Monday, 24 October 2011
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
After the flurry of last week’s portrait themed blog-posts, I thought it would be as good a time as any to talk about my next project.
In brief; I’m looking for subjects for my own new forays into portraiture. In the past I’ve submitted entries to both the BP Portrait Award and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, however it’s now been over five years since I gave this a serious bash.
In the intervening period a lot has changed, not least that portraiture has become my bread and butter - for editorial clients like TIME, the FT and Wallpaper. I really enjoy it, but I rarely if ever have the pleasure of meeting my portrait subjects in person, or of having much say over how the reference images I receive are photographed. They’re usually reproduced very small, too, and have to be executed at some speed.
Whilst producing my recent large-scale ‘Peter Andre Saliva Tree’ personal work I again found myself doing mini-faces at a rate of knots from found photo reference! The irony wasn’t lost on me, and I resolved that the next big personal project would have to be a different sort of portrait challenge.
I’ll be honest, I don’t have the space at home or in the studio to carry out sittings from life – so the good news is that I’m not in search of people to donate hundreds of hours to sit in person. I’d love to sketch some faces from life, if anyone’s up for that - but for the moment the most realistic scenario for my painting is that I’m looking for people who are willing to have their faces photographed.
What sort of sitters am I looking for? In the first instance I’m just putting the word out there, and will start building up a photo archive of a diverse set of people without imposing any limits on the sorts of people I need. Can you help or do you know anyone who might be willing to help? I envisage it would only take up half an hour of your time max, and I’d be willing (within reason) to come to you. In return I’ll happily supply photos/scans of any artwork that results. I’m looking for a diversity of all sorts of faces, especially in this research stage. Content-wise I wouldn’t be posing sitters in any strange or surreal scenarios, the purpose for now is just a pure focus on the face – so in all respects the sittings would be extremely simple. The plan is to be highly naturalistic, so although I can’t allow for any special requests (‘draw me without wrinkles’ etc) I can certainly reassure you that there’ll be no Picassification.
If you’re interested you can e-mail me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet me @peterjamesfield.
Thursday, 13 October 2011
My feelings towards the picture can’t exactly be summed up in words; for me it conveys an awkward sense of tenderness and fragile beauty and I’m not ashamed to say that, the first time I saw it in the flesh, I literally welled up with tears – like it was the ghost of a past encounter, or an unexpected reminder of an old friend I somehow knew and understood.
It seems to have been painted with real love – and perhaps longing. The sitter looks a little stiff and isolated in his own world - his shoulders tense and his hands awkwardly clasped in front of him. Perhaps the studio is unheated - he hasn’t removed or unbuttoned his coat.
He is now perhaps best remembered for his illustrations on various book jackets, including the first editions of the famously pioneering Elizabeth David cookbooks. Such commercial sell-outs were teased by his fellow ‘serious’ artists like Bacon.
You’re unlikely these days to see Minton canvases on display in the major London art galleries (he was collected by the Tate but their holdings of his work now rest in the warehouses, far from public view). You might be more lucky in regional galleries like Chichester – or indeed in my home town Bournemouth, whose gallery possess a portrait of a chap called Norman Bowler.
This portrait of Bowler, at a larger scale and more thinly painted, seems rather less enigmatic somehow – but still of interest to me on account of the identity of the sitter. I love it when the world of high art car-crashes with the world of light entertainment, and this is an example.
Norman Bowler was a body-builder in the 1950s, famously good-looking. Minton clearly took a shine to him, for he featured in several artworks. He married Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes - one of the most notorious figures in Soho society of that period. She was a muse to Francis Bacon, a wildly promiscuous good-time girl who descended into alcoholism.
I’ve looked up the sitter David Tindle and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have a suspicion that he is still alive. There is a Royal Academician, now in his 80s, who bears the same name. The dates fit, he would have been 20 at the time of this portrait. I hope it’s the same chap, I’d be glad to know that his story had a happy ending.
Minton, it seems, wasn’t quite so fortunate. There’s no information to tell me the nature of his link with Tindle, but there is plenty of stuff out there to suggest that Minton (a gay man at a time, let us not forget, when it was still illegal) often suffered the pain of unrequited love. He was apt to give his heart away to unsuitable, or heterosexual, men and spend large sums of money on people he liked, only for them to disppoint him.
I didn’t know any of this when I first saw the portrait. My own emotional response was natural and uninformed by Minton’s biography – yet it seems to fit. The sitter seems detached, somehow; admired and (with those big eyes) even idealized by Minton - yet utterly lost to him.
In his book on Francis Bacon, Daniel Farson writes of the final heartbreak in the artists life. In 1957 Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes won the heart of a man he was in love with - she who had also been married to the aforementioned Norman Bowler. In the words of Julian Maclaren Ross he was emotionally ‘torn to pieces by tiny marmosets’ and, perhaps in a cry for help gone wrong, took an overdose of sleeping pills and died.
