Category Archives: research & reflection

assignment five

Written Element – Artist’s Statement

Exploring the space we occupy either side of the ubiquitous ‘screen’ within a narrative whose ambiguity may have us question our own outlook on life.  My approach is led by an investigation into a sketchbook idea generated during part four.

“Conception cannot precede execution”

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty from the essay Cezanne’s Doubt)

I scribbled this quote somewhere along the way in a sketchbook, and I’ve come back to it now. Of everything I’ve learnt about my own approach to drawing, this is probably the advice I need to heed most. My tendency is to try to project a fully-formed idea on to a blank sheet of paper only to end up frustrated and with something so far from my intention. I need to mess about, play investigate, examine, and not just in my head but with marks on paper. My play needs to be physical as well as cerebral! I need to work towards a drawing rather than from it.

My developing voice appears to be forming around a narrative that questions whether we are safe or threatened, specifically with regard to where we are and the space we occupy. Are we safe inside or are we trapped? Are the shadows menacing or protecting?

While this stems from whatever triggered my own phobia (I am claustrophobic; hyper aware of windows and doors, where the light is and the exit; many of my drawings show openings, the dark and the light) I’m also interested in how and why individuals interpret a situation differently. Some will consider a derelict old house certain danger to be avoided, others a fascinating peek into a mysterious past life. And it’s too tempting not to widen this thought as today’s media and politicians spin webs of fear and create new phobias. Some believe these are dangerous and fearful times while others that the human race has never enjoyed such peace, such progress, such safety. Are we safe or are we in danger?

My tutor agrees that I should develop an idea from my part four sketchbook and this will  push me to take Merleau-Ponty’s advice. For a while I’ve had another image in my head (the ‘complete drawing’) for Part Five, but picking up on this sketchbook idea instead will force me to investigate and see where it takes me. Conception cannot precede execution. Working towards a drawing rather than from it.

The original idea from my Part Four sketchbook (photocopy plus graphite):

In Part Four I had been thinking about touch – something that can be perceived as loving or threatening.  From my notes in part four: “For some time after my mum died, I would wake up suddenly, convinced her hand had been on my face. Which is creepy, and scary, and wonderful, all at the same time.” Our hands can love and they can hurt. The reader will interpret the image according to his or her own history. Is the hand calming or threatening, real or imaginary, fantasy or nightmare?

However the impromptu use of the photocopier has added other strands of thought. Ugly sturdy office necessity, the photocopier has its own magical space beyond the glass screen. It suspends our faces, hands, and sometimes buttocks in a void, its lens picks out the target and places it in its own dimension. I’m interested in how to describe the process of crossing into another space, interacting with what lies the other side of the screen. There the ambiguity begins, even before we begin the think about the potential narrative presented by the two hands.

Interacting with the photocopier in this way draws attention to the medium and works on more than one level. This is not just drawing on a photocopy, this is an interaction between the two processes. A quick online search throws up ‘xerox art’ but while much of this makes use of the glass I can’t find any exploration of the connection through it – the meeting of real and copy, or representation of real and capture of real.

Along this path of investigation I spend an evening drawing my sons’ thumbs stabbing away at their phone screens. It seems we are all addicted to screens of one type or another. The photocopier does not offer a world of gaming, shopping, stalking but it does remind us of the two sides of a screen – and that perhaps we live more and more on the other side.

Where do we exist if most of our interaction happens on the other side of the screen?


Artists I’ve considered during this process:

Julie Brixey-Williams

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Photo from juliebrixey-williams.co.uk

I came across this artist in Drawing Now and find this work interesting on many levels. The work consists of a series of ‘pirouette drawings performed simultaneously by 52 dancers(Downs, 2007). Each image is labelled accordingly, so for example, top left is: locationotation: Deborah Kay Ward, in front room, Islington, London N1, 1130 on Sat 9th June 2001 (Downs, 2007)

I’m interested in how we define this work. The artist herself may not even have touched the paper. This was a mark left by a group of dancers – ‘graphite power on watercolour paper’ (Downs, 2007) this is about the process of making a mark. The artist has been the author of that process.

In her artist’s statement Julie Brixey-Williams describes her interest in how we exist in the space around us – “Collaborating with dancers was a way of expanding my own repertoire of movement whilst alerting me to the importance of linking gesture to emotion, intentional meaning and narrative. Traces and marks are not merely task-based but aim to speak of the space” (Julie Brixey-Williams, 2017). 

This is a seductive area to explore and I’m particularly drawn to what we leave behind in the space we once occupied (when we leave a space), be it the dip worn away in a stone step, a finger print, or something that can’t be seen – a memory, a sense, a trace. While Brixey-Williams refers to intentional meaning and narrative, I’m interested in creating an ambiguity that demands the viewer create his or her own narrative.

Felix Gonzales-Torres

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Untitled (For Jeff), 1992, image courtesy of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation via OutInSA

Known for inherent political messages, Felix Gonzalez Terres also considers the space we occupy and the traces we leave behind: the dent in a pillow, an ever-reducing pile of sweets that represents his partner’s weight. The space his work occupies also becomes part of the work creating further potential layers of meaning, described by curator Eoin Dara: “…always allowing interpretation to oscillate and shift” (as cited in Massey, 2017). We can create our own narrative – our response to the space it’s in (and that we are simultaneously sharing) and the space it’s depicting.

Dan Beudean

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Temptations of Sir R F Burton, 2011, Dan Beudean, graphite on paper, mounted on wood. Photographed in Vitamin D

A recent investment, I find myself flicking through Vitamin D again and again. This image is one of the most arresting. I’m fascinated by how these creatures pop up off the page, and how we have no idea what space they occupy, or how. They seem to be charging through the skies. With my penchant for the noir I am also seduced by the dark glossy coats – these feel like wood carvings we can reach out to touch, yet some are the simplest of line drawings with barely a nod to tone (esp. cheetah). “The subjects themselves, twinned with his extraordinary draughtsmanship, pull the viewer through a portal into a wonderfully heightened reality” critic and curator Jane Neal in Vitamin D.(Price, 2015)

Mintio

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T.H.O.H.Y. from the series xLUV, Audition, 2010, photo via thephilanthropicmuseum.com

Singaporean photographer Mintio created a body of work The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths, a series of portraits of gamers in which she extracts “imagery from both their psychological landscape and the landscapes of the games they play. The virtual world holds infinite possibilities for these gamers and its landscapes defies yet mimics the logics of space.” Of one of the gamers she says “He was him and someone else” (Thephilanthropicmuseum.org, 2017)

While watching my sons connect to this virtual world did inform my work on his project, I am more interesting in the physicality of the screen and the idea of crossing over from one side to the other, the fact that space exists on both side and we can occupy both.


The Investigation

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Studying our hands’ interaction with the screen. Thumbs constantly jabbing at the glass. Another world on the other side.

Our hands are both sides, we jab the screen this side, we make things happen the other.

Thumbs become strangely disembodied as they click-clack across the screen. Odd double-jointed creatures. Crabs.

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Above: charcoal and graphite. Thinking about how to create an image that is slightly removed – as if the other side of a screen, real but not real. Using a rubber to smudge and erase, using charcoal in thick slabs with smudging to create a distortion.

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Above: charcoal and graphite. Creating a background of movement – covering my hands in charcoal and slapping the side of my hand and back of fingers on to paper – I wanted to avoid the more obvious fingerprints. A sense of the prints we leave all over our screens and the hands that could be either side.

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Above: charcoal and graphite. Considering connections across the screen while experimenting with how different types of marks convey different emotion.

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Above: graphite, charcal, ink pen, Payne’s Grey ink. Beginning to experiment with different media thinking all the while about how to convey the sense of being in different spaces – this side and another.

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Above: experimenting with working over a background (charcoal covered in gesso then more charcoal). The sense of being in an unidentifiable space.

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Above: pastels and felt tips (with added water). To right – printing on A4 paper with charcoal/gesso background. The sense of the hand coming forward works well but I have problems with using non-photocopier paper in machine, or paper that has been worked up too much already.

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Above: felt tips with water, black watercolour. Thinking more about traces we leave. These feel almost like prints or smudges left behind.

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Above left: photocopy plus ink and pastels.  Much more a feel of graphic novel about it – something my tutor has pointed out in my work before. I do like the effect of ink with darker smudges, it does give a slightly sinister yet old-fashioned aspect. Above right: A4 photocopy and graphite. This goes back to the initial idea but developing the drawing doesn’t seem to work. The drawing looks rather lame next to the photocopied image, graphite isn’t strong enough to compete.

Version 3

Above: crop of previous image

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Above: charcoal.

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Above: watercolour (Payne’s Grey)

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Photocopy with ink pen (A4)

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Graphite on A4 print of Untitled (for Jeff) by Felix Gonzales Torres (1992) on photocopy paper.


Reflection on Part Five

Exploring the space we occupy either side of the ubiquitous ‘screen’ within a narrative whose ambiguity may have us question our own outlook on life.  My approach is led by an investigation into an idea in my sketchbook generated during part four.

To put this more explicitly:

  • the space we occupy today – this side of the screen or the other – where do we exist (for example for our friends and family) if our contact is all conducted on the other side?
  • the idea of touch and its interpretation as threat or comfort (danger of safety)
  • one of my weaknesses is to form the final image in my head which nearly always leads to disappointment when I try to put it, fully formed, on to paper. My Part Five challenge is to change the way I’ve worked on past assignments.

I worked in an A3 sketchbook for the entire project, wanting to avoid the trap of ‘the drawing’ while pushing the idea of an investigation all the way. Despite this I was still expecting the investigation to lead me naturally towards a final drawing, and yet that never happened. I’m not overly frustrated at the lack of a grand finale. There are some happy discoveries and the last three drawings I did are the ones that interest me most and I cannot ask for more – proof that I have learned something along the way:

fullsizeoutput_1221My rather scrappy addition to Felix Gonzales-Torres’s image throws up so many thoughts for me. The roots of this project are in the sense of my mother’s touch in the days after her death. Here is the hand of Gonzales-Torres’s friend (who had recently died) in a work that explores the space we occupy and the traces we leave. I leave my own trace, reaching out to touch. My own marks invade that space, cross the screen and enter the narrative.

IMG_4228Pen turned out to be the only thing that could hold its own against the photocopy. I think the contrast gives it strength.

Here more than one hand gives the sensation of a bit of a scrap to connect with the ‘other side’. There is a certain movement which chimes with how our fingers scrabble across a screen. When I drew this my own hand was wrapped up in bandage (burnt in a burger-flipping incident) but I am OK with the awkwardness of the ink sketch set against the ethereal copy.

fullsizeoutput_1219Heavy-handed but I am happy that it has a sense of hands coming through from another dimension. I am relatively new to watercolour but enjoy its unpredictability which I think works here.

