The danger in meeting one of your heroes is the possibility of being disappointed. When one finally meets the Prime Minister or the lead guitarist of your favourite rock band, they either turn out to be very ordinary people, or at times distant and rude. (I’ll leave that for another day.) I don’t think I was ever in love with Bacon the man. But I’d read his interviews, seen reproductions of his work and caught an impression of his artistic persona in a DVD. I had only ever seen one real ‘Bacon’ in my life… and now I walked into an exhibition of some 60 or 70 works.
Throughout the nine rooms, arranged in loosely linked ‘themes’, the most striking thing to me was the silence of the crowd; and it was quite a crowd, even though the entry was by the arrangement of a pre-booked timed ticket. People came into room 1 and immediately stopped, stared and became immobile for some minutes. This activity lasted the whole 8 rooms of paintings and the one room of items from Bacon’s studio and journal.
From early pieces such as his ground breaking Triptych of 1944 (reworked in 1988) up to his late pieces of Blood on Pavement, Portrait of John Edwards and Jet of Water (Bacon’s personal favourite according to his biographer, Michael Pepiett), the admirers seemed to be overwhelmed. I know I was. The status of the Hero remained intact.
Most works were displayed under glass with gold frames (Bacon’s preference for his work) and took on a more classical appearance because of this. I found myself forever slightly shifting from left to right to reduce the glare of the gallery lighting, never getting a full handle on all each piece’s features at once. It was like attempting to fix a holograph… or was this just a painting technique or Bacon’s trick? The size of the works (typically 198cmx137) was arresting, especially in the triptychs.
I was quite surprised by the many levels of paint viscosity in the one work. Paint almost 15m thick, ran over almost bare canvas that had been passed over by the smell of oily medium. What I had assumed to be pale ochre background in many Paintings, turned out to be unpainted ‘raw’ canvas, such as his Study of a Dog 1952.
The items from Bacon’s studio and the pages from his journal were not new to me. What struck me was the ordinariness of them now they were in front of me and not cropped and neatly arranged in an art book. It sent me back to my own ordinariness in my own journals to see if I myself had any genius hidden away without recognizing it. Alas genius must be in the execution and the mind’s eye that converts the ordinary.
On my second trip to see Bacon, I had just come from the Tate Modern where I had been in the great aircraft hanger size rooms of Mark Rothko’s late despairing works. They would have made a great pair… with Rothko preparing interesting backgrounds for Francis to work upon.
Is Lucien Freud a Post-Modernist?
Two views on Lucien Freud.
‘Everything that Lucien does is so careful’ – Francis Bacon.
‘Freud is homo Londiniensis in an exceptional degree: a man who used all of London as the bison uses the long grass and lived with an absolute minimum of circumstantial baggage. As far as is possible in the late twentieth century, Freud owns nothing and lives nowhere, though it could be said with equal truth that he has everything he wants and is at home everywhere and in all societies. He is contradiction personified. His ivorine features and slight frame belie a constitution that on closer acquaintance turns out to be indestructible. Gifted with a generalizing intelligence of a very high order, he yet specializes in the particular: in the fact precisely observed, the individual case that applies to itself only, the subjective experience that appears to owe nothing to induction from earlier happenings of a comparable sort. Freud is not so much lawless in his behaviour as a volatilizer of law: someone who dismisses the general rule as inapplicable and reacts to any given situation as if it were something in the previously unknown.’ – John Russell.
Hitler was a wicked bastard. Hitler is a man. All men will be wicked bastards. Discuss.
(An appropriation of a high school clear thinking exercise from the1950’s.)
Herein lays the question of post-modernism. ‘Hitler was (past tense) a wicked bastard’ is a historic reflection of a popular view. The language describes what was thought to be the classical truth, in historic terms and perspective. It predetermines a meaning for both wicked and bastard, although the latter may be considered untrue if Hitler was born within wedlock.
‘Hitler is (present tense) a man’ is in the moment (modern). It is a little hard to question this statement providing the latest DNA tests prove our man is indeed Hitler, and we can check out ‘his’ genitalia.