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Goya paints Manuel de Godoy, arguably the most powerful man in Spain – and certainly one of the most hated. He leans back in a victory pose intended to echo the triumphal portraits of antiquity. It’s a bit awkward, though, and falls far short, surely, of convincing us that this sitter possesses genuine heroism. I could be projecting, but it looks to me like Goya just can’t bring himself to believe in the myth of his sitter’s brilliance. He looks like a hard drinking, over-eating, slightly distracted posh boy, who’s just collapsed in a rather ungraceful heap.
But that’s just it, so many of Goya’s images present us with these curious riddles regarding his true intention. We doubt his sincerity then end up chasing our own shadows. Debates have raged for centuries about his portrait of the family of King Charles IV, once described by Theophile Gautier as ‘the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery.’ At first glance it does seem that in its faithful transcription of royal ugliness it shows not realism but open, treasonable contempt. Yet many critics sensibly challenge the view that Goya here practised distortion of his royal subjects’ faces. ‘The idea that Goya set out to satirize the patrons he depended on’ writes Robert Hughes, ‘is of course the merest nonsense’. Though we’d love Goya to be a sort of 18th century art terrorist, smashing the system from within, Hughes argues that it doesn’t seem likely he’d have got away with it and kept his job. Simply put; these people were just bloody ugly, and he painted them, as requested, to the life.
Still, despite this caveat I find myself stubbornly doubting Goya’s sincerity. OK, I grant you – he carried out no distortions or direct caricatures on his portrait subjects, but surely the fact that generations of onlookers have been compelled to ask these questions time and again tells its own story? I can’t overcome the sense that something weird and intangible is happening in these portraits.
I don’t think anyone has ever questioned whether Van Dyck secretly hated Charles I, or whether Velazquez’ Las Meninas was a veiled attack on the Spanish royals?
Goya was a republican. Whilst we have no written evidence of his disdain for the excesses of the Spanish monarchy, we know that many of his friends were radical Enlightenment figures critical of the conservatism of church and Crown in Spain. He produced artworks in favour of the Constitution proclaimed at Cadiz in 1812, and criticized the war and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy in his Disasters of War prints.
Goya’s life story seems relevant too. In a Spain where male middle class life expectancy was 40, he lived to 82. If he’d died during that normal life range, he’d have been an unmemorable artist who produced fluffy genre scenes for the royal court. In his 40s, though. he suffered from a serious illness which temporarily derailed his career and left him stone deaf. Only then did his genius properly emerge, in a series of paintings and graphic works which are at times perplexing and at other times satirical of every aspect of the age he lived in.
Late in life he executed the Black Paintings (including ‘Saturn eating his children’) on the walls of his own house. Was he locked in an insane world of nightmares and paranoia? Or, as the Disasters of War etchings might suggest, was he merely reacting to the insanity of the cruel age he dwelt in?
Imagine being completely deaf and living in a war-zone, seeing mutilated bodies hanging from the trees, and then being asked to paint pompous overblown generals like Manuel de Godoy. Your deafness would prevent you from hearing their self-justifications or the squirming machinations of their enormous egos. A horrendous gory mime show enacted before your eyes. You’d see past all the trappings, as Goya did – and you wouldn’t even need to caricature it in order for your contempt to somehow be revealed on the canvas.
The sitter of our portrait, Godoy, was a charismatic member of the royal guard who inveigled himself into the affections of King Charles IV and his wife Maria Luisa. In the space of a few years he had become Prime Minister of Spain and, thanks to his Royal influence, the de facto dictator of the country. He was rumoured to be the Queen’s lover, and for a time forced his wife to live in the same house as his mistresses. King Charles showered him in gifts and bestowed a ludicrous list of meaningless official titles on him – foremost among them ‘Prince of the Peace’, which probably sounded ironic to the Spanish populace, as Godoy dragged Spain into several bloody wars with France, Portugal and England.
The portrait shows him at the age of 34, during his second spell as Prime Minister, just after he invaded Portugal. He is handed the note of surrender and sits down on a chair at the edge of the battlefield. Does this portrait flatter its subject? Despite the awkwardness of the pose and the unconvincing notion of Godoy as military hero, it probably still does, through gritted teeth, offer flattery of a sort. There is a terrible, dark, dick-swinging bravado to the masculine indolence of this man’s posture – crudely emphasized by the stick positioned between his legs.
Godoy never got his comeuppance, though he came very close to being lynched in the 1808 Mutiny, when the Spanish people finally had enough and marched on his residence. The King and Queen remained under his spell to the last, and abdicated their throne to spare his life. The three of them were forced into lifelong exile. Forty years later this man, once among the most powerful and feared men in Europe, finished his life as a dotty man in his eighties, living alone in a small flat in Paris.