On a practical note – Ironically one of the main frustrations of this project was the irregularity of the photocopier. It is unhappy with anything other than A4 photocopier paper and undetectable changes in the position of my hand/the light are magnified – it is very hard to control the results. It would be interesting having a high quality large format copier to hand.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Durden, M. (2014). Photography today. London ; New York: Phaidon.

Thephilanthropicmuseum.org. (2017). T.H.O.H.Y (The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths) – The Philanthropic Museum. [online] Available at: http://www.thephilanthropicmuseum.org/?portfolio=t-h-o-h-y-the-hall-of-hyperdelic-youths [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].

Julie Brixey-Williams. (2017). Statement & Writings. [online] Available at: http://www.juliebrixey-williams.co.uk/statement–writings.html [Accessed 28 Jul. 2017].

Downs, S. (2007). Tracey – Drawing now. London [u.a.]: Tauris.

Massey, I. (2017). Felix Gonzalez-Torres: This Place. [online] thisistomorrow. Available at: http://thisistomorrow.info/articles/felix-gonzalez-torres-this-place [Accessed 30 Jul. 2017].

Price, M. (2015). Vitamin D2. London: Phaidon Press.

reflection at end of part four

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My main reflection at the end of part four is that I am freaked out to be at part five.

Like many I have plenty of reasons for not having the time I had hoped to spend on the course, but what bothers me more is the guilt I feel when I do skulk off to ‘do my art’. Once I get going of course I’m lost, but the getting going is too often held back by the guilt.

Aside from the guilt trips and the freaking out, there have been moments of joy in part four. Mostly from feet and finally understanding the surprising mass of them, the height of the arch and the width of the ankle.  Also the sense of a growing connection between hand, body and eye. The hand I am drawing with feels as if it is on the body as I draw, as if the body itself is imprinting the graphite on the paper.  That all sounds rather fluid and instinctive. I hope one day it is, but for now it is less smooth of a ride and more a continuous state of manically checking and re-checking angles, measurements, proportions.

I’ve begun to get a sense of the freedom that can come from being able to quickly capture a form with accuracy – I’m nowhere near this of course, but I can see how important it is to have the basics in place. Artists may abstract the body, distort it or simply suggest it, but it is seems to be always underpinned with a sureness of anatomical line.

Looking specifically at the criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I’ve gone from drawing bodies with uncertain calves, dislocated shoulders and no feet to bodies that actually look as if they could carry out most of the basic physical functions so yes, I’m happy with my observational skills in this part.

Still I question my use of materials and technical skills. In this part I used conte crayons, inks, water-soluble pencils, chalk, graphite, charcoal and different colour paper. But there is more than this – I see other students investigating collage and bleach and using found paper – and I know I am lacking in this. It just never seems to fit with what I am doing, or aiming for, at the time. Note to self: maybe don’t be so earnest? try to play more…

Still battling with composition. In this part I had less control – having to take what space is available in the life classes. Where I did have control (Assignment: Line Drawing) I did struggle with composition. I messed around a lot with it but in the end found that it was to a large part dictated by my original sketches.

Note to self: In part three I noted my stubbornness to not change composition (I often get fixated on an idea before I pick up the pencil) – and I didn’t really address this in part four. I realise I need to begin working and let it lead me, rather than trying to lead the work.

I think this is quite critical for me – on the odd occasion I have let the work lead me I’ve gone to quite interesting places (in this part for instance the exercises on movement)

Quality of outcome

As with part three I found it trickier to work my way steadily through the challenges set by each exercise – primarily because I used a model in life class rather than finding my own – but I think the resulting sketches do get across what I need them to.

Aside from the Assignment- Line Drawing however, I haven’t worked on any of the sketches beyond the life class, and I wonder now if this is something that would have been worthwhile. Well I know it would have been worthwhile, but in the race to submission deadlines, I didn’t make time to do this – to mess around, investigate, find out where I could take the drawings. (I have had one particular idea swirling around my head, and maybe in the last couple of months left to me I should look in to it)

Demonstration of Creativity

This is a weird one. My tutor pointed out a developing voice : “embrace the atmospheric / dystopian graphic novel style imagery as this appears to be your voice or style coming through” which I have to agree does seem to be my thing, but I have no idea where it comes from. I have not so much as opened a graphic novel and I’m not keen on a dystopian/apocolyptic narrative in films or fiction.

I thought this tendency may be restricted to architecture (as in past assignments). I admit to a long-held fascination with abandoned structures, heavy industrial equipment (tugs, fishing boats, cargo ships) and pretty much anything rusty, but this ‘dystopian graphic novel style’  has even gone stomping across the self-portrait of Assignment 4 and if I’m honest was also trying to get a look in on the line drawing of Assignment 4 too.  My tutor has encouraged me to ’embrace it’. I would like to say that I’ve heeded her advice but honestly, I sense that I push away from it rather than embrace it. My hope is always to create something light and beautiful but each time some inner goth takes over and I seem to go back to the darkness.

PS. an after thought – ‘atmospheric’ certainly does not have to be dark – in either sense of the word.