‘All men will be (future tense, after the current moment, postmodern) wicked bastards’ takes us to different places. It may not seem ‘true’, but have we one hundred percent certainty? Can we ever be certain about the moment about to happen? The statement may be more acceptable to Generation Y if it was written as ‘All them bastards would be wicked, dude’. I fancy there is a multiple of meanings. The important issue here is in the receiving of the language as against the transmission. Carmichael introduces us to the ‘term esse ininterpreti which asserts that meanings can be ascribed to objects through the interpretation on the part of the viewer’.
Culture and context play a major role.
Back to the point at hand - Visual Language. Let’s try another three statements, or in this case, visual images.
Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World.1866 Egon Schiele, Reclining Female Nude with Legs Spread Apart 1914. Lucien Freud, Rose 1978/9 Look, and then discuss.
According to the technical time line, we have almost Pre-Modernism, Full Modernism, and Postmodernism.
All are images of women, all reclining, all revealing their vagina to the viewer. There are various skill levels and techniques employed by our artists. The artists were (are) a product of the sum of the small moments of truth in their lives, whether it be nature or nurture. The audiences that first viewed the respective languages were years apart.
Courbet’s painting is figurative, realist; to the point where we could make a case for it being photo-realism (the camera was available to Courbet at that time). Because it portrayed nudity without allegory, the general view at the time was of the shock-horror variety. The painting was mainly hidden away. ‘We are not amused’ probably sums up the general reaction. This was perhaps voyeurism or maybe just Courbet being a Courbetist once again. In this painting we do not get a sense of identity of the sitter as in other Courbet images of the working class depicted in their dour lifetime struggle. Here the shock was the subject matter. Surprisingly, Courbet got a better acceptance in Germany than in his native France.
Some years later, Egon Schiele, an Austrian, convicted of pornography, also had little luck in being accepted by the establishment. Only one gallery/ museum acquired a piece of his work in his lifetime. His Reclining Nude with Legs Spread Apart 1914, like many of his works (such as Woman with Black Stockings 1913) portray the female form in full revelation of its sex with a very distinctive message of the ‘take me, f**k me now’ variety. In this case the shock was the portrayal not necessarily the subject. (A forerunner to internet porn?)According to Fischer, Schiele’s ‘sitter is more vehemently viewed in sexual terms: her legs are splayed, her genitals emphasized. Sometimes Schiele would display and glorify the female genitals still more assertively by placing them centrally in a composition. In Woman with Black Stockings for instance, the subjects straddled black-stockinged legs draw our gaze to this centre with the inexorable power of central perspective.’
Here we have an artist very conscious of what he is doing, planning the technique and the composition. Shiele would have known the reaction to his painting before he painted it.
Freud on the other hand, while he admits to being an admirer of Courbet’s shamelessness, prefers to ‘catch’ a scene rather than compose it.
In his portrait of Rose 1978/9 we (the Postmodern viewer) initially see a young (but how young?) woman almost falling asleep (or is it awakening?) on an old couch. A sheet has been kicked back (deliberately or accidentally?) and her shoes (or someone else’s?) can be seen. Are we accomplices to this scene now or before the moment, or are we the intruder, featuring in the next moment about to happen? We may start to feel more awkward when we are told it is the artist’s daughter. The narrative is multi-leveled, a metanarrative so to speak. This gives us a clue that Freud may be a Postmodernist or at least have some postmodern characteristics that define his work. In her course notes for 2008, Stewart says that ‘Freud’s nude bodies could only be painted with the full awareness of 20th century society’s uncertain gaze.’ Alain De Botton explains this uncertainty in relation to the silent observer. ‘With their eyes closed and their features relaxed and defenseless, sleepers invite a care and a kind of love - so much so that it is embarrassing to gaze at length at a person asleep beside us on a train or plane. Their face prompts us to intimacy which throws into question the edifice of civilized indifference on which ordinary communal relations are built.’
This all contributes to the ‘victory of uncertainty over clarity’ - a characteristic of Po-Mo.
Digging deeper into these characteristics, we could come up with a list and check them off against Freud’s better known works.
