URGENT SUBTLE CONCISE ROBUST
The above words are scrawled on the wall of Lucian Freud’s London studio as a constant reminder of how he should paint. With these words he creates exquisitely strong paintings that have an inner strength that is on the verge of bursting the flesh of the figure. There is an incredible complexity to his figure paintings post 1960. He had abandoned the Ingres-like flatness in favour of a stronger of a brusquer mark made by driving the paint across the surface of the canvas with a hog-hair brush. Suddenly his paintings were filled with vitality akin to that of Michelangelo’s work. The accentuated muscular forms, the fluid texture of the paint and the tension held in every bodily tissue brought his work to life. ‘The silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off’ sums up the power trapped in Freud’s paintings. However, how can such vitality be achieved?
‘Physical or mental vigour’ is the dictionary definition and all the great figure painters permeate their subjects with this. The robustness of Freud’s flesh is very similar to that of Michelangelo, despite the number of years between them. The strong curves and undulations of both artists’ flesh is very striking. Every muscle is taut with tension or potential energy. Although they were painting on different surfaces with different materials the final result is often very similar. The tones are immaculately observed and the colours bring out a lot. Michelangelo had dissected corpses (illegally, it was considered heresy at the time) and his anatomical drawing gave him vast knowledge of the human form. There was not a muscle in the body he hadn’t drawn repeatedly and in each of his drawings, carvings and paintings the muscles are inspirational. In the vault of the Sistine chapel his hundreds of nude figures have perfectly formed bodies. This breathes a life into them, as the creator breathes into Adam, which is often rarely witnessed in Renaissance art. Only great artists managed it (Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli etc.) because of the nature of Fresco painting and because of their stylised appearance. His knowledge of anatomy and his brilliance at accurately depicting the human form is best shown in his preferred medium; marble. I have never been as struck by a work of art as when I entered the Academia in Florence and saw the David. Despite it’s many reproductions, the real thing is awe-inspiring. It holds your gaze, your thoughts and I spent an hour just staring up at it from close, from afar and from all different angles. Michelangelo’s power is all the more surprising when one discovers how his preliminary drawings were made. He did not often use models; instead he made hasty drawings of Tuscan labourers in order to building up a vast understanding of the human body. All he had to call on while he worked was a great number of sketches and also an encyclopaedic mental knowledge of the human body. At times however his trust in these methods betrays him and he falls open to criticism. In many ways his perfection was unparalleled but his women are too muscular, for instance Mary from the Doni Tondo, and the power in them is too exaggerated. Michelangelo, like Freud does, used contraposture to give his work vitality. Twisted bodies often appear more vibrant than more conventionally positioned bodies.
With all great artists there is a strong drive within them. A desire to work, shutting themselves off from society, and spending every conscious minute at the easel is important to them. Such an urgency to paint gives their art a great vitality. Auerbach is such an obsessive. He spends ten hours a day at the easel producing immensely complex figure paintings. Even if I am not painting my thoughts revolve around the canvas, the paint and the smell of spirit. Auerbach’s thickly painted heads portray many different emotions. His primary method of bringing life to his figures is by using very textured colourful paint. Giving the paint a thick texture is a very effective method of bringing to life ones paintings. It adds an extra dimension to the painting. The artist does not simply have to create tension in the subject in order to give the painting vitality he can also use the paint itself.
Van Gogh is famous for his very individual brushstrokes and, along with his colours, they brought a real vigour to his paintings. ‘His brushwork was agitated, the dashes constructed into swirling, twisted shapes, often seen as symbolic of his mental state’ sums up perfectly how his madness lead him to imbue a rich vitality in his paintings. The intensity of his portraits is magnified by the way in which the paint has been applied. Van Gogh’s paintings all have an immense vivacity because he uses many different techniques in order to achieve vitality. The poses of the subjects, the strong colours and the application of the paint all give a great liveliness to the paintings.