Context

At the start of this course I found my sketchbook a bit of an awkward friend. I wasn’t really sure how to engage with it and my attempts felt a bit forced. That has begun to change in part four – it became a more natural thing to turn to and I found myself referring back to it more frequently. It has more ideas in it now, ideas with loose ends ready to be picked up.

My online learning log too has become a place where I come to think. I’ll write notes in here as I work through something and I find that if I get stuck, that process of writing down what’s going well and what isn’t, will often help unstick me.

Lastly in terms of research – I was so delighted that the Alice Neel exhibition came to my neck of the woods and I felt reinvigorated by it though I do still become a green-eyed monster when I read of the exhibitions (and workshops) available in the UK.

I am getting more confident at the research that comes as part of the course, and get a peculiar satisfaction when I instinctively see connections across artworks or artists.

 

 

 

research point

Reflect and analyse how the depiction of the male and female nude has changed over the centuries.

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Across time there has been quite some back and forth as to what nudity signifies and what is deemed acceptable, but the overriding factor that strikes me most is the presentation of the female nude as passive and available. Not always, but often. And what I find really surprising is that this tendency continues today in my own weekly art class where our female models often assume a sexualised position while the male model  will lounge about just as he might at home.  And it feels like we don’t really stop to question these ‘norms’.

 

 

In Classical Greece, to depict a nude was to celebrate physical beauty, and most especially the heroic male ideal, though Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos introduced the idea of female beauty. Much influenced by the Greeks, the Romans continued this celebration, with a general mash-up of gender roles and sexuality. sleeping-hermaphrodite-ss-slide-2GVG-jumboI still remember coming across Sleeping Hermaphrodite at the British Museum and wondering if anyone had spotted what I had? Turns out that this sculpture was a popular choice for the gardens of the wealthy – it was considered amusing – perhaps the ancient equivalent of a herd of giant topiary elephants. However the curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Met, Mr Picón, warns that  “it would be a mistake to interpret the popularity of these works as a sign of ancient tolerance. The birth of intersex people was seen as a bad omen; those born with ambiguous genitals were usually killed.” (McDermon, 2017)

Medieval times were less playful however, and Christian art saw nakedness, and most specifically female nakedness, become a signifier of guilt, shame, vanity and sin. The Renaissance of course looked back to the classical ideal and we see the naked body once again representing the ideal concepts of truth and love while Leonardo da Vinci celebrated the perfect geometry of the male body. The female body was less celebrated and was often depicted as a deviation from the perfect male form – with comical add-on breasts and a strategic cloth or hand to cover the missing penis.

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Angelica saved by Ruggiero
1819-39, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Museum walls seem laden with voluptuous naked women reclining on ornate sofas, admiring themselves in mirrors, or chained to rocks awaiting rescue by a hero – dressed, of course, in shining armour. They are all waiting to be looked at, just as the often-quoted John Berger, puts it: ‘…men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 2008)

Meanwhile men are rarely depicted as passive, and if they are it’s usually because they have been made a victim, martyred or crucified.

Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1862 and Olympia, 1863 seem to be the paintings most often credited with first challenging this perspective of an ideal fantasy woman, naked passive and waiting. Manet’s naked woman owns her sexuality, she is in control. But more than this, in each painting she has turned to look the viewer directly in the face – a direct confrontation.

Something I had never considered before reading Gill Saunders’ The Nude, A New Perspective (1989) is the frequent fragmentation of the female body in images, rendering it an anonymous ‘object’. Saunders makes much of this – especially those images without arms – describing them as ‘cropped and truncated’, ‘mutilated and thus literally powerless and passive’. (Saunders, 1989). It’s rare to see a male nude depicted this way. I’ve just done a very unscientific Google search of male nude/fine art and female nude/fine art. Of the first 22 images that appear, just one of the male nudes is ‘truncated’ while seven of the female nudes appear solely as torsos.

An artist who fragments the human body (often to abstraction) though does treat male and female bodies with equality is photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I will never forget stumbling upon an exhibition of his in Sydney. I had no idea who he was. My first reaction was to marvel at the beautiful forms he had created, my second was surprise…

The feminist art movement kicked off in the 1960s as an attempt to redress an art world that was seen as created by and for men. This was not just about the representation of women in art but the exposure of female artists.

 

Post in progress – to be continued!

References:

McDermon, D. (2017). What the Sleeping Hermaphrodite Tells Us About Art, Sex and Good Taste. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/27/arts/design/statue-hermaphrodite.html [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].

Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.

Research point

Thoughts on art that depicts the human figure…

Thoughts on my own life classes and also notes on artists whose subject matter is almost exclusively the human figure – not asked for as part of this research point but I’m interested to see if they are driven by the same impulse.

The artists I’ve looked at most during this Part Four are: Freud, Bacon and Alice Neel and it strikes me that each has a different approach, or a different reason for painting people.

  • Freud paints almost exclusively nudes – mostly in relaxed positions, but sometimes contorted. They are often facing away from the sitter, or eyes closed. These images seem to be about his own attitude to the sitter, their body, the human body in general.
  • Bacon’s figures are mostly clothed and in an abstract setting. The focus of the image is the head, because for Bacon it’s all about what is going on in that head – it’s about his relationship with that person.
  • Neel’s sitters are mostly clothed and they almost always look directly at the painter. Her sitters are posed as for a traditional portrait, but casually so, as if they’ve just been asked to take a seat. While there is a clear sense of the contact between Neel and the sitter, the painting is about the sitter and their life – it feels more social documentary – she is capturing something about how their life is going at that point in time.
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Portrait of PL, 1962, Francis Bacon

I’ve struggled with Francis Bacon’s work. I saw Francis Bacon and the Masters at the Sainsbury Centre in 2015, and two of his works have been shown in galleries near to me. I tried to give them time,  but found the work so uncomfortable I moved on faster than I should have done, my summary something like ‘distorted pulverised faces, trapped and screaming silently’. 