Given our clear thinking exercise, what about appropriation? Large Interior W11 (After Watteau) 1981-3 is clearly a case in point. Freud’s painting ‘expands and monumentalizes the original scene, but at the same time allows the convention bound drama to drain away.’ (Stewart notes the affinities of Girl Sitting in the Attic Doorway 1995 with Veronese’s allegory of Love 1565.) This concept of appropriation doesn’t sit well with Freud’s own claim that he catches rather than composes the scene. Maybe he can lay claim to both ‘methods’ in creating an image. In reality he did just that in LargeInterior. He asked his sitters to dress up a little, gave them the idea of reworking the Watteau, and freed them from any constructed fiction. ‘They become unreally alive. After Watteau, admitted Freud, was slightly clumsy. But “I didn’t try and forget who they were, and in the end they are just there.” In this sense, appropriation is another secondary source; mixing the image of the sitter in front of the canvas with some preconceived notion as to how the final result may look, but then letting the paint run, drip and flow its own way across the canvas. Priori Structure is in our check list and there is an element of it here, but it may be more on the part of the viewer than the painter.
So far we can mount a case to say Freud’s work contains appropriation, ambiguity (uncertainty) and metanarrative (some would say intertextuality). What then of pastiche and schizophrenia, heterogeneity and fragmentation?
As for pastiche, ‘parody that has lost its sense of humour’ we again run into uncertainty. Looking at Freud’s nudes with their backdrop of stapled rags against the studio wall we can see the echoes of Sciele (Reclining Woman, 1917; Embrace, 1917) but we do not get the attitude of Shiele’s sitters. Freud has worn them down with ‘an ordeal of patience, an affair of session after unsparing session in which the image is built up as a hare might build the pyramids.’
In regards to realism, Freud had some Baconesque connotation in his views. Lawrence Gowing sat for Freud in 1980, noting that he did not draw verifiably from a fixed position, which he could depend on returning to. Freud told Gowing ‘the process was more like aiming than copying.’ And yet he attempts to paint people ‘not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.’ And yet he is ruthless about omitting the exaggerated or false kind.’ It seems at this level he wants in his mind at least no ambiguity or uncertainty about the narrative regarding the sitter.
In regards to Large Interior, we see a group of characters crammed together ‘with mute and unconvincing gestures.’ The background plays a far more important part in the composition than in Watteau’s Pierrot Content 1712. The running tap the glimpse of the city outside and the plant life add to this sense of ordinariness.
‘Freud is a painter of disparities rather than concordances’ says Smee. In Large Interior(After Watteu), and ‘whenever he has painted group portraits… , he shows himself more interested in each individual’s separate existence than in the way the figures relate to each other.’ This seems to sit with the concept of the non-narrative at least. Or if not the idea that Freud spends little time on composition. ‘Do you know there is something called picture-making? He once said, I think it often simply fatigue. It rules out the hope of making something remarkable.’
Perhaps Freud’s own words at least give us some indication that he sees himself as Modern as against Postmodern. ‘I think the most boring thing you can say about a work of art is that it is timeless. That induces a kind of panic in me. It’s almost like a political speech – it doesn’t apply to anyone. The idea that something’s wrong if the work gives off a feeling of being tied to the moment is crazy”
Postmodernism characteristics started around 1970. Lucien Freud paints after 1970. Lucien Freud will be seen as a Postmodern painter. Discuss.
Courbet found some acceptance in Germany but at times was a reject in France. Schiele was prosecuted in Austria. Freud and his family left Germany in 1933. Lucien Freud and his family lived beyond the moment. They must have known that Hitler would be a wicked bastard.
Wolfgang Georg Fischer, Egon Schiele, Taschen, Verlag 1995, reprinted 2004
Sebastian Smee, Lucien Freud, Taschen, Koln, 2007
Dr Heather Stewart, Contempory Art Studies 3, Brougham, Geelong, 2008
Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group, London 2004
Rod Carmichael, Actuality and Artiface, Deakin University Press, Victoria, 1984
Daniel Farson, the Guilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage, London, 1993
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson, London, 1971, rev 1993
William Feaver, Lucien Freud, Rizzoli, 2000
Bruce Bernard and David Dawson, Freud at Work; Lucien Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee, Knopf
Lucien Freud: The Painter’s Etchings, Starr Figura, Museum of Modern Art Catalog 2008
Julian Bell, The Way of All Flesh, Internet Article, The New York review of Books, 2008 www.nybooks.com/articles/21055
Lawrence Gowing, Lucien Freud, Thames and Hudson, 1982
Robert Hughes, introduction to Lucien Freud: Paintings British Council exhibition, 1987