“I think the most dangerous thing for an artist would be to be pleased with one’s work simply because it is one’s own. One wants every picture to be better than its predecessors. Otherwise, what’s the point?” -Lucian Freud
It’s not a big shock, not ‘the day the art died,’ because both men were in their eighties, destined soon for the grave, and yet the recent loss of Lucian Freud and Cy Twombly sparked headlines around the world, as people acknowledged their feelings for two controversial artists, both of whom, because of their art, knew resentment, misunderstanding, and even hatred during their lifetime.
They offended both the conservative and the radical sets, along with the post-modern experts, because they dared to apply paint to canvas, to express personal joy through a forbidden, yet abstract interest in the classics in Twombly’s case and a long-abandoned focus on the figure in Freud’s.
I fell in love with Lucian Freud (1922-2011) years ago, and it turns out that I’m not alone. In the Biblical sense, he fathered many children, few of them in wedlock, most of whom he never knew, although some of whom he knew well, some of whom he painted in the nude, staged in minor dramas, dwarfed by their animalism in the eyes of their father, a famous psychoanalyst’s grandson, an admitted womanizer more interested in the process of painting than in the process of child-rearing or relationships or even the finished canvas.
I first saw a large collection of Freud’s paintings in Venice at the Museo Correr on the Piazza San Marco during the summer of Hurricane Katrina (the only way to remember 2005), my last visit to Europe because now I can’t bring myself to spend my dollars and point my camera outside of America.
Freud is an enigma today, because he captures, sort of, realism. He focuses on the human figure in this contemporary art world of sharks in tanks and feces on well….anything, while the classic subjects are reviled, as though we betray progress with nods to formalism.
Upon hearing of his death on July 20th, I pulled a book from our shelves, William Feaver’s catalogue from the Freud exhibition he curated first for the Tate Gallery in London and then the Museo Correr, where my husband and I saw the exhibition in Venice. Admittedly, the paintings lose, if not their power, certainly their beauty, within the book. I flipped hurriedly through the pages, while at the same time remembering an exhibition that lured me back half a dozen times within a week, dragging my husband, pleading with him that he explain this appeal, why I stared and returned. George tried:
“He’s a raw figure painter, showing no need to polish or stylize the figure. Rather, he emphasizes the grotesque or exaggerated form, resulting in a deeper feeling of the person. He pulls the person out of their skin, whereas other figure painters just paint the surface. You could almost say that he paints the person underneath the skin, taking the portrait a step beyond reality.”
Freud is a rebel, painting imagery at the height of non-representational painting. What is mesmerizing in person is not so much in print. The people who miss his genius never saw his art in person, I believe, as I flip hurriedly and uncomfortably through the catalogue, surprised at my disdain, as I recall the hours I spent staring at the same paintings in the Venice Museum.
“A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him that he never has to ask what it is suitable for him to do in art.” -Lucian Freud
Intent is important not for the viewer, but for the effectiveness of the artwork. Without explanation, the painting’s meaning overrides its subject, so that the person, the tree, or the dog mean nothing apart from their canvas-world. Through intent, “Picasso’s a master at being able to make a face feel like a foot.” (Lucian Freud)
I asked my friend Jack Lamplough, a New Yorker entrenched in the art and publishing worlds, about Freud. To my surprise, he remembered a famous quote instead about the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992): “I love his work but I don’t want to hang it on the wall” —-which somehow made me feel better as I squirmed through the Freud tome.
Jack continued his defense of Bacon, an artist I generally equate with raw meat and a head:
“Like Freud, Bacon’s portraits are about the psychology or inner life of the subject, not so much the appearance. Freud played it safe, whereas Bacon made you squirm and gasp, and THINK. The Met show in 2009 was so mind-bending and mesmerizing that I went for a long walk in Central Park after the show just to cool my head. Very few artists have that effect.”
I thought about following these comments with a few other figurative artists, namely John Currin, Philip Pearlstein, and Eric Fischl, because, in these conceptual, installation, and intellectual days, it’s as though the figure-as-subject decays an artist, implying that they haven’t moved on since Picasso or Rodin. It is a cop-out whether one emulates those styles or challenges them. Yet for the purposes of this essay, it’s enough to mention their names, to know that at least a few artists living today focus on the human figure.
“His glumly pungent nudes have a challenging air,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker about Lucian Freud in 2002, “as if daring anyone to judge them less charitably than the proud, brooding artist judges himself.”
The quote reminds me of Cy Twombly (1928-2011), a non-figurative artist whose death gained far more attention than Freud’s and whose work, admittedly, I’ve struggled with for years, even as I stared at his paintings in major museums. I read about his emotional commitment to his canvas, that he sometimes spent days in bed after finishing a painting, exhausted from the process. I also read, intrigued, about his obsession with the ancient world.
See images and read the NY Times story by Randy Kennedy here.
I asked local artist, Mallory Page Chastant, for help:
“Twombly’s work speaks to me because of his intrinsic connection to the canvas. His paintings speak as a dialogue of thoughts, creation, humor and passion. It taught me that I wanted my work to have an incorporeal essence, the nature of soul.”
“You can paint whatever you want,” continued Chastant, “but it is an enigmatic energy that makes artwork intense and captivating. It is what separates good work from great work. ….sometimes the emotion comes too quickly to think about what it is or what it should be.”
I don’t know which galleries and which artists make a mark on art history on White Linen Night. It could be all of them; it could be none. But an open mind makes for a great evening, and I for one will hit all of the galleries both this weekend and at Dirty Linen Night in the French Quarter the following, my universal and timeless thoughts drifting amidst local and contemporary art.
“I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.” —T.S. Eliot
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
For more by Wendy Rodrigue visit “Musings of an Artist’s Wife”