All I really knew of Bacon was that he was often obnoxious and drunk, and that he was very popular with art students in the 80s. No doubt these things lessened my interest in him.

The BBC documentary Great Artists in their Own Words: Out of the Darkness 1939-1966 helped me appreciate his paintings a little more. He had expressed the horror he had experienced (from helping in the war effort), but most importantly, he had done so in a new way.

Watching Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017) took my appreciation up a level further. It would be crazy if we had to research a painter’s life before being able to appreciate their work, but I think Bacon’s very public persona had repelled me in advance of seeing his work. Of course we learn about ourselves from our reactions to art and I suppose mine is rooted in fear – and add to that an unwillingness to delve further into the ‘why’.

Bacon however was willing to delve very deep. A friend of Bacon’s (in the documentary) describes his work as “the most extreme expression of what it was like to be Francis Bacon. He would almost empty himself of his bitterest thoughts on canvas and be purified” 

Bacon’s life was shaped by early ill-health and humiliation and later by violence. He was a masochist with a penchant for deeply macho men and it’s clear that the violent episodes in his life were the main inspiration for his paintings. Though his partners were often the subject, in his own words: “When you are painting anything, you are painting not only the subject but also yourself …”

His paintings turn us all inside out, exposing the distortion that lies beneath the skin. In the portraits of his friends, partners and of himself there is constant conflict: vulnerability, violence, anger, tenderness and where faces are partly missing, dissolving and contorting, the question is always ‘who are we, really?’

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Esther, 1980, Lucian Freud

In contrast to Bacon, Freud appears to use scrutiny, analysis in a search for the underlying emotion of the human body – more hidden in his subjects, and certainly within himself. Whereas Bacon’s life was raw and exposed with violent emotion, Freud’s appears to be cool and controlled, emotions kept locked away. In his own words “I hoped that if I concentrated enough the intensity of the scrutiny alone would force life in to the pictures”

Revealingly it was Bacon (the two became friends in 1945) that helped Freud find a closer connection with his subjects. “I saw there was something wrong about the distance between how I felt and the way I was working….I realised Bacon’s work related immediately to how he felt about life” This is the point at which Freud changed from painting with such tight control to using a bigger brush and showing more emotional engagement with his subject.

Like many people who have some difficulty getting emotionally close to others, Freud had a deep empathy with animals, extending to an interest in biology.  He admitted: “I see as a biologist. When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking of naked people or animals dressed”. This probably best describes how I feel when I see Freud’s paintings – that he has studied the body of his sitter as he might study the body of an animal, with a biological interest, he sees the bones, blood, organs – and how the skin changes as it runs blue or pink across those insides. He seems to capture instinctive emotions rather than anything running on the surface. Somehow he manages to explain to the viewer what it would be like to be in that body. He works on paintings for many many hours, often across years, so maybe over that time he strips away any superficially from the sitter – they are simply worn down to their basic self by the amount of hours they have sat!

His daughter Esther captures this well:  “He’s not trying to depict an image of me. He’s painting who I am. I wanted to be a great beauty. But there I was myself – my teenage self was disappointed.”

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Pregnant Woman, 1971, Alice Neel (photo taken at retrospective)

 

My thoughts on Alice Neel are in this previous post


My Own Life Drawing Classes

For the past few months I’ve taken a weekly life drawing class during which it feels like a very specific part of my brain lights up. I am completely absorbed. Why is life drawing is so compelling? At first I suspected it was simply the romance of fine art – perhaps we feel we can channel the masters through our own struggles with a charcoal stub,  leaves of newsprint falling around our feet. But they in turn were compelled, and so it goes back throughout history, we have always drawn ourselves.

Then there is also the question of the nude. I say to myself that I am just as interested in drawing someone clothed. But then I think about all those folds of material hiding an extraordinary living being – and how I would miss that link from rib cage to arm pit, the challenge of clavicle and shoulder joint, the incredible strength of thigh locked into pelvis.

I’m interested in bodies and how we use them, our own relationship with them. I’m fascinated by how some people seem quite intimidated by their own body, fearful of twisting this or that, while others have deep understanding of how their body works and demand everything from it. And then there are those that treat it a bit like a handbag that can be changed when it’s worn out,  using it as nothing more than a receptacle for junk.

Our posture, muscle tone, how we sit, stand, walk – these things give so much away about how we live our lives, who we are, who we think we are.

I think about the models that have passed through our life class, some just once, others are regulars. From smiles and ‘how are you’s?’ the transition is swift and then they are skin, muscle, bony joints, jawlines. Sometimes as I draw I wonder what it is like to inhabit that body. How they feel in that body, clothed and out on the street, these people that I know nothing about. I think how different it would be if my friends came in and undressed each week. It would be wonderful actually, but so, so different.

I do wonder about the whole process of going to a room once a week to draw someone who has no clothes on. The state of being naked has moved so far from simply being our most natural state. The naked or near naked body is used to sell us anything from aftershave to ice cream to plain old sexual thrills. And all the while creating a new ideal for us to measure our own bodies up against. It is absolutely fraught!

