Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CLAYTON ON ART: Farewell to Lucian Freud

The Weekly Volcano blog Spew, Aug. 2, 2011


Last week I wrote about sculptors who specialize in the human figure and spoke of works that were "almost too lifelike to be sitting in a gallery" - the prime example being sculptures by John DeAndrea. What I failed to mention is that DeAndrea is a pimp. His lifelike naked figures are salacious, intended as objects of erotic fantasy (my opinion, I'm sure DeAndrea would disagree).

Lucian Freud, who passed away last week, was a painter known for his uncompromising and unflattering portraits and for his equally uncompromising and unflattering naked figures. His paintings of nudes were as far from being objects of erotic fantasy as any such paintings could possibly be. Freud was known for making his subjects pose for ungodly long periods of time, working on portraits over months and even years. It was said that his subjects got so tired of posing that they eventually let their guard down, that the painter saw into their souls and bared those souls on canvas. That may or may not be an exaggeration, but Freud - grandson of Sigmund Freud in case you're wondering - certainly didn't flatter his subjects.

He painted pictures of people with craggy lined faces, uncombed hair and intense, vacant stares; naked people splayed unflatteringly across unmade beds; people with legs spread to expose genitals; and horribly obese people with their blubber hanging in folds like tires tossed on a pile. The skin of his subjects often looked bruised and discolored. His paint was slathered on in expressive globs, not quickly painted but worked and reworked incessantly and obsessively.

When I was studying art back in the 1960s and '70s, Lucian Freud was barely mentioned in standard art history textbooks. When he was mentioned at all it was as a kind of maverick oddball. His fame was slow to come, and even now when he is considered one of the world's great modern figure painters, his paintings are still very hard to take. We can admire his intensity, his passion and - perhaps somewhat reluctantly - his skill. But it is pretty much impossible to actually like his paintings.

Why? Because we're human beings and so are the subjects of his art. All too human human beings, in fact, and we're not comfortable with that.

The other artist many consider, along with Freud, to be one of today's greatest figure painters is Phillip Pearlstein. Comparing and contrasting Freud and Pearlstein can be very interesting. They are very much alike in many ways and exact opposites in others.  Their figures are painted in unflattering light, often with multiple light sources and odd cast shadows on their bodies. Both tend to use severe cropping, and neither of them makes their subjects look pretty. But whereas Freud exposes the souls of his subjects, Pearlstein dehumanizes his. He sacrifices their humanity for the sake of visual design.

Pearlstein treats his models like porcelain dolls, stuffing them in densely crowded rooms packed with ladders and mirrors and patterned rugs and stuffed animals so that the people, even while painted in a hyper realistic manner, almost vanish among the shadows and reflections and patterns.  He has spoken of himself as an abstract painter, and there is a lot of truth in that. His paintings are all about pattern and design and the interplay of light and dark; yet in the middle of all these purely abstract formal manipulations of paint on canvas it is impossible to ignore naked women with sharp hip bones and sagging breasts.

Whereas many of Freud's figures are obese, Pearlstein's tend to be boney and angular, with well defined musculature and large veins. Whereas Freud's paint is heavy and expressive, Pearlstein's is smooth and cool with hardly a brushstroke visible.

Both became famous at a time when figurative painting was reemerging after a period in which abstract art ruled the market. They resurrected figurative art and saved it from being sentimental and false and clich├ęd.

Freud is dead. Pearlstein is 87 years old. I wonder who the next important figurative artists will be and what direction the art of the figure will take.

No comments: