n. pl. cor·po·ra (-pr-)
1. A large collection of writings of a specific kind or on a specific subject.
2. A collection of writings or recorded remarks used for linguistic analysis.
3. The main part of a bodily structure or organ.
//Reviews of art. Art and language. Art and the body.
If art is to be considered playful, experimental, and a way of making and breaking rules, then the prolific works of Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) can certainly be seen to epitomise these concepts. Fascinated with numbers, words, dates, sequences, magic, coincidences and games, Boetti began producing sculptures in the late 1960s, and, initially, was caught up in the Arte Povera movement, before turning to mock this and produce his own manifesto (1967). Many of the principles remained consistent, however, and he held a firm belief in the motto “mettere al mondo il mondo”, which translates both as “bringing the world into the world” and “giving birth to the world”, the title of one of his biro works from the 1970s, but also reflecting his attitude that artists oughtn’t necessarily invent new things, but rather work with what the world already has to offer. Tate Modern’s current retrospective, Game Plan, takes the visitor on an exciting and unpredictable tour through some of Boetti’s serendipitous creations of ordered disorder (or should that be disordered order?), traversing the world, to Afghanistan and back, with no two visitors taking the same route. Works are not arranged chronologically, but, rather, thematically, and no one path is prescribed, allowing as much of an element of chance into the exhibition as into the production itself.
Boetti was a keen traveller who visited Guatemala, Ethiopia, Morocco, Japan, and, most importantly, Afghanistan, where he set up the One Hotel and later employed a band of (well paid) workers. During his travels, he began a series of works involving the postal service, including La Mole Antonelliana (1970-1975), for which he sent postcards of Turin back to Turin from seven cities around the world. Another postal work, Viaggi Postali (Postal Voyages) (1969-1970), involved his sending of envelopes to false addresses, including, for example, to dead artists such as Marcel Duchamp. These were, in due course, returned to him, photocopied, placed inside a larger envelope, and resent. In this way, a work was built up, comprising many layers and journeys, as well as the input of external “artists”, in this case the postal workers, who would apply their stamps at random.
Whilst Boetti often employed others to (co-)produce his works, enjoying the added layers of their input, Serie di merli dispositi a intervalli regolari lungo gli spalti di una muraglia (A Row of Merlons Set at Regular Intervals Along the Ramparts of a Wall) (1971-1973) remains a personal work, documenting the artist’s own life. It consists of a series of framed telegrams, sent at intervals which double in length from one to the next. Boetti had predicted the date of his death to be due to fall on 11 July 2023 (something also denoted in earlier plaques and embroideries), and thus he left space in the frame for the telegrams still to come. Unfortunately, however, his calculation was incorrect, and he died unexpectedly early in 1994, leaving one poignant gap for the telegram due in 2016, which, now, will never be sent.
Boetti’s interest in travel also extended to the production of a series of geopolitical world maps, Mappa, between 1971-1994. Spanning this critical period, the embroideries provide an interesting documentation of the changing political borders during the Cold War, charting the progressive break up of the USSR. Although varying in scale and angle from map to map, the countries are, where possible, coloured according to their flags. There is a story of chance associated with even these, however, since, in 1979, Boetti received a finished map, sent back from his workers in Afghanistan, on which the ocean was a beautiful baby pink. Supposedly this was due to his landlocked embroiderers not knowing what an ocean was, nor how it should be coloured, and thus simply choosing an easily available colour for this large expanse. Boetti was, however, so pleased with this intervention of happenstance, that he never again dictated the colour for the ocean, and remained proud of how little he determined the look of the finished works. Similarly, with his biro drawings, each sheet in a multi-part work would be created by someone different on his behalf, and, although the identity of each remains unknown, the different personalities shine through in the various mark makings. These scribbled works also seem to have the depth and texture of embroidery, and, as with many of his works, contain layers of hidden messages, encoded through the use of large white commas relating back to the alphabet down the side of the sheet.