Is the life class a way of removing ourselves from this commercialisation of the naked body? Is it a way of reminding ourselves who we really are? Studying the way the skin stretches taught over a knee cap but sags in the folds under the arm, or how a shoulder blade will slide around the rib cage, and a belly will settle in folds on the thighs.

Having said this, I do sense tension within our art class when it comes to ‘the pose’. There is no instruction in the class – the pose is agreed on and off we go – but there is a split in the group from those that hope for a natural pose to those that prefer what I can only call contrived – an arching back, head thrown back, whatever position will accentuate the curves of hip or breast – a position that invites the viewer to look. As Gill Sanders puts it in her book The Nude, A New Perspective ‘The nude female body is commonly presented as a sexual spectacle, the picture set up as an invitation to voyeurism’. (Saunders, 1989) I’ve drily noted that on the rare occasions we have a male model, he is never invited to display his body in such a way.

Is it possible to draw a nude without sexual connotation? Does it even matter? Surely what is important is that bodies aren’t objectified, aren’t considered a ‘thing’, submissive and available. And how do we do that? Does it come down to the intention of the artist, to the mindset of the sitter, or the viewer?

PS. Something I forgot to mention is that I usually find that it’s more satisfying to draw  a female body than male. I’m not absolutely sure why though I think it may be about curves. I’m tempted to suggest that curves are easier and more forgiving to draw than straight lines because actually the thought of drawing a beer-bellied man is more appealing to me than a super-athletic woman.  The essential curves of a woman make it easer to convey the body than that of a man where the transition of breast to waist to pelvis is more subtle and demands closer observation for it to make sense.

References:

Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.

YouTube. (2017). Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgrO5za0lSY [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

YouTube. (2017). Lucian Freud a Painted Life – YouTube. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sj9GxzVeYQ [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

 

 

 

 

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Look at contemporary as well as historic artists who work on the face in different ways. Use the research to inspire your own experiments (Also: Look at Graham Little and Elizabeth Peyton)

Just listened to Maggie Hambling keeping the RA’s Tim Marlow well and truly on his toes in podcast Maggie Hambling in Conversation with Tim Marlow. Direct, honest and generous when she talks about her approach, I picked up on a couple of things she said specifically about portraits:

“Once the subject has chosen the artist then the subject must be in charge of everything the artist does. It’s dangerous if it’s the other way around. For example, if I were painting you (directed at Tim Marlow), I would have to empty myself for the truth of you to come through the floor of the studio and up through me and out onto the canvas. So you as the subjects were in charge of me”

She then quotes Brancusi: “It isn’t difficult to make a work of art, the difficulty lies in being in the right state to make it…being receptive to the subject”

In portraits that move me I can feel the artist getting inside the sitter, burrowing under the skin to find out who they really are, but I like the way Hambling describes this process so specifically. Alice Neel described a similar process, only she entered her sitter – only to feel emptied once her sitter had left.

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Alzheimer’s Head 4, Lee Newman

Lee Newman works with ‘drypoint and roulette’ – a combination I’ve never heard of before but I find the results profoundly moving. This is from his series of portraits of Alzheimer sufferers. The marks appear as partly mechanical, partly by hand – giving a sense of control and loss of control. The figure is not quite in or out of the picture. There’s a feeling of slippage, of not quite being grounded.

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Torso Masculino de Perfil, Antonio López Garcia (engraving)

This is obviously interesting – a portrait on its side. There are immediate connections to a morgue shelf, or perhaps an MRI scanner. The added lines are intriguing: scientific notches along the bottom, a scale, and then the freer lines that look like wire – perhaps torso with raised upper arm? Though it could also be read as a continuation of a funnel-like neck. It makes me think about what it is to be inside a body. The body is just our casing. We are something else that can be perhaps within and without of that casing? This feels like a photograph, a photograph that has been treated, or aged, overexposed perhaps.

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Ginny Grayson

Reminds me a lot of Giacometti. There is a scratching away at the surface, a kind of burrowing down to find the essence, and as with Giacometti, the attention is on the centre of the face. Grayson does use softer techniques in some of her portraits – I would love to think she matches her mark-making to the mood of the sitter, because this sitter looks truly grumpy and those are irritable marks. I can’t find more information on this drawing, I would love to know exactly what medium she used.

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Self Portrait, 1958, Frank Auerbach

Not sure how I feel about this. The harsh treatment of the media transfers directly on to the sitter. If it wasn’t a self-portrait I would consider the sitter broken, like the papers used to patch him together. As it’s a self-portrait it feels more as if this is the artist hiding behind his media, peering through, hiding.

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Egon Schiele

I spend a great deal of time staring at Egon Schiele’s drawings, wondering just how he does it. There is such a scarcity of line and yet we know that this woman has wrapped herself up in a blanket, arms crossed and hands up on her shoulders. The head and the hair are quite unearthly and yet the whole just works. It was interesting copying one of his figures recently (in sketchbook). He seems to see in pure shapes.

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Hartley and Ginny, 1970, Alice Neel

My head is somewhat full of Alice Neel right now, what with the retrospective of her work just down the road (still can’t believe my luck) in Arles. Like Egon Schiele, I find it hard to stop looking and wondering just how she pulls it off. Proportion is all over the place and though she can obviously draw ‘correctly’ she mostly chooses not to, or she mixes it up within one picture – perhaps a left hand anatomically perfect and the right hand added without a second thought.

