I spend a lot of time studying individual artists in depth. Museums, books, biography, galleries sometimes. Back in the 80's when I first wished to paint seriously, I was fixated on Bonnard and later Degas as well as most of the impressionists. As I look back on the few works I've saved from that decade of things I saved, I don't see much resemblance between what I was doing and those artists. What wanted to emerge was emerging in its own way.
My sense is that one's art must progress at its own pace, and most important you have to learn from all you see of other art to critique your own work.
More recently I have studied the works of Edward Hopper, Gilbert Stuart, Tamara de Lempicka, Jan Van Eyck, John Singer Sargent, Cezanne, Renoir, and Lucian Freud. And how can I omit Van Gogh. Besides these beacons of greatness there are the anonymous painters of Tibetan thangkas, the Japanese woodblock artists, Picasso, Grant Wood, Morris Hirschfeld, Henri Rousseau, Manet, Emily Carr, Botticelli, the painters of the Renaissance, and dear to me the Byzantine artists who made the great mosaics of Ravenna which we made a pilgrimage to see, the ancients and so much more. And I have not mentioned Magritte, Kurt Schwitters, De Chirico and the Dada movement which also has been dear to my heart as well as the Russians such as Malevich, Kandinsky and Kandinsky's friend from the Bauhaus Paul Klee.
I have often gone back again and again to study work by those artists and others I forget to mention here. My sense of the work I care most about is the main thing, the unspoken quality that strikes one as unique and like nothing else, something beyond life, or an amplification of reality in some way. Marcel Proust spends 7 volumes speaking of art in one way or another as the highest and only real thing in life. To me a work is great if it inspires me to paint or write something. Art is perhaps shared by some animals such as the bower bird, or the songs of various animals, but mankind has created something which seems to stand above or beyond religion or any other human endeavor.
It is with this thought in mind that I recently studied with great interest the composition and painterly style of the artist Lucian Freud, whose portraits have an intensity which brings them beyond what you see with the naked eye. They are naked but more so. His layers bring an intensity and truth that is beyond the camera and beyond the quick glance at a person.
I had checked out a number of books about Freud and his work from the library. Among others, I first found a book by Gayford describing his sitting for a portrait, "Man in a Blue Scarf" by Freud for some months, a wonderful description of Freud's artistic process. After I finished the book, I painted spontaneously "Intruders" which won first prize a couple years ago at the Expressions West Exhibition of Western Artists. I wasn't trying to paint like Freud, but I believe what I read made me approach my work in the different way.
As to Freud's own work, so very different from what I try to do. First it is based on the human figure and life drawing. I have only been exposed to life drawing, and find it not my style to ask people to pose for me. Even my husband dislikes posing for a portrait as he has his own artistic pianistic pursuits which he prefers. Although I have been to many life drawing classes, I am always deeply disappointed by several aspects of doing life drawing. First, the time restraints of going to a class, even 3 hours, are difficult. The class was usually broken up into smaller sections of poses. Moreover, when seated in a part of the class, you are forced to have a view of the model which you might not choose. And then there is a light source you cannot control. Also, I was painfully aware that the model's pose generally had an artificiality and self-consciousness about it which I didn't feel was natural, nor did it give me any insight into the mind of the model. Finally, as I tend to work and rework my painting, I found that I didn't have the time to work on detail or change the lighting, composition etc. to create a completed piece. I noticed that many of the people of my class would work really fast and make slick attractive drawings, but to me they were merely decorative, just tossed off, and never deep. Something deep is what I aim for. I am looking for something, something I cannot describe. This is why I love the work of Freud despite my own prudish view of the nude and also my introverted desire for solitude as I work.
With Freud though, after looking at what he did and reading descriptions of the way he worked, I found a new way of working, slowly, building up the colors and form, a simplicity of color which made it possible to unify the pictorial space more. The models if nothing else were natural in his pieces. Freud's often used subject matter of genitals in the center of the composition is often not to my taste, but I have overlooked all this to encounter the sheer force of his pieces, albeit many are dark or cruel in nature. I found a few youtubes showing Freud and his studio, but still the man eluded me until I read another book which came out more recently: "Breakfast with Lucian".