As well as hiding messages and using codes, Boetti was intrigued with systems of classification, and, in the late 1970s, he collaborated with his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, to produce a book and two large-scale embroideries, listing the thousand longest rivers in the world (Classifying: The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, 1977). As Sauzeau stated, however, “[classifications] will always be provisional and illusory,” especially, it would seem, where water and tides are involved. Boetti, of course, enjoyed this element of unpredictability, and elsewhere invokes classifications solely in order to abuse them. So, for example, he adds anomalous pictures of a motorcycle and a stone amongst the animals in his drawing Regno animale (Animal Kingdom) (1978).
This game of rules and exceptions, and order and disorder, is a key element in all of Boetti’s work. In fact, one piece even bears the title Ordine e Disordine (Order and Disorder) (1973), and consists of 100 embroidered panels, arranged at random on a wall, each spelling out their titular words. Evoking the same notion, but this time using images, the series Aerei (Aeroplanes) (1978; 1984; 1989) shows the artist’s ongoing attraction to multiplicity, with an overloading of machines in the sky, overlapping and interweaving, intruding on one another’s space, but not crashing.
Maximum saturation of the canvas is also achieved in the later series Tutto (Everything) (1989; 1992-1993; 1994), where Boetti has traced the outlines of images from magazines and newspapers, and then had them embroidered in myriad bright colours, like a nursery rug, but with no two areas of the same shade touching one another, and in the jigsaws he had made from earlier series of works, to be given to children on Austrian Airlines, including Faccine (Little Faces) (1979), for which he created a hexagonal grid and asked the children to fill in the faces in felt tips of their choice. This, it would seem, is the artist coming full circle from his own early child’s play sculptures, where he stacked and packed objects such as paper doilies (Colonna, 1968), to a stage whereby he offers up an idea and allows children to play for themselves.
The exhibition closes with a work set apart from the rest, outside on the balcony. Boetti’s first sculpture using cast bronze, this Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) (1993-1996), showing the artist standing fully clad under a hosepipe, offers an ambivalent interpretation. In one way, it may seem humbling and meek, but, with a cleverly concealed heating mechanism underneath the artist’s scalp, which makes the water from the hose evaporate on contact and disappear in a cloud of steam, it might also be suggestive of a man with such an overload of ideas, that he needs to cool himself down. Either way, as the exhibition’s curator, Mark Godfrey, says: “[there is a] stream of ideas now heading out into London which is hopefully going to touch a lot of people over the next few months.” The invitation to join in and play is there for the taking.
Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill
from 1 February 2012
Limited Edition Saatchi Gallery Suite
Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill
1 February–30 April 2012
by ANNA McNAY
The Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill – has been partnered with Frieze Art Fair since 2008. In an ongoing bid to attract artists and collectors, the hotel has launched a collaboration with the Saatchi Gallery to host a series of exhibitions in its expansive marbled foyer, Montagu dining room, and Churchill bar, as well as to produce a limited edition suite, offering guests the opportunity to live and sleep amongst works from the gallery’s collection. With the goals of opening up art to a wider audience and exploring how different pieces can work within a non-gallery situation, the project has certainly created a stir among the hotel’s guests.
After I transitioned, a non-trans person commented to me:
“You’re very convincing.”
“Thank you, so are you,” I replied.
(Simon Croft, wall text to accompany Convincing, 2012)
What does it mean to be convincing, to shape one’s identity so as to fit into society’s mould, to find a sense of belonging? These are themes which are explored in some depth in Alternative Loudest Whispers 2012, a multimedia art exhibition showcasing works by 11 London-based LGBT artists, both trained and self-taught, as part of the nationwide LGBT History Month.
Croft’s work greets you as you enter the long and brightly lit corridor gallery at the Conference Centre, St. Pancras Hospital, a space curated by Peter Herbert of The Arts Project. A grouping of drainpipes, some only knee-high, others as tall as an adult, stand proud, wrapped in carefully cut out black and foil lettering, repeating, over and over, “You’re very convincing,” representative perhaps of the crowd that forms society at large, looming tall (and threatening?) around the individual, seemingly uniform in shape and posture. Mirrors on either side of the installation serve to multiply the effect, as well as to draw the visitor in to look at himself, thereby also questioning his own appearance. As it happens, these mirrors were already in place when Croft came to install his work, but serendipity can sometimes be kind.
