This is an ongoing research point through the whole of Part 4 comparing contemporary and historical figure drawings, so I’m going to write an introduction now and look at two painters and then add two more painters before each project.
We read people everyday and are great at postures and faces. Even if we are wrong we have ‘first impressions’, sit in cafes and create narratives for strangers and make decisions about how we speak and act based on how we ‘read’ people.
So, it’s no surprise that people and faces is the most common subject throughout art.
This brings me to my first question… a snap of a stranger’s mum is boring… we don’t care… yet ‘Arrangement in Gray and Black no 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is iconic, and a work of art.
Even if we equalised the size by blowing up the snap to 144 x 162 cm it would not be interesting.
However, even an amateur snap of a famous person would garner interest.
My answer is simply that there has to be something useful for the viewer, whether that’s intrinsic in the subject (a famous person) or added by the artist.
So, what does the artist add?
Everybody has a persona… mostly we’re in our own mental boxes (especially with eyes fixed on phones!)… but people, even glanced across a tube, have an emotional impact. And that’s magnified a hundred times when we’re introduced to somebody and really look and connect with them.
An artist can introduce us to another human with persona… we can gaze and read them and their life as we would meeting an interesting new stranger.
What else… they can comment on society – whether in French realism (Honore Daumier, The Washerwoman) or William Hogarth’s satire; illustrate the human condition like loneliness of living in Hopper; they can market (we all put on a smile for selfies and edit our Facebook profiles to manipulate our public presence) – before photography and photoshopping it was down to famous portrait painters like Dosso Dossi. The rich and powerful general in Alfonso l d’Este, 1528 is a public statement meant to impress and secure his public status; sell an ideology like medieval Virgin Mary paintings and Russian State approved portraits of the 1940’s; they can be a visual ‘interview’ capturing the ‘real’ famous person; allow the male gaze to linger on female flesh in the name of ‘art’; capture an intimate emotion like the love of a mother for her newborn baby held in a glance; or like Whistler’s portrait of his mum be an aesthetically pleasing composition.
These are external, but we can also see ourselves in paintings… or in the space between the painting and ourselves.
That old man is like I’ll be… my arms will be wizened like that one day; that plump middle-aged guy is like me now; we can see ourselves (in looking at others) as we might be seen. In life we usually only see ourselves from the front… and this is often edited by adding a smile, a pose or a thought. We construct our view of ourselves, create a self-image, such that when we accidentally catch ourselves in a mirror it’s a shock. Can that really be us?!!!
But by looking at others in paintings they hint at how we might be seen by people in ‘real’ life.
Face and figure before Project 1:
For my first two paintings (before Project 1) I’m going to take Hopper as a contemporary painter and Giovani Bellini as a historic one.
This could be on the tube today… an isolated person and somebody looking. Technology has changed, and we’d be crammed in like sardines… but the feeling is exactly the same.
I have been that person on the train… reading the book or looking.
I can sympathise and recognise myself. Maybe even muse on the nature of existence in the modern world?!
Young Woman at her Toilet, Giovanni Bellini, 1515
From reality to fantasy.
This is, if not openly pornographic, then certainly voyeuristic. Nobody has a face like that (only professional models with top photographers, a personal makeup artist and photoshopping). The face and countryside are idealised and romanticized… this is not a real woman it is an object to be viewed.
At the time (I surmise!!!!) it was accepted by men as standard – who knows what the women thought?!
Now, it raises all sorts of questions about the male view and nudity in art.
However, sex and fantasy are as old as man and it satisfies my first criteria… it has a value for the viewer!
Face and figure before Project 2:
If you think of nude painting Lucian Freud is probably the most famous contemporary artist. The nude is a tricky area to navigate and I’m just about to start a life drawing group so this seems appropriate.
And my tutor said some of my sketches were like his early work.
Small Figure, 1983-4 (oil on canvas), Freud, Lucian (1922-2011) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images
Thinking about John Burger’s excellent programmes on Ways of Seeing, is this a naked women… or is it a nude?
Is it a ‘sight’ to be looked at or ‘the woman herself’.
To my eye it looks like a bit of both.
Nude: She’s prone, passive… we can be a voyeur on a private moment. And I can’t imagine anybody lying like this on the sofa… her flesh is exposed to view. And something about it looks studied. So, it’s a constructed picture. I don’t get a sense of the soul of the woman.
Naked: It’s not obviously titillating, she’s not aware of the viewer, she’s not offering herself in any way… her flesh isn’t a model of ideal beauty and we get an idea of the individual on the couch.
It’s nothing like the classic European nude but something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe I’m invited to stare… and not for all the right reasons. It’s not a love poem… I don’t get any feeling or connection or understanding of the subject.
And, I can’t see how her being without clothes adds to the painting. Had she been clothed in the same position it would have been an equally interesting painting.
So, I feel the nakedness is not entirely innocent. It’s not a blatant nude but I’d still say it was more nude than naked!
CreditPortrait of a Hanseatic Merchant, 1538 (oil on panel), Holbein the Younger, Hans (1497/8-1543) / Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, USA / Bridgeman Images
Hans Holbein is renowned for being one of the best portrait painters of his time. He painted the rich and famous… I can’t see any of them posing naked?!!!!
So, he seems like a good comparison in being so different.
I know hers is side on but this guys face reminds me of Lucien Freud’s painting. Both absent from the painting thinking about something else. Skill wise this is a masterpiece -it could be a photograph.
But me this is imposing – there’s no humanity, no warmth and no personality. Both the clothes, posture and face are empty – the only thing this says to me is power. It may be a wonderful physical likeness – but this is primarily doing a job for the buyer. It will be hung in a prestigious place. It is announcing his status in the world.
I don’t think this would be very popular today. Modern portraits of famous people try to bring them closer to ordinary people by humanizing them, this does the opposite.
However, the link with historic paintings is that paintings for famous people are commissioned to do a job for the buyer… not the viewer.
The woman, in contrast, is anonymous… the painting is for a market. A market that would not tolerate ‘nudes’ from a serious artist. That (I think) Freud’s painting is still a nude but has moved much closer to being a painting of a naked woman is an indication of the art market today… and what is culturally acceptable.
Face and figure before Project 3 (I’ll try to find some drawings – rather than paintings for this one)