Ten Great Figurative Paintings…
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Ten Great Figurative Paintings…
Most of these can be enlarged on your browser by clicking.
“To be ‘new’ a painting doesn’t have to have been painted in 2018, or even by a living painter. What this survey and the comments show is that time, discernment and taste has not yet caught up with many of the paintings on display. A painting is ‘new’ if it opens up untapped resources for others that have been lying fallow or unnoticed, or if it reasserts the fundamental eloquence of the means, the simple elements of colour, line, plane, area-shape, facture, in a surprising way — (confined surprise, as Greenberg called it, not literal theatrical surprise -Seminar 8).” Comment by Alan Gouk on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2, 11.3.18.
“For something to be “new” in this sense, not only does it not have to be painted in 2018 or by a living painter, but it doesn’t have to be either modernist or abstract. Just saying.” Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.
“…a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a ‘new’ thing, but also a ‘now’ thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs.” [FIAC is a Parisian Contemporary Art Fair]. From a Poussin Gallery catalogue essay, “New to Sight”, by RG, January 2010.
“Hitchens spoke once again of how he felt torn between the inspiration he got from direct contact with nature and the increasing desire to let the picture have a life of its own – to deal with it purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” Ivon Hitchens, quoted by Pete Hoida in a comment on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2., 21.3.18.
Neither way, thank you. Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.
Speaking personally, I would be hard-pressed to put more than a handful of non-figurative modernist works into my own Musée Imaginaire of favourite paintings. More specifically, of all the many great paintings that I have stood in front of (rather than looked at as images – a crucial distinction, I think), I find that very few, if any, are “abstractions”; unless, that is, you would make the case that all art is an abstraction. In which case, “new” abstract art, as I would define it, would be the only sort of art that I would judge to have not been “abstracted” from anything at all, but discovered as a new thing by means of the articulation of invented abstract content. Miros, Gottliebs, Rothkos and Nolands have made little impression on me when I’ve seen them up close. Images of blobs, grids, rectangles (geometric or fuzzy) and stripes may look tight and sexy when miniaturised on screen, but a fifteen-foot beige-striped matt-stained Noland, or a six-foot splodge of Gottlieb, are not as much fun in real life; and late Rothko is absolutely no fun at all. I see a contrived formalism (often rather insalubriously combined with hints at a portentous subject-matter) in much of 20th Century abstraction and I don’t much like it. I like art that is perceived as far as possible as content, not as vehicle. That’s a problem for abstraction.
Alan Gouk: Some Notes on Three Exhibitions in London. Cezanne, Matisse, Soutine.
The show of Cézanne portraits at the NPG is so overwhelming that I’m obliged to confine my response to just three or four pictures. As with the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in 2015 one feels that everything that could possibly be said has already been said, and yet nothing has been said that comes near to conveying the qualities of original vision and formal power of these masters, and the formidable (in the French pronunciation) humanity of their affirmation of painting’s capacity to “take the impress of spirit” in the words of Roger Fry. Painting will never be “dead” as long as one can take sustenance from pictures like these.
The resounding “bass vibrato” of the young Cézanne’s temperamental brutalism is struck by the first painting one sees on entry, the large vertical The Artist’s Father 1866. The volumetric relief of this seated man is astonishing, his legs and feet jutting forcefully into the foreground space, swollen like an elephant’s, rendered clumsily in a smoothly succulent and absolute grey, with emphatic shadows that are consistently maintained throughout on the heavy throne-like chair which is modelled with the same fluent clumsiness as the figure of the father, who looks more like a labourer than a banker, his podgy hands clutching L’Événement newspaper, hewn with much scrapings in white/grey/black like a Mosaic tablet. Whether this brutalism was intended as a rebuke to, or an assault on the seamless trompe-l’oeil finesses of Salon favourites, or whether it was the best that Cézanne could manage at this juncture, is no matter, and what it says about his relationship with his father must remain forever prurient speculation. To me if anything it seems to heroicise him. After all it was his father’s largesse that enabled Cézanne to dedicate his life to a sustained concentration on painting that was denied to most of his companions.
The buttery fat palette knifing sculpting the father’s face and hands is echoed in many portraits to follow, of Uncle Dominique and others, which in spite of this limited means, manage an extraordinary salience of volumetric form reduced to the extremes of light and dark (black hat and white gloves placed near the painting to serve as the outer limits of the pendular swing of their tonal language.) The solidity and succulence of paint application in this painting would be subject to transmutation with a thousand nuances over the years, near glazes replacing impasto, in which the watercolours are a crucial accompaniment, re-emerging in the very late portraits with a renewed if symphonic solidity.