Issues of externalised identity are further highlighted in Daryl White’s various portraits, mixed in both media and style, several of which incorporate masks, be they gas masks, ones akin to Pulp Fiction’s gimp, or merely the made up face of a performer, the subject also of a number of Pascal Ancel Bartholdi’s ethereal silver gelatine prints, capturing friends and strangers against a smoky stage set backdrop.
Marion Hack’s Man with Earing [sic] (2011), sketched in charcoal and chalk, depicts a shadowy face, with eyebrows slightly drawn, and, aside from a hint of red on the lips, overwhelmingly dark and downcast. Brighter in colour, but equally questioning with regards to where one belongs, is First Out (2012), a nostalgic portrayal of the recently closed café-bar, but seen from the outside looking in, filled with happy faces, a crowd of which the onlooker is not a part. Historical documentation is also brought to play in Hack’s Suffragette 1912 (2011), A.T.S. (2007), and Reclaim the Night (2010), which look back at and celebrate those who have played a part in the battle to bring us to where we are, and to gain us the relative freedoms we enjoy today.
Space and place are themes picked up on by Titus Davies in A Room of My Own One, A Room of My Own Two, and Travels Under My Sink (all 2009), series of photographs, depicting the artist lying beneath and beside a bed, and uncomfortably contorted to fit into the small ‘cupboard’ space beneath a kitchen sink. Again, questions are raised regarding belonging – not only the matter of where, but perhaps also to whom, and as who?
This is something that can well be questioned in art, as further shown by Caroline Halliday’s sculptural works, including The Artist’s Hat (2001), a swing made out of hair, wood, and wire, which came out of a project of the same name, and, to her, represents ‘a place where the artist in all of us can be free to dream’ and to wear his or her ‘artist’s hat’ (perhaps another take on the mask?). Also by Halliday, Secret Lives (2008), comprises a long work bench decorated with a number of paper houses, in descending height order like a set of Russian dolls, made out of pages of her journals. Deconstructing personal secrets and turning them into dwellings themselves, rather than thoughts which dwell inside us, we return, once again, to the notion of words and language as a medium for expression and a portrayal of who and what we are. From Croft’s consideration of the impact of throw away comments, to Halliday’s use of the considered and contemplative written documentation of our deepest thoughts, these ideas are conclusively brought together by the exhibition’s title, Loudest Whispers, which captures perfectly the desire of the artists to use their work to explore and in some cases proclaim, both privately and publicly, loudly and at a whisper, who they are, and how they see themselves.
When Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) first met Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) at the latter’s studio in Paris in April 1934, Nicholson was an up and coming British artist, and Mondrian a well-established and successful Dutch painter. They already shared some common interests and aesthetic ideals in their penchant for abstraction and shared preoccupation with the colour white, but, as their friendship bloomed over the coming decade, so too did an extraordinary creative relationship between the two men. It is this relationship which is the theme being explored in the latest exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, a small but focused two room show, arising, as is often the case in this institution, from one particular painting in its own collection: in this instance, Nicholson’s 1937 (painting) (1937).
Opening with a couple of works from shortly before the two men met, Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow and Blue (1932) and Nicholson’s 1933 (Six Circles) (1933), visitors are given an insight into how the men worked independently at the beginning of the politically turbulent decade. Mondrian’s composition is one of a series where he was playing with moving about his trademark black lines and squares and rectangles of colour, and adjusting the thickness of the lines to see what effect this might have. Nevertheless, in comparison to his later works, there is a stability here, a kind of dynamic equilibrium, which would be difficult to dislodge. Nicholson’s work, on the other hand, is one of his early reliefs, from a time when he was still cutting his lines and circles freehand (he later moved on to increasingly employ a compass and ruler).
On the next wall, we find Mondrian’s Composition with Double Line and Yellow (1932), which, although also produced before the artists’ first meeting, is significant for its being the first work of Mondrian’s purchased by Nicholson’s first wife Winifred in 1935. In fact, it was the first work of Mondrian’s to be bought by any English collector, and Nicholson and Winifred were to play a key role in getting the Dutch artist known, bought, and exhibited in this country. The two artists were also often shown together, as, for example, in the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA in New York, where they were paired as leading exponents of ‘geometrical abstraction’.