Freud’s paintings are robust. This makes an incredible impact on the viewer. One cannot help but notice his paintings because of their great strength. The solidity of form that he and Michelangelo give to their subjects makes them instantaneously fascinating and vibrant. It could be easy therefore to jump to the conclusion that in order to achieve vitality the figures and the paintings in general must have this robustness. It is not always the case. Egon Schiele uses fragility rather than solidity in order to fill the subject with energy. The people he paints appear on the verge of disintegration. At any moment their weak grip on life could be lost. His hollow flesh is very different to Freud’s, but both artists’ work is vibrant and alive. Schiele’s method of painting is not his only tool for energising a painting. His paintings are also very sexually charged. His painting titled ‘Two girls, lying entwined’ is given life by the twisted pose of the two women and by the strong charcoal under-drawing that shows through the semi-transparent paint. One can read the painting either as an attempt to shock with what could be a post-orgasmic relaxation period or as ‘an effort to depersonalise female sexuality’ and with the meaning of such a striking composition left open to debate Schiele draws us into the picture. This shows that a brilliantly created composition can make a painting fascinating and full of verve. Freud doesn’t compose his pictures, he simply paints what is in front of him and from that a great composition is often formed. He feels that if a part of a body is out of the painting then it will only add to the final effect. The juxtapositions and the tension in paintings give a great deal of vigour.
The atmosphere created by the discovery of the true identity of their companion in Caravaggio’s supper at Emmaus makes it a very strong painting. The figures are animated by the discovery. The two disciples are aghast, Jesus is ethereal, the innkeeper is a little bemused and the viewer is smug in the knowledge that a split second later the saviour will be gone. It is not simply the light that gives the painting the dramatic tension nor just the brilliantly painted figures but also the sturdiness of the composition.
Rembrandt’s paintings are brought to life by the mood he creates in them using chiaroscuro. He uses light to energize the sitter and it generates intrigue for the viewer. His dark backgrounds produce an aura of the unknown. We are only sure about what we can see; a face, a hand or some lavishly painted clothing. He was renowned as a colourist for he managed to maintain a precarious balance between painting tonally, with light and shade, and painting in colour. This rich blend of tone and colour gave his paintings a richness and beauty unparalleled by any portrait painter of his generation. He loved the medium in which he painted and always attempted to show the solidity of the human body by generously applying the paint in an impasto manner. With his combination of glazes and thick oils he produced outstandingly atmospheric and vivacious works.
To conclude on how artists achieve vitality in figure painting one must hark back to the four words scribbled on Lucian Freud’s wall. An urgency to paint, not only because of the artists’ work ethic, prevents the painting from growing bland and stagnant from overworking the paint. This urgency has been of real importance recently in my own work. The painting must stay fresh, the artist must be still excited and inspired by what he’s painting and to do this there must an urgency and speed about his method. In Freud and Auerbach one can see the speed with which the oil has been pushed across the canvas. In van Gogh the brush marks give away the speed with which he worked. For Michelangelo there was a necessity to paint fast due to the nature of fresco painting and when he carved he moved through the marble as fast as his hands could take him. ‘Less haste more speed.’ One must be urgent but careful and alert at all times as well. Subtlety is tremendously important. The subtlety of Freud and Rembrandt’s work is brilliant and what marks Auerbach out from others is the subtlety he maintains despite the way in which he paints. Freud’s portrait of Francis Bacon is a great example of why he is considered the best living realist painter. One must also be succinct and say as much as possible with as little as possible. There is no need to go over the top with details provided the essentials are there. This method of being concise creates an intense vitality in the figure. The work must be strong, and the whole composition must grip you as you view it. I have never been as struck by a piece of art as when I saw the David. It is robust yet subtle and incredibly tender in places. It has a beautiful simplicity about it much like many of Freud’s and one knows from the way Michelangelo worked that it was done with an incredible urgency. Throughout history artist that depict the figure have achieved vitality in many different ways whether it is through colour, texture or immense subtlety but all these methods are summed up by the four deeply profound words on Lucian Freud’s wall. URGENT SUBTLE CONCISE ROBUST.