Art History seems particularly prone to the opposition of Great Principles. Like “Abstraction versus Representation” or “Essentialism versus Individualism” or “Idealism versus Realism”.
Quite an age-old philosophical debate of course – the permanence and universality of “essences” or “abstract categories” versus the fleeting profusion of individual things and humans, which are but poor, imperfect instances of ideal types and universal concepts.
In art the tension between these poles has taken on many different guises.
An Italian early renaissance painter would have aimed at universality through the painting of ideal specimens – his Northern counterpart would have rendered reality in all its teeming diversity: painting real landscapes filled with a great many of real people and bathing in real light .
And what by now has turned out to be the mainstream art of the 20th century, once declared itself revolutionary in its reneging on realist representations - blithely going for abstractions and concepts. (1)
I’m not going to choose sides here. I am too fond of the plurality of schools and currents in art, and of how they show the diversity of human thought and perception. (2)
But there is a certain kind of formulatic abstraction in art, which seems to me a gross and boring de-humanization of reality. And then I think of two figures who loom large in art history: Picasso and Raphael. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, I admit. (3) Both are outstanding visual virtuoso’s . And at one time I have certainly been impressed by their work, and by the creative energy and the continuous visual reinventions of Picasso in particular.
But how utterly bored I have become with them … perhaps because of their shallowness of feeling, a shallowness disguised in formal virtuosity. Theirs is the kind of formalism that can only for a short while pose as “universality”.
To me, now, Picasso is the leering, predatory gaze at its abstracting and reductionist worst – in his work any remaining traces of individual human presences have been reduced to grotesque symbols of anonymous lust. (4) And Raphael … his madonna’s could of course hardly be accused of being lust-objects – no, theirs is a different anonymity: that of the cloyingly insipid, sentimental cliché.
And that’s my point: anonymity is not the same as universality. The universality of the human condition is not to be found in abstractions without empathy … the universality of the human experience can only be found, burning in each passing moment, in each individual man or woman, in lives marked by time. (5)
And how can an artist render that universality? By his or her attention and respect for the individual. And must the artist then merely copy and represent appearances? Why no – it’s rather a question of recreating an existence , an experience – which means incorporating more than first meets the eye, going beyond appearances to capture life. (6) Art may well be a matter of love then … yes, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder then thre must be love in the eye of the artist.
So no wonder I was moved by a current exhibition of Lucian Freud paintings (7) The way he renders the ravages of flesh – the bulkiness of a body – the interiority of a gaze. He is a realist – he is not afraid of repulsive realities – he is not afraid of mortality – he does not beautify in the conventional, idealist sense.
But he honors his models, oh yes he honors them by granting them an absolutely, radically individual existence.
Hence, how intensely do I disagree with the eminent art critic David Sylvester who found that Freud’s work lacked a sense of the human condition, because it would be wanting in “universality”: “ Freud seems to see the world at close range through his own eyes only, painting attractive or repulsive sights according to his personal whim.”
But another critic, Martin Gayford, comes brilliantly to Freud’s defense: “it is Freud’s treatment of the world as made up entirely of unique individual things that is his greatest strength. He has resisted the tendency of modernist art to subdue the complexity of the world to a style or a concept […] to Freud, everything has a degree of individuality. Consequently, everything he paints is a portrait. Every such work is a personal encounter”.
And therefore one stares and stares at Freud’s paintings – at those intensely individual people, so vulnerable in their imperfections, so utterly subjected to time, so very much there and part of a lumpy and often pasty reality, recreated in paint.
Um, a couple of foot-notes, yes :
(1) But in the very long history of (not only western) art, it is not realist representation that is the dominant tendency. Abstract and ornamental art, or symbolic art illustrating religious revelations, seem to be much more preponderant. So it would rather be the attention for individual human existence and experience which is the exception, and therefore revolutionary ....
(2) Very brief ode to diversity in art: I love Cézanne’s solidly deconstructed fragments of reality, Kandinsky’s tormented spiritual abstractions, El Lissitzky’s playful forms suspended in mid air. I adore the limpid beauty and clarity of the 16th century Venetians as well as the 17th century brooding chiaroscuros. I am moved by the quality of textures and light in 15th century Flemish painters as I am by the tactile sense of volume of their Italian colleagues.
(3) Strange bed-fellows
(4) The profusion of works done by Picasso in old age have so abundantly exploited his cubist tricks that they have become empty formulas. And then his lust for life and sex, at a younger younger age perhaps still inspiring awe because of its sheer vitality (though already repulsive in its egotist loveless-ness) – finally dissolves in numerous pathetic sketches of bouncy old satyrs lusting after meekly reclining female models . And his in-humaneness is not just an inevtable corrolary of abstraction: even in his classical/monumental phase the humans he paint lack all individual life. There’s only his blue, “pathetic” period that may offer a glimpse of possible human sympathy.
(5) But perhaps Picasso – with his utter disrespect for the individual – did offer a cruelly relevant mirror to the 20th century : a century which in Europe was brutally marked by ideologies that cared very little indeed about individual lives.
(6) In that sense a painted portrait will always outdo a photograph – the painter can put in his painting layers of feelings & attitudes & thoughts & lived life & undercurrents & hints & guesses – layers an objectively registering camera-eye could never register.
(7) A Retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague - I first came under the spell of a Lucian Freud painting over 10 years ago – “standing by the rags” – the vulnerability of flesh – the way that head rested on the arm , the tactile presence and texture of both flesh and rags …