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
Euan Uglow, Curled nude on a stool 1982-3 Oil on canvas 30 x 39 in
Quote: “… I’m painting an idea not an ideal. Basically I’m trying to paint a structured painting full of controlled, and therefore potent, emotion.”
From Catherine Lampert Uglow in his earthly observatory. piiii — Euan Uglow The Complete Paintings
Contemporary figure drawing that’s not really a figure.
Sure, it’s got the shape of a figure… and because it’s human it has a connection that a chair doesn’t… but the person has no individuality or identity. They’re not even ‘idealised’, they’re almost not human… robotic.
Neither for me, is it full of emotion. Emotion involves a connection – which doesn’t mean the figure has to be realistic, as in Expressionism – and I have no connection with this person. It’s a colour study in the shape of a human. With (almost decorative) planes of colour. To add to this there is a balance to the curves, shapes and colours that is visually very pleasing.
That it happens to have a perfect human shape is almost a mystery… or a distraction.
I like this as a painting but wouldn’t say it’s a figure painting.
Sleeping Nude Woman – Gustave Courbet (Femme nue couchée) Date: 1862 Style: Realism
This is a classical nude painting that is equally unreal, but for different reasons.
It’s sexualized – not a ‘real’ woman – the red of the drapery… unravelled stockings… displayed breasts… the raised arm and tousled hair… most heterosexual men (I would think) could imagine slipping next to her in the dawn and making love.
It’s a fantasy.
So, not a real person either.
Though the rendering is realistic the pose, setting and implications aren’t. And there’s no sense of this woman as an individual. Even one asleep. The body, as in the previous painting, has been hijacked by the artist.
Of course, artists must sell to a market and make choices, and any image has symbolic power and associations.
It raises the question as to what extent is figure drawing about drawing real people. And to what extent are figures merely shapes to be used by an artist. Either to cynically sell art (sex sells) or be used as a vessel for some other purpose be that aesthetic or ideological.
Of course if the shape’s wrong (like an actor with a dodgy accent) you won’t see the drawing as the error will create too much visual noise.
Face and figure before Project 4
Having just done ‘Energy’, I’m going to try to find some figure drawings showing movement and energy.
Dance seems like a good place to start!
I’m starting with a piece of Modern Art (approx from the Impressionists in 1880 up to 1970 and the arrival of Post-modernism); then Classic Art (pre 1880) and finally Contemporary Art (post 1970).
Modern… Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” 1895-1896 oil on canvas by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Overall: 145 x 149 cm
This is fantastic. Full of energy, movement and fun.
Marcelle is the centre of attention… she has the spotlight and the pink flower and skirt contrasting with the green and blue spectators. Her orange hair is picked out in the cloth hanging from the ceiling. Her black top echoed in the audience and her fellow dancers’ hair.
The colour composition pops around the whole painting, it’s a colour dance for the eye.
And in this frentetic movement and atmosphere she takes centre stage, you can almost feel her leg sweeping out towards you!!!
The black lines, flat blocky colour and bright shades make it feel like a poster. On the level of painting energy (the joy of the dancer) it could be called expressionist.
Classic… Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ – 1522-23, oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm
I struggled to find a classic dance painting till I remembered what John Berger had said about subjects… they don’t ‘own’ a dance… they wouldn’t paint ‘energy/movement’ as such. Oil paintings were high value possessions.
Then I remembered they painted myths. There must be myths with dancing in – they’re stories for the landed gentry to play in (the 16th century version of virtual reality?!)
The colour is just fantastic and charged with energy. Interestingly we have a similar colour scheme to Toulouse-Lautrec (His red/pink cloak and Ariadne’s blue cloak). Not surprising considering Bacchus has just arrived with his drunken revelers… the air would be crackling with merriment, passion and revelry.
However, there is no movement. It is too real, like a photograph of revelers, the painting is frozen.
There are no black lines, this is tone on tone… and the figures are beautifully modelled. Not flat and not blocky.
But the convention of ‘real’ painting of physical objects (so you can ‘touch’ them) prevents even Titian from painting what really matters in this scene… the movement and energy.
Rumba in Black, Jack Vettriano – contemporary… born 1951… started self teaching age 21… at 38 won Scottish competition… then prestigious London competition and career was born in 1990, age 39.
These remind me of Hopper figures… but instead of being isolated and alone they’re together and with an added dollop of sexual tension.
Here he’s managed to capture the emotion and connection of the dancers. You can feel you’re dancing!!
You’re in the zone… in the moment… so not aware of the movement.
In the Lautrec painting you’re in the audience watching, so the dance and the movement is the most important thing… you might even be chatting to a friend, shouting over the noise. In the Vittriano you are unaware of anything apart from your fellow dancer, and everything in the painting focusses you in on that connection.
(Just as an observation, I love the tension in her hand!)
When painting figures in action (dancing being an extreme form of action) photo realism/or any realism kills the movement.
In real life we do not see in a single clearly focussed frame. We watch movement or are lost in ourselves… or a bit of both!
It seems like you need to give enough visual clues for the viewer to believe the situation. And then decide whether you want them to be a participant (they are the lonely woman in a Hopper painting… or one of the dancers in the Vettriano painting) or an observer as in the Lautrec painting.
I’d have to see more, but I think if you want your viewer to be an observer (as in the audience for Lautrec’s painting) you have to show them the world around your protagonist, whereas if you want to them be a participant (to become the protagonist and feel what they’re feeling) then the scene and the people around your protagonist need to be visually locked out, as Vittriano has done with darkening his audiences faces.
If you’re watching, although the protagonist is the star, the whole scene is important because it’s part of your experience, whereas if you’re becoming the protagonist they are much more important than the background. If the protagonist is in the zone and only vaguely aware of his surroundings… then the viewer needs the same experience.
For instance, if you’d had a colour popping background in the Vittriano painting it would have made you into an observer rather than an actor.
Both Vittriano and Lautrec were painting an experience not a physical object.
Traditional oil painting works very well for physical objects… vases, estates, portraits, horses… but not at all for experiences!
A final thought is that black and highlights also focusses attention as in the Vettriano painting… and there’s black in the Lautrec too. I wonder if there’s something about black and the contrast it brings that enhances energy?