Two years later, with war appearing imminent in Paris, and with Mondrian having been included in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, Nicholson sent an invitation to his friend, enabling him to leave France and come and join the Nicholsons and a wider community of international avant-garde artists (including Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, and Nicholson’s future wife Barbara Hepworth), in Hampstead, where Nicholson also found him a studio-cum-bed-sitting-room. It was here that Mondrian began to make his lines much thicker, multiplying them, and pushing his colours to the very edges of the canvas. He wanted to make his white as opaque as possible, and, to reach this goal, painted it over with many layers, sometimes even wet on wet, which has resulted in a number of visible cracks today. Another interesting side effect, however, is that the intersecting black lines have the appearance of being almost ‘cut in’ to the white, thus giving a sense of relief, as with Nicholson, who always carved his works out of single pieces of board, rather than taking the easier option of overlaying separate sheets. 1935 (White Relief) (1935), for example, which is one of Nicholson’s largest works, is carved from a mahogany table leaf, bought from Camden Market.
Whilst there are indeed a great many parallels between the two men’s works, as the exhibition’s title would suggest, the curators also hope that the conversation engendered between the pieces on display will highlight some of their outstanding differences. For example, aside from the appearance of relief resulting from Mondrian’s layering of white paint, he was very much an artist concerned with flatness of the surface, and with creating a punctuating rhythm using lines and colours. Nicholson, on the other hand, is famous for his reliefs, and for the lines he created through the use of shadow and depth, with the contrast of white and more neutral tones. When he began to add colour back into his work in the latter half of the decade, he placed it centrally, whereas Mondrian, by this time, was pushing his colours further and further to the edges. He also framed his works quite deliberately so that they could expand on the walls, whilst Nicholson framed his so as to contain them.
The outbreak of the Second World War finally separated Nicholson, who moved to Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth, and Mondrian, who declined their offer to join them, preferring to remain in a city environment in New York. The exhibition concludes with two final works, produced on different continents, yet reflecting the closeness between the two men, and a similarity never again to be attained, since Mondrian died two years later, and Nicholson returned to figuration. Nicholson’s 1940-3 (Two Forms) (1943), with its many coloured squares and rectangles, is perhaps as close to a Mondrian as he ever got, and could be interpreted as a homage to the friend he was missing. Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow (1935-1942), on the other hand, seems to build space within space, with a pair of vertical lines down the centre of the canvas pushing outwards, really expelling the colours, and letting the white break through from behind. The lines, however, take centre-stage and dominate the work, capturing the essence of Mondrian’s theory of art, and their parallel form also resonating particularly here, with the title of the exhibition, thus providing the perfect closure.
Lygia Pape (1927-2004) was a leading Brazilian artist and founding member of the Neo Concrete movement, dedicated to the inclusion of art in everyday life, whose output and styles are so diverse that her current exhibition at the Serpentine, a pared down version of a larger show held in Madrid last year, and her first major exhibition in the UK, has been described by Adrian Searle as having the feel of a group show [‘Lygia Pape: modernist with a bossa nova beat,’ The Guardian, 07 December 2011]. Nevertheless, there are a number of themes which seem to permeate and link the highly experimental and daring works on display.
Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) is one of Japan’s best-known living artists, and certainly one of its greatest curiosities. Having voluntarily admitted herself to hospital back in 1977, she has remained living there to this day, and, as such, her rare appearance at the press view of Tate Modern’s current retrospective was a spectacle in its own right, with the international media going crazy for this diminutive, unassuming woman in a wheelchair, scarcely noticeable, in fact, had it not been for her vibrant red hair.
When Kusama undertook a year’s training in the traditional Japanese art of Nihonga painting in Kyoto in 1948, this was already a radical step for a woman at that time, and her daring developments, experimentations, performances, paintings, and installations since then have scarcely been less audacious. This exhibition seeks to highlight key turning points in her career, which spans over six decades, and concludes with a range of stunning new works, displayed here in London for the first time.
The first couple of rooms contain some of the few remaining examples of Kusama’s really early works from Japan, including her Nihonga style Lingering Dream (1949), a memento mori with decaying sunflowers with butterflies, in which the details on the veins are almost human, and vegetal and animal matter merge in a surreal and unsettling way. A set of 30 small works on paper follows, described by curator Frances Morris, as a ‘Pandora’s box of experimentation’, with watercolours and gouaches, ink, pastel and tempera, exploring not just colour and form, but also texture, through the use of frottage techniques.