I recently read Saied Dai explaining his approach to painting Sir Jonathan Miller and I wonder if Alice Neel worked in this way – using ‘distortions’ to capture the ‘unique persona’ (see extract below). Though at first glance both Hartley and Ginny seem to have been painted in the same way, with the same large green eyes and one-size-fits-all chin/mouth/philtrum (I had to look that up!) she has employed slight distortions that capture their personas. Ginny’s eyes stare straight ahead, with low dark brows. She focused on what’s happening, fully engaged. Hartley’s eyes are just slightly off to the side, his brows sit higher, indeed his eyes sit higher in his forehead. The effect is of someone relaxed, mind elsewhere perhaps. Maybe these aren’t distortions, maybe these are the tiny subtleties that capture the character.

45dd0a11821973da7e3399182386413eThis portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller is one of the very few that Dai actually referenced from photographs. Although he had observed Miller directly several times, often during lectures, Dai noticed that his brain exercised a remarkably kinetic effect on his face and body. As he spoke, Miller appeared to be in constant motion, and therefore not an ideal subject for any sort of static directly observed likeness. Instead, Dai employed subtle distortions of scale and physiognomy to capture an impression of Miller’s unique persona. “Real distortion actually becomes truth”, he explained. “That’s the paradox. When all the relationships are authentic, so too is the image. It’s essentially an architectural approach, and this is a visual idiom one can only achieve at some distance from your subject.” (Messums.com, 2017)

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Harold Pinter, 1992, Justin Mortimer

This is a very obvious portrait – Harold Pinter drowning in scripts – but I love its boldness. It really feels as if the tide is rising around him and yet we know he’ll be OK because of all that energetic red. Deep in thought, we can imagine that the red reflects the state of his mind – firing on all cylinders – creating. And yet when asked about sitting for the portrait – The Sitter’s Tale – he says “I just sat back and thought about life, death and everything; I was quite relaxed.” (MULLINS, 2017). The red was added afterwards by Mortimer and I find it interesting that the choice of red most probably changes how we read the portrait.

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Portrait de Maria Picasso Lopez, 1923, Pablo Picasso

I came across this portrait in a quirky museum in Arles. It stood out like a jewel in a room with some sketches by Picasso that I want to say were pretty awful, but I’m not sure it’s acceptable to say such a thing. The lines are so deliberate and yet so delicate. The face is luminous, the expression wary. I can well believe that Picasso knows this face so well he can draw it from memory – it almost feels as if that is what he’s done here – the lines (especially nose through to mouth) look as if they have been done in one deft move.

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Untitled, 2000, Graham Little

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Craig, 1998, Elizabeth Peyton

I feel a bit ambivalent about these last two images. The course book asks us specifically to look at these two artists and these were my favourite images. Though I found their work very beautiful it feels close to fashion illustration. Elizabeth Peyton’s faces all get the same treatment of pointy chin, cheekbones and rosebud mouth. Of the two I prefer Graham Little’s images which feel like updated Romanticism. They are simply gorgeous to look at but they don’t leave me with any questions.

References:

Messums.com. (2017). The Polymath (Portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller) – Messum’s | Fine Art Est.1963.. [online] Available at: https://www.messums.com/artworks/view/52713/The_Polymath_portrait_of_Sir_Jonathan_Miller [Accessed 9 May 2017].

MULLINS, I. (2017). The sitter’s tale: Harold Pinter. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-sitters-tale-harold-pinter-1089560.html [Accessed 10 May 2017].

L’annonciade, musée de Saint-Tropez

The trick of living in the south of France is to go in to hiding during high season, while the roads are clogged and the markets jammed. A quick trip to Saint Tropez before the tourists arrive had me popping in to L’Annonciade, a museum that while in a prominent harbour position, gets overlooked as some of the world’s most ostentatious boats scream out for attention.

I haven’t been to this museum for years so was intrigued to realise when I got back home that I bought the very same two postcards I’d bought years ago:

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Photo of postcard: Nu au bas noir, 1905, Pierre Girieud

I’m not sure what is going on with the face in this painting. It seems a very odd shadow. But other than that I think it’s pretty staggering. There is such solidity to the body. I’m intrigued by the bold contour line, which I’ve seen recently in Alice Neel’s paintings and Egon Schiele, while the sturdiness of flesh reminds me of Lucian Freud.

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Photo of postcard: Claudine vue de dos, 1906, Raoul Dufy

This appeals to me primarily because of the greens and blues in the upper right corner and the way that Dufy has tackled painting the hand – he’s just left it out! And yet this absolutely works – the left side of the body and left arm are in full light, there is such a bright spot at the hand that we don’t even make it out. This really gives me the feeling that he painted this to show us not what but how he saw.

(That said, I am a bit disappointed in the lower half of the body, I find the shadow under the left buttock and the left leg a bit unconvincing).

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Sous la lampe, 1892, Edouard Vuillard

Couldn’t stop looking at this painting! I am fascinated by the matte black shapes of the two women’ jackets, their hair, the chairs, window and lampshade. What confidence. As I break down the composition into its parts it seems extraordinary that it hangs together as it does: blurry sofa in foreground, crazy red and black wall paper, two women with their backs to us, sitting by a window, night-time.

