of interest, either.
I’ve never given much thought to grandfather clocks, and probably will not in future. But I enjoyed seeing a row of them, with all their little variations.
Advertising is big in sports, as in most fields–getting noticed, exuding glam. But sometimes it seems counterproductive. As in the case of these immense and immensely expensive America’s Cup boats.
The Emirates boat is in the worst shape, larded with advertising from head to halyard, but both Emirates and Oracle are so visually muddled that the effect is almost like camouflage. The eye has trouble embracing them as whole objects.
“Sunset at Montmajour” certainly looks like the work of Vincent Van Gogh, but when in the early 20th Century it was dismissed as a fake, its owner stuck it in the attic. There it sat for the next sixty years. Now it’s out, and after two years of learned study it’s acclaimed as the genuine article. From 1888 yet, Van Gogh’s prime period. Now, all of a sudden, we’re terribly interested. Although now that its authenticity is established, the merits of the piece don’t seem to engage us as much as the speculation around how many tens of millions the work would fetch if it were put on the market.Naturally, authenticity is an important question. How artists think and develop is inferred from their work, so it matters that their work not be confused with that of imitators and forgers. But here we have a painting that’s been just what it is since it was painted in 1888. If it was engaging enough for someone to acquire, you’d think it would be nice enough to hang somewhere better than the attic. Even if it maybe wasn’t a Van Gogh. Or was the name and its associated glitz the only reason it was bought in the first place. And the name, together with the market value, the only reason we bother to look at it now.
Marketplace excitement is a common phenomenon. It’s merely ridiculous in the world of, for example, fashion accessories, where flash and display are the whole game, but actively destructive in the world of art. A painting is what it is, and has an inherent esthetic value, regardless of the money and status games that are played over and around it. It’s vital that even a second-rate Van Gogh, like this one, should be looked at for what it is: a particular landscape, a unique work of art, a thing to be considered and appreciated for itself, something apart from the displays of the foolish rich.
The estimable George Stubbs (1724-1806) made his reputation on his paintings of horses. Many of these feature what was known as a “rubbing-down house,” an interesting background detail common to the environment of upper-class horses. Except that in Stubb’s work the house is often a major feature, both in size and formal application. In “Baronet,” above, the house just kisses the horse’s nose. This has the effect of solidifying foreground, background, and horse into a flat, almost abstract picture plane. The house in “Eclipse,” together with the clouds behind it, performs the same function (and notice how he cuts very close to the house on the right, to prevent the eye from drifting off into the distance and getting stuck there, as in the study below). In “Otho” the house is a large, moody presence that casts an intense shadow even though it is untouched by the brilliant light that illuminates the horse.
These pieces are very actively composed. Stubbs wasn’t simply copying what was in front of him.
We learn, sometimes, in the most unexpected places—in this case, from the memoir of Eric Hebborn, a saucy and unapologetic forger of old master drawings.* His art education, in England in the ‘50s, was of the most academic sort, and his first job was in the workshop of an art restorer where “restoration” could mean anything from cleaning and touching up cracks to radical reworking to make a piece more saleable.
He makes an interesting argument: “Many old pictures are bad old pictures, some so bad it would be difficult to make them worse. Even good pictures may on occasion be improved by some deliberate alteration. An example could be the well known case of Joshua Reynolds’s portrait group showing the Payne sisters at the spinet accompanied by their mother. . . With the mother, the composition is overcrowded. Without her, it is spacious and charming.”
Hebborn, of course, is justifying his profession of fakery, but in this case he has a point. The mother is oddly jammed into the piece, which seems squashed in any case. At some point in the 19th Century she was painted out. To the left we have an early 20th Century copy of the altered work. I wouldn’t call it “spacious and charming,” but it’s certainly an improvement. Later the overpainting was removed, and Mom restored. So the question is, are we better off with a third-rate Reynolds in its original if clunky state, or with a marginally better painting?
*Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger Random House 1991
Duane Hanson (1925-96) did many hyper-realist figure pieces, usually in groups or poses that are designedly foreign to the gallery spaces where they are shown. Striking, then, is his wonderful “slab man” at the Cantor Art Center at Stanford. The figure stands in the contemporary gallery so that visitors have to maneuver around it. I came up to it from behind; I noticed it, but didn’t think aboutit: it was some maintenance guy pondering next steps. It wasn’t until I’d circled around and was admiring that wonderful Alice Neel on the green wall that I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the guy seriously wasn’t moving. It was the stillness that revealed what it was.
Other gallery-goers, I noticed, had the same experience.
The show of figure drawings presently on view at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus includes a number of delights.Some of them, like this Francoise Boucher (1703 – 1770), are the sort of thing you expect in a survey show, but that doesn’t diminish the delight. It’s one of those silly subjects, but Boucher is such a sturdy draughtsman that the dynamic, twisting press of putti is almost monumental. And without showing off, either. The forms are described so neatly and economically that you have to look carefully to notice the deftness of their execution. And then there are surprises, like this quick, whippy piece perhaps by Raymond Lafage (1656-1684), an artist new to me. Even peppier is another Lafage, “Christ Presented to the People,” a busy crowd scene drawn as if with a pad of steel wool.
And then there is the usual raft of competent but boring studies, prep works, and showy performances. “Psyche Abandoned” by Barthélemy-Joseph-Fulcran Roger below is a better than average example of the latter category. It’s certainly useful to give such pieces a look. One lesson to be drawn is the enormous difference between the workmanlike but bloodless execution enabled by conservative art training, and art where the vision comes first, and technique is the means rather than the end.
Unhappily, most art is mediocre if not bad, and a wide-ranging show like this one reminds us how superior the best artists really are.