In the mid-1950s, however, Kusama, having already received considerable critical acclaim in Japan, decided she wanted to leave for the United States. She arrived on the West Coast late in 1957 and moved to New York six months later. Here she was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, and began to produce a large-scale series of paintings entitled ‘Infinity Net’. Largely white, from a distance, these works only really become more interesting as you approach and look beyond and behind the surface. Repetitive brushstrokes, scalloped shapes, thick globules of white paint, as if squeezed directly from the tube, almost like toothpaste, these works offer a sense of movement across their surfaces, like writhing tadpoles or spermata.
In the early 1960s, Kusama began to work with sculptures, and her interest in the phallus increased. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963), her first room installation, contains a white painted rowing boat, covered in phalli, and the neighbouring room, which contains a number of her ‘Sex Obsession’ and ‘Food Obsession’ Accumulation Sculptures from the following years are scarcely less phallocentric: furniture, shoes, clothes – nothing escapes her penile adornment.
As the sixties progressed, and hippie culture took hold, however, Kusama adapted herself once again, and began exploring the medium of performance art. She held various Body Festivals in which naked participants were encouraged to paint polka dots on each other’s bodies, on animals, and on plants, and to engage in orgy parties. Her film, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1968), which was a hit on the arthouse festival circuit at the time, documents these events, to a chant-like soundtrack by pop-rock band The C.I.A. Change, with such slow moving imagery, that, I have to confess, for me, it verges on generating a sense of tedium.
Perhaps it was all too much excess for Kusama as well, since, in 1973, she decided to return home to Japan, a move which she found it hard to adapt to. She was also hugely impacted by the death of her close friend, American artist, Joseph Cornell, with whom she had enjoyed what she describes as a romantic and passionate, but platonic relationship.
After moving in to the hospital in 1977, she set up a studio within the medical faculty, and returned to making smaller scale sculptural objects by hand. Leftover Snow in the Dream (1982) is a disturbing construction of plasticine, wood, and paint, resembling a display cabinet, stuffed full of oversized embryos, packed in place by phalli. This corporeal theme continues also in her paintings from the following decades, which fill the canvases with overly complex biomorphic forms, reminiscent of her earlier tadpole/spermata motifs, and continue with her trend of obsessive repetition, dense patterning, and layering.
Kusama is probably best known, however, for her ‘immersive environments’, large-scale full-room installations which transport the viewer into another world. I’m Here, but Nothing (2000) is a darkened room, set up like any normal living room space, complete with television, shelving unit, tables, chairs, sofa, lamps, but lit solely by fluorescent polka dots. One step further, and created especially for this show, is Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011), a magical and entrancing end to the chronological tour through this hypnotic woman’s life. A small dark passage, covered on the walls, floors, and ceilings by mirrors, and hung with a myriad tiny cherry tomato sized lights which flicker from one colour to another, reflecting in their millions, and stretching seemingly boundlessly into, indeed, an infinite space. This is the ultimate work, a crescendo which cannot be superseded. Whether or not Kusama is, herself, stuck in some 1960s hallucinatory trance, functioning purely on medication doled out by her doctors, or actually living a life of such sheer brilliance, we will probably never know, but, whatever the secret, it is one which is a pleasure for the visitor to be permitted to experience, even if only for a short while.
Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
Kinetic art is art that has a life of its own – or so claim the organisers of the fourth Kinetica Art Fair, taking place this February at Ambika P3, a 14,000 square foot, triple height, subterranean space on Marylebone Road, built originally in the 1960s as the construction hall for the University of Westminster’s School of Engineering. The expansive concrete space couldn’t really have a more appropriate history for this fair, which, itself, is a celebration of technology and engineering, science and invention, light, sound and movement. Pioneered by artists such as László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and Alexander Calder (1898-1976), contemporary kinetic art both looks back at and pays homage to early Modernist glorification of man’s increasingly manipulative power and innovation, but also allows for a wide and exciting range of more experimental works, employing the ever increasing possibilities offered by new media and computer-generated artificial intelligence.