Now, my "review". GEORDIE GREIG'S BREAKFAST WITH LUCIAN
"Breakfast with Lucian" is written by the London editor Geordie Greig who after years of trying finally got into Lucian Freud's secretive life and world and was able to inverview him and others Freud was connected with. This book has in some ways turned me against Lucian Freud as a person, though I don't believe any biography can ever impart the reality of another person. Also, with artists, perhaps one does not need to know that much personal as the work transcends all. Still, having read this book, though I find Freud's painting interesting and more than that inspiring I doubt that I'll ever again have the same feeling about his work.
The book written by Grieg chronicles Lucian Freud, a man very private, and a man who apparently was driven to work, work, work on his art as well as his drive to find release and pleasure with his control over and sexual domination of everyone he could seduce and paint at the same time. Although married twice he had only two legitimate children, Greig also lists Freud's 14 children born of various affairs over the years. The book basically chronicles all the people Freud went through during his life, and I have to say the author Geordie Greig's admission that he had a 2 year affair with Freud's ex-wife Caroline's daughter makes the entire book just seem way too incestuous for my taste. This is a strange world of the upper crust of London and their escapades "slumming" with bookies, prostitutes and the like. I skimmed the last chapters naming even more titled people and the famous that had been taken into Freud's spider web, as Greig describes one of his first meetings with Freud.
As I am quite different person, a woman, not promiscuous, an American living in a different place and time, and getting older myself, I have to ask one basic question. Was Lucian Freud Happy? Is the word happiness either for himself or others ever mentioned in this book or in connection with Freud? What was his deepest motivation to paint? This is an unanswered question and may not have an answer. My sense is that he had a terrible drive to get at something which would afford him release. Release and domination seem the important words to me. I feel that the paintings themselves gave him a release when he got them to a certain point, and this might explain many of his obsessive ways. The times I sense he may have been most happy and completely comfortable were with animals: sleeping in the stalls with horses, holding a fox or a falcon, his fragile dog who figures into a number of the paintings. Nature. To me one of his most striking images is the partial side of a horse, its coat palpable.
The feeling engendered by his strange paintings of his mother who appears like the living dead pervade most of the pieces in some way or other. Perhaps his escape from Germany at the time his family did, just a few weeks before the time came when they may not ever have been able to get out at all as Jews, seems to me always in the subconscious of his pieces. The stripes of the clothing of the camp victims appears in his work in a pair of pyjamas which apparently belonged to his grandfather, a strange foreshadowing of what happened to his aunts who did not survive. Certainly the canvases he peoples at at times are reminiscent of the oppressed victims of Nazi Germany as his grandfather Freud escaped to England but the aunts remained and were victims of the camps. Perhaps I see this as I see the ravages of suffering in their depiction and the themes of the many rags lying about his studio, the collection of paint scrapings on the wall, like the markings of time and also a modern art installation. It makes me also think again of the collections of objects taken in the prison camps. I guess I am most shocked at this disconnect, between these unbelievably horrible events and Freud's completely self centered, self gratifying lifestyle of using and going through people for his own use which he took up from an early age. Even his hateful and cruel attitude toward his mother (in my opinion) who he again and again says was asking him about himself, which to him was prying, is shocking. Not to mention his lack of any responsibility toward his many children while he lived. And to me it seems sick, also, that he painted a number of his own children nude. Several say this was the only connection they ever had with him.
So, although I didn't much like reading the book by Geordie Greig, I have to say that it is an important document, and it has made me think of a lot of things connected with Western Civilization and European culture and the aristocratic life. I started out majoring in the classics and reading Greek and Roman plays, history and philosophy while taking art courses which I sort of tossed off. When I read about ancient Rome, I thought the behavior there was a template of the way we are now, particularly the behavior of the Roman emperors, and at the time I studied this, I related it to what was going on the the US during the Vietnam conflict when the Andy Warhol scene and so much more was happening in NY and beyond. But I had overlooked at that time what had gone on in Europe: the excesses of the French court, in fact all the royalty of Europe, and in particular the behavior of the Titled classes which was always outrageous (in my somewhat puritanical view) and even moreso when seeing an individual whose entire life seems based on total and complete selfishness. This is well documented in Proust's A la Recherche de Temps Perdu.
One would have to write yet another a three volume tome to examine all this in light of the decadence of Western culture. We have democracy both in the UK and in the US, but at the same time modern society, which seems to have become really modern, poses a LOT of problems. May I say only that perhaps Freud has done us all a favor, first to make us think, and then also to make us look.
Despite all I have said, I still consider Lucian Freud one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. I still look at his paintings a lot and admire that eye that reminds me so much of the falcon he holds, the eye that can see the movement of a mouse while soaring far above.