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Benefits Supervisor (“Big Sue”) Resting

“There are facts,” the painter Lucian Freud once said, “and there is the truth.” The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London follows less than a year after Freud’s death at 88. The show is a stark reminder that while Freud dealt with the facts of our all-too-human flesh, his primary concern is the truth that his artistic vision uncovers, probes and delineates.

In many ways the show is overwhelming. The work displayed spans most of his career, and I was reminded how rare it is to see an artist who has spent a lifetime plumbing one particular métier. Seeing those early portraits in context helped me better understand the trajectory of his evolution as a portrait visionary. And while portraiture has never been a form I have been drawn to, this show left its mark on me. Flesh, whether rendered by Freud or by Jenny Saville, is deliciously seductive to the painter’s eye. And both have painted it in profusion.

In a recent review of a Renaissance portrait exhibit (at the Bode in Berlin before coming to the Metropolitan Museum) in the New York Review of Books, Andrew Butterfield‘s exploration into the history of portraiture tracks its evolution in Western art traditions. That show’s curators state that the goal of portraiture was to “‘confer a distinct identity on a subject—as a husband or wife, merchant or intellectual, military commander, civic office holder or prince.’ Portraiture was a matter of both description and aspiration; it sought to capture the likeness of a particular man or woman and simultaneously to suggest how that person exemplified a type or ideal.” Over the course of the several hundred years, portraits moved from appearance and aspiration to reveal a “range of emotion and depth of feelings never before shown in European portraiture.”

From Andrew Graham-Dixon‘s review in the Telegraph:

Stylistically, Freud might be said to have begun at one end of the spectrum of Western painting and moved towards the other – from Van Eyck towards the later, more painterly likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Gradually he became more interested in flesh and less in the gaze alone. There is an element of conscious contrivance about many of the later portraits, which focus so closely on the mute, mortal bodies of those who submitted to his many months of sitting…Men and women, huge and emaciated, are arranged in splayed or pole-axed poses, like ancient Christian martyrs. Yet the milieu is always the same mundane painter’s studio: a place which, with its small quota of never-changing props (the iron-framed bed, bulging sofa, pile of painter’s rags), brings to mind the pared-down set of Waiting for Godot.

Life, these pictures imply, is a waiting-room for death. Sometimes the light plays tricks but the truth will always out. In the final room, one bearded model, vulnerable and naked as a Man of Sorrows, resembles a modern Christ. Of course he is no such thing, just a man posing on some bare West London floorboards.

The border between enchantment and disenchantment is always breached. There are traces here of the magical, the mysterious, the uncanny, but there are no actual miracles – save, perhaps, the miracle of each individual’s inimitable, human presence.

That last line is a good encapsulation of my response to the show. There ARE traces of the magical here, but there are no miracles.


View from Keswick, in the Lake District

My time in the UK was split between the timelessly serene Lake District (and former haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the frenetic expanse that is London. It is the perpetual longing for the both/and that I have come to know as elemental, similar to the paradox captured so poetically in that famous line from D. W. Winnicott: It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.

Lots of plays, lots of art, lots of time with friends. I’ll offer up a few highlights over the next few days. When it comes to special exhibitions currently on view in London, this is a singular moment in time in that the three biggest shows with the longest lines are all by artists in their final years: Lucian Freud was 88 when he passed away last year, Yayoi Kusama is 82, and David Hockney is 74. All of them are almost dizzingly prolific and tirelessly exploratory. No laurel resting, no slowing down. Very inspiring.

I’ll start at the top. My favorite of the three was Kusama’s show at the Tate Modern. I’ll talk about the other two in future posts.

Kusama has a memorable back story. From a review in the Guardian by Tim Adams:

All art is attention-seeking, but few artists have ever taken their demands to be noticed to the extremes of Yayoi Kusama. Now 82, and resident by choice for the past 35 years in a psychiatric care home in her native Tokyo, Kusama is currently seeing all her wishes come true. Not only has she been granted this obsessive-compulsive 14-room retrospective by the Tate, one of her career-defining Infinity Net paintings sold for $5.1m in 2008, a record for a living female artist.

Success did not come easily. Born in patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan of the late 1920s, even the idea of becoming an artist, as a woman, must have taken a supreme effort of will. To become an artist quite as liberated from convention as Kusama must have felt a lot like the insanity she has always feared – and to some extent nurtured – in herself…

She seems to have been drawn to surrealism, but given it a less playful, more psychologically unbalanced field, an edge perhaps explained by the fact that at the same age as she was seeing her visions, she was forced by her mother to spy on her father in bed with his string of mistresses and geishas. She developed a loathing of phallic images, and an overwhelming fascination with voyeurism.

Her response to these disturbing, formative forces seems twofold: she sought a kind of self-obliteration, covering herself and everything around her with her trademark polka dots – there is, among many other spotted surfaces, a fabulously spacey suburban living room here in which the edges of objects, sofas and tables are blurred by primary-coloured circular stickers, picked out in a psychedelic light. Elsewhere, mirrored “infinity rooms” take these points of colour into more dimensions than the eye can easily cope with. Almost nothing has been immune from Kusama’s dottiness: horses and cats, buses and houses, trees and fields and rivers, she has camouflaged them all. Damien Hirst’s outsourced efforts look decidedly spotty by comparison.

The range in this body of work is extraordinary. One room is full of her early paintings—obsessionally patterned and subtle in the absence of saturated color—and are reminiscent of early aboriginal paintings that use dots to reference the mystical landscape of central Australia. She moves from paintings of minimal tonality to obsessive phallic sculptures, also understated chromatically, to color used in an almost fetishist manner. Colored dotting soon becomes her signatory style but it does not come across as cheesy or inauthentic. Kusama’s work feels like it came from “complete necessity” (to quote my favorite line from Roberta Smith*). I loved every moment of the show.

Not without irony, Damien Hirst‘s Tate Modern show opens soon. A master of marketing and self promotion, his work almost never passes the coming from necessity test. Sure, that’s not the only measure for engaging and compelling art. But it has come to be an issue of increasing importance to me.


A room full of exquisitely subtle Kusama early paintings


A closer view of the painting surface


Phallicizing every object


Wild phallic landscapes as well


Infinity Mirrored Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

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* Roberta Smith’s plea for what she longs to see and feel in contemporary art exhibitions is outlined here.