The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Post-War Painters
Haunch of Venison
7 December 2011 – 18 February 2012
It might at first seem a little unadventurous to put on a show featuring artists for whom major retrospectives are concurrently running not so far across town (in this case, David Hockney at the Royal Academy and Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery), but Haunch of Venison’s current exhibition, featuring ten of Britain’s most important post-war painters, is worth its weight in gold. Displaying over forty large and small scale paintings and drawings, some on loan from major galleries, others which have not been seen in public for many years (including Frank Auerbach’s Primrose Hill, Winter Sunshine (1962-64)), the exhibition seeks to offer a fresh view on the works, methods, and personal interactions between Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow.
The first room concentrates on nudes, and, although some are indeed highly abstracted through the artists’ use of thick impasto paint, they nevertheless celebrate the continued dedication to figurative subjects by these resilient painters during a period when abstraction was so ‘à la mode’. Thus, for example, the visitor can compare the diametrically different, but yet equally enchanting, works by Freud (Girl on a Turkish Sofa, 1966) and Auerbach (Reclining Figure, 1972), which, although similarly sized and posed, demonstrate the extremely varied possibilities offered by the same medium when applied with such different technique. Consisting merely of a few dabs of orange, yellow and white oil paint on a darkly grounded board, Auerbach’s figure nevertheless bears just as much a sense of weight, and is just as recognisable as a figure, as Freud’s intricately detailed girl, with her dirty feet and oversized, twisted and bared bottom.
This exploration of texture and technique continues throughout the other rooms, with the second gallery including a mix of both landscapes and portraits, all absolutely relishing in the joy of daubing on the paint as thickly as possible. Kossoff’s Self Portrait II (1972), whilst recognisable as a face from afar, becomes an indistinguishable sea of colour and pigment as one approaches. Nearby, his Seated Woman No. 2 (1959) is so substantially besmeared with deep brown paint that it takes no great leap of the imagination to see the logical progression to contemporary abject works of art employing not paint, but excrement. There is something extremely tactile about this piece, as if all tools might have been laid aside, and Kossoff have employed his hands. It is playful and fun, like something a young child might proudly produce for his parent.
In contrast to this, the third room makes reference to the continued influence of the Old Masters, exemplified, perhaps predictably, by Bacon’s Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velázquez (1951), reminding the visitor that these painters, whilst breaking new ground, were, nevertheless, historically and technically educated in their field. Upstairs is ample further evidence of this, with a range of studies, showing both method and skill, including a variety by Caulfield, in which his mark up grids and hastily scribbled notes regarding tone and colour are clearly visible.
As the subtitle to the exhibition highlights, however, it is the conversations between these men which perhaps offers us most insight into the progression of British painting in the post-war period. Downstairs in the bookshop are a delightful row of photographs by Bruce Bernard, showing the artists in their studios, both at work and play, and the catalogue to accompany the exhibition contains an enlightening essay considering how their relationships impacted on their work, as well as some insightful writings by the artists themselves. Thus, whilst the range of works by Hockney and Freud in their own personal shows cannot be expected to be matched, it is nevertheless a privilege to be able to see them here, set amongst their contemporaries, contextualised and reevaluated, and displayed in the impressive newly renovated Bond Street gallery space taken over by Haunch of Venison last autumn.
‘Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.’ And yet despite, or maybe precisely because of, such a frank attitude towards his works, the exhibition marking the culmination of the National Portrait Gallery’s Cultural Olympiad is the first show of Lucian Freud’s (1922 – 2011) works to focus solely on his portraiture, in the true sense of the word.
Spanning seven decades, from the early 1940s until his death last July, the exhibition showcases 130 paintings and works on paper, including both iconic and rarely-seen paintings of his lovers, friends, and family, each a record of an intimate relationship, personal and private. The idea for the exhibition initially came about following a conversation between Sandy Nairne (Director of the National Portrait Gallery) and Freud, in 2006, after it was known that London would host the 2012 Olympics, and the artist was keen for it to be one of the capital’s countdown events for the London 2012 Festival.