But The Artist’s Father has further indices of the inherent tendency of Cézanne’s art, in the dense chocolate brown plane and the sienna wall plane that backs up the chair, with a still-life painting in a style influenced by Monticelli, who was also a palette knifer, hanging behind the head, parallel to the picture plane; in all of which Cezanne seems to want to outdo Manet in “bold impasto” and the emphatic assertion of the planarity of the picture design.
The qualities of abstract art – painting or sculpture – are often pitted unfavourably against figurative art. Most art that I look at is indeed figurative. If I want to see great art, it will invariably mean going to see historical figurative painting. Of course I enjoy looking at abstract art and could not imagine making anything but abstract painting. Apart from the very occasional, idle foray into figuration – ‘sans le même désespoir’ – I have been at the abstract paint face, so to speak, for the best part of thirty years. I ponder the relationship between these two worlds frequently. What is it about Cézanne and Matisse, or Titian or Goya and so on that makes me continually return to their work – like going to a well for water?
There is clearly a chasm in time frames between abstract art and great historical figuration, which is able to call upon a massively larger canon of achievement, casting abstract art in the role of a veritable parvenu by comparison. I once wrote – as a throwaway really – that abstract art must meet the challenges of figurative art on its own terms and not on those of figuration. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what I meant by that!
“First the Giants, then the pygmies.” Elie Faure
I could have begun with a painting by Rubens, one of Cézanne‘s favourite painters, his Susannah and the Elders in Munich, or the Three Graces in the Prado, but that would have set us off on the wrong foot by confirming Cézanne‘s own estimate of himself – “how feeble I am in life “, said in relation to Manet’s “bold impasto”. However, when the National Gallery placed Cézanne‘s Grand Bathers beside Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Rubens’ Judgement of Paris, he did not look feeble, and it was the Rubens that fell away first. What the confrontation confirmed was that it is not the succulent rendering of flesh, the atmospheric rendering of spatial illusion, nor the sumptuous handling of fabrics and the texture of appearances that counts, but the architectural strengths of the composition, the disposition of the major masses and the demands of their accommodation to the entire presented image, and the shape of the canvas , and that this can be created with a new economy of means, new and old, and an especial emphasis on “form”, form over the sensuous, form over everything. Cézanne goes on to build a monument to his feebleness.
And here is a contradiction, for how can it be that someone who said this of himself could prove to be the most powerful temperament in a century of powerful temperaments?
Emile Zola, a vocal champion of the movement in French painting he designated as “naturalism”, coined the expression — “nature seen through a temperament”. No one had a temperament more powerful and idiosyncratic than Paul Cézanne, of an intensity bordering the pathological, in his adolescent ferment, at least. (Perhaps it was just adolescent rebelliousness.) And he did not quite shed the phantasising of erotic torment that assailed him in youth, fuelled by his readings in classical literature, common to every well-educated schoolboy in France in the 19th century.
Underneath and parallel to the discipline instilled into him during his apprenticeship with Pissarro, there remained an erotic imaginative life which found expression in the many Bathers paintings, La Lutte D’Amour, a baroque turbulence in marked contrast to the strictness of his study after nature.
We are not all gifted with as strong a temperament, not all blessed with “equal temperament”. Some of us are in C major, some of us in B flat minor. Some are predominantly extravert sensation types, others are introverted feeling. Find out who you are. Be who you are, and not who you wish you were.
The genre of the painting-relief/construction has been around for some time. Recently, however, this hybrid category has become more prominent, almost suggesting that, at a time when ‘pure’ painting struggles for relevance, the medium’s best chance of survival could depend on forming a coalition with the object.
There’s nothing very new about work in this category. Major exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both at the Whitechapel in 1964, made an impressive case for merging the characteristics of two separate disciplines.[i] But the terms of the partnership favoured painting. Both artists developed their careers in the era of Abstract Expressionism and their gestural painting style derived its authority and confidence from that movement, even though they deployed it in a semi-satirical manner. Partial irony didn’t reduce the power of the painterly force that overwhelmed and absorbed the heterogeneous elements that their works contained.
The results were cluttered and palpable enough to be classed as ‘objects’, but they weren’t covered by the critique of literalism that the slightly later work of the minimalists received. Frank Stella’s paintings also manifested object-like tendencies but were exempt from this same criticism. Michael Fried argued that the pictorial activity of the ‘depicted’ shape, established their credentials as paintings by ‘defeating objecthood’.