I got as close as I could to this painting without freaking out the museum guards, to see if there was any tonality in those black shapes. Not one bit, they are perfect solid black shapes. And yet we can feel the curve of the backs of these women, their tight corseting, padded shoulders.

There is barely any suggestion of tone or form anywhere. Alongside the black shapes is a flat brown shape of a skirt, just a couple of lines to suggest folds. A pale blue lamp base lit from above, maybe the hint of shadow at its base.

The pose of the women appeals to me. They have made themselves comfortable, they are unwatched, unposed. The woman on the right seems to have her hand up on her shoulder, she’s leaning in to the chair. The other is leaning in to the table, as her chest slumps forwards her forearms bear her weight and her shoulders rise.

Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life, Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles

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Hartley and Ginny, 1970, Alice Neel

I can’t quite remember where I first saw this Alice Neel painting but it stayed with me, taking up space in my mental art gallery.

My next exposure to her work was a documentary that recently became available via BBC i-player, and this was followed (as if delivered by fairy godmother) by a major retrospective of her work here,  in the south of France, a place that while it inspired so much, feels very much an artistic backwater today.

Sometimes the planets line up for us just so.

Amusingly the retrospective is held in the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, a gallery that doesn’t actually hold any paintings by Van Gogh, but is dedicated to contemporary art and somehow found a rationale to use his name. To be fair the gallery’s strategy is to have one or two Van Gogh paintings on show alongside the headline act but headline will always be Van Gogh and the result will always be a great many confused tourists.

This exhibition is huge. It starts with her best and most well known work, and ends with her earliest, and often the most disturbing.

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Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967, Alice Neel

What comes into question when looking at the portraits (for almost all are portraits) is the relationship of Neel to the sitter, because there is clearly something going back and forth, this isn’t a one-way thing. Neel was a forceful character, and I wonder if this is it. The sitter feels the force of her, they are pinned to their place, watching her, waiting for her to finish.

Certain elements stand out: shoes, hands, eyes, noses, lips. Surrounded by all these paintings with large eyes, and curvy lips for a moment I wondered if she had a standard set of eyes, a standard nose. But every face is so uniquely its own. She has captured something behind the eyes, something in the corner of a mouth.

These are the notes I took standing in front of the works: blue lines as outlines. Feeling of unfinished and yet very finished, as if she has said “this is enough, why take it any further?” Many of the paintings are ‘unfinished’. Perhaps the background is bare canvas, or a hand has been left unpainted, a pattern on a dress roughly finished. But it doesn’t seem to matter one bit. It tells enough, it tells all we need to know. Any more would be like that extra blob of cream on top of  the ice cream, that we never asked for.

She has a tendency to paint an area of blue behind her sitters’ heads, rather like a halo, a frame, an aura. Her models don’t pose. They’ve just sat down – just for a second – and she’s captured them. They may as well have sat for a photograph, a quick snap.

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Victoria and the Cat, 1980, Alice Neel

My notes: knock-kneed, awkward gasping of cat. Huge bushy tail! Defiance, determination of girl trying to hald on to cat. Awkwardly trying to fix face, trying to still the squirm of both cat and her own body and face. 

I’m fascinated by the way that Neel doesn’t feel the need to draw an accurate hand or arm. She’s clearly capable – it’s obvious in some of her other works – and yet here she just doesn’t bother, it’s not important. And it doesn’t matter, if anything it adds to the whole awkwardness of the moment.

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Andy Warhol, 1970, Alice Neel

My notes: knee unfinished, hands half done. Face is so absolutely him. Again clearly outlined in blue. Looks as if he is rising up and towards us. Like he is dead and has come back Somehow quite angelic. Sickly green through hair and skin. Eyes closed. Suffering, indignant, proud.

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I didn’t really know about the attempt made on Warhol’s life but it seems he did almost die from the shooting. Everything about this painting is extraordinary. Warhol’s expression is of pain, just trying to deal with it for this moment, waiting for it to pass. Hands together for comfort, he is pale, weak, brutalised. He perches on the bench, barely there. He could float away at any moment.

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The Family, 1970, Alice Neel

“I had always loved Alice’s work, because it was a mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The sublime and the grotesque to me were part of her esthetic, were part of what she was conveying to the world—that people are beautiful and grotesque, that people are poignant and tragic, that they had big interior lives. She gave them big interior lives. She saw the lives in them that even they did not recognize. What emerged was a kind of desperate beauty.” John Gruen (central figure in painting)

I watched the documentary on Neel (made by her son Andrew Neel) and a documentary on Hockney one after the other. What is striking about both artists is how absolutely single-minded they are. Nothing could keep them from painting. Their need to paint is akin to their need to breathe. Striking also that they each seem to have a question to answer. In Hockney’s case it is how we see, in Neel’s case it is to truly see someone.

At one point in the film Neel talks about the moment when she stops painting, when her sitter has left, and she feels empty. While she is painting it is as if she has entered her sitter. This is such an extraordinary thing to say and yet it also makes so much sense. And it’s similar to how writers describe the process of getting inside their character’s head.  It reminds me of the sketches of Giacometti I saw in our local gallery – how he seems to be drilling under the skin, feeling his way around the contours of the skull, searching for the soul.

“I do not know if the truth I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others…at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and as a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different than mens'” Alice Neel

ARTnews on the portrait of the Gruen family

Fondation Vincent Van Gogh

Alice Neel Film

Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 2010