The works on display are arranged broadly chronologically, and trace Freud’s stylistic development.The first rooms are filled with his early works – smoother, flatter, more evenly toned than the Freud we later came to know and expect. This was the period when he was learning to paint, and his subjects are primarily himself and his first wife, Kitty Garman, the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein. He has described himself, during this period, as ‘aggressive’ in his approach, moving from feature to feature, using a very fine brush (half the size of his little finger), to achieve intricate, almost forensic, detail. Garman described the experience of sitting for him as ‘like being arranged’, yet her grip on the rose (Girl with Roses, 1947-8) and kitten (Girl with a Kitten, 1947) is, in each instance, so tight, it is almost strangling. Was this Freud’s intent, or more a reflection of herself and her anxiety? In each picture, her gaze looks out sideways beyond the viewer, almost vacantly. In the slightly later Girl with a White Dog (1950-1), however, with its disturbing, but recognisably Freudian, green tinge, she faces forwards, staring directly both at and through the viewer – and therefore also the artist himself – almost defiantly. This is perhaps a sense of foreboding of the couple’s coming separation.
Freud was a painter of personality, capturing the character of his sitters, their psychology, rather than, necessarily, a physical likeness (although each and every one of his sitters is, nevertheless, easily recognisable). He was a master of capturing expressions and moods, as, for example, in A Young Painter (1957-8), of whom one wonders, with his rumpled brow and parted lips, what it is he is feeling: consternation, anger, concern? Similarly, Head of a Child (1954), with its wide eyes and open mouth, cries out with terror, fear, and anguish.
Woman Smiling (1958-9) marks the transitional moment in Freud’s career, at which he first stood up to paint (and never again sat down). He simultaneously also began using thicker, horse hair, brushes, and introducing a more varied palette, with less blending, and more vigorous brushstrokes. ‘As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.’ Freud had a fascination with the landscape of the skin and reputedly claimed there to be no such thing as bland or generic skin, and not even his portrait of his baby daughter, Bella, (Baby on a Green Sofa, 1961), spares the subject from his keen observation. As fellow artist (and sitter) Frank Auerbach (born 1931) has said, Freud’s work is ‘raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art…’
Freud’s portrayals are honest to the point of brutality. Take, for example, his portrait of John Deakin (1963-4), a chronic, red-faced, alcoholic with prominent ears; Man in a Blue Shirt (1965), a portrait of George Dyer, Francis Bacon’s lover, who later committed suicide, unashamedly revealing his hare lip and broken nose; and A Man and his Daughter (1963-4), depicting a bank robber who lived beneath the artist in Paddington, with livid scars across his face. It is unsurprising, then, to learn that Freud believed that if a painting didn’t have some drama to it, it was nothing more than paint out of a tube.
Yet there is also a tenderness to his paintings. Pregnant Girl (1960-1), a portrait of Bernadine Coverley, the mother of Bella, shows her with her head turned to the side on the pillow, breasts exposed, collar bones prominent, shoulders rounded, wisps of dark hair falling across the porcelain skin of her face – a sentimental expression of beauty and fragility.
Freud’s models often assumed unusual and uncomfortable poses, and he always required the sitter to remain present even whilst he was painting the background, fully aware of their impact on the space. ‘I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.’
The show would not be complete without including some of Freud’s portraits of Leigh Bowery, the performance artist, large, majestic, monumental paintings, but hung here in a small, intimate side room, selected, according to curator Sarah Howgate, to convey the size of the studio in which the works were made, and, of course, of Sue Tilley, the amply proportioned benefits supervisor who featured in a number of portraits in the mid 1990s.
The final room, of his later works, contains nudes which are gritty in all senses: their subject matter as brutal an exposure as ever, but also the texture and surface of the work – it is almost as if he had mixed some substance into the oil paint to create a raised and undulating fleshy surface. The show concludes, however, with an unfinished portrait of his gallery assistant, David Dawson, and his dog Eli, Portrait of the Hound (2011), on which Freud was working until shortly before his death on 20 July 2011. Nairne is keen to emphasise, however, that the show was planned, until very near the end, with the collaboration of Freud himself, and, as such, it is very much a ‘living exhibition’, not a memorial. Indeed, for an artist who imbued each portrait with so much energy, character, and life force, what else could it be?