Tuesday, 11 October 2011
It’s not that we’ve forgotten this sitter’s name somewhere in the annals of time – no, we never knew it. This wasn’t a rich man who could afford to commission a portrait of himself for his home. He wasn’t a king, or a prince, or a pope. He was a compulsive thief in a mental institution.
The very fact that the word ‘bedlam’, meaning uproar, noise and disorder, takes its origin from Europe’s oldest mental hospital – the Bethlem Hospital in London, might give an impression of what life was like behind the walls of a pre 19th century asylum. There was no treatment, only containment. Inmates were handled like wild animals and chained up – their illnesses subject to misunderstanding and public ridicule.In art history, too, we find few sympathetic representations of mental illness. Painters portrayed the insane either as pathetic helpless individuals or extreme people to be feared. The perception of mental illness in art (as in society) was tied to Christian perceptions of demonic possession and divine punishment.
Only thirty years before, Blake gave us one such example with his (admittedly rather wonderful) representation of the insane Nebuchadnezzar crawling on all fours like a dog, his hair straggled and his body naked. We’re not, I think, supposed to see ourselves in Blake’s picture and identify with it. The humanity has been sucked out for dramatic effect.
Gericault’s representation communicates the changing attitude to mental illness which was ushered in by the Enlightenment – a cultural movement away from supersition and blind faith, towards empirical knowledge and reason. His work was produced at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris – now most famous as the place where Princess Diana died, but famous in the nineteenth century too as the birthplace of a new humanitarian approach to the treatment of mental disorders.
The reforms began with Philippe Pinel, who pioneered the so-called ‘moral treatment’ of insanity at the Salpetriere, ordering the removal of chains from patients. In the decades that followed, different types of mental illness were patiently observed and classified into the categories we still use today – kleptomania being one such example. Pinel’s assistant Etienne-Jean Georget commissioned Gericault to help him by experimentally recording the faces of some of his patients in these various categories.
Gericault was an artist destined not to reach middle age (tuberculosis claimed him at the age of 32) – though he’d already achieved major fame in his 20s with a monumental painting called Raft of the Medusa.
The Medusa was a frigate, wrecked in 1816 with great loss of life. Amid horrendous stories of starvation and cannibalism a handful of people managed to survive on an improvised raft. His representation of this event is positively a manifesto of Romanticism, a sensational headline-grabbing dramatization of man versus the terror of nature.
Here’s an interesting thought, though - only three years later his portraits for the Saltpetriere stop some way short of his dramatic imagining of the Medusa. Romanticism was an art movement opposed, in some senses, to the pure reason of Enlightenment. Romantic art existed in the realm of felt experience, prizing drama and tension above simply objective realism. Whereas Blake and Goya (both associated with the Romantic movement) chose to dramatize their representations of insanity to the point of caricature, Gericault, when given the chance, took two steps back. Why?
In another portrait from the same sequence, the woman with obsessive envy, we can see nothing specific to her condition. Her eyes are red-rimmed and her clothing dishevelled but it’s a completely objective, unsensational view.
The kleptomanic looks slightly haunted and distracted, and his collar is dirty – but Gericault seems to be saying that he can still see the person within, clear as day. He is, whether consciously or not, defying Georget who commissioned him to record these phases as ‘types’ according to manias. Georget was pioneering for his time but Gericault, if I’m not mistaken, is a step ahead even of this. He tells us that this man isn’t just a definition of symptoms, a sub-division on some empirical, rational diagnostic chart. As such, you could say it still fits the definition of Romanticism as being a felt response, emotional and aesthetic. It’s more mature and subtler than the Medusa – perhaps because the earlier picture had been based on an imagined reality, whereas here Gericault is actually forced to sit opposite the people he is representing.
The portraits are given additional weight with the knowledge that the artist himself suffered from depression, and is even rumoured to have made a failed attempt at suicide. He is surely working under the awareness that there isn’t a great deal separating him from these institutionalized souls. As such the pictures are true one-offs, wordless documents of understanding and fellow-feeling between humans.
Monday, 10 October 2011
Portraits exist for all sorts of reasons – yet surely most commissioned likenesses seek to express the vigour and virility of a sitter, attributes which will, on canvas, outlast their physical lifetime. Is this really the way Schutz wanted to live in posterity? How many of us would choose to be remembered blowing chunks after a night on the Stella?
Hogarth is, of course, known for his moralizing pictures – among them Marriage a la Mode and Gin Lane. In these images he became the father of the modern comic strip, the first British artist to really straddle the realms of commercial mass produced art and gallery art – plus, arguably the first Brit to acknowledge that real art could also be funny. Satire was just taking off, and mass production of engravings was allowing independent publishers to sell affordable editions of prints which had a political and social as well as an artistic point to make.
The fact that multi-panel storytelling pictures enter British art at this moment can be no coincidence, either – for Hogarth’s work can be seen in a wider context where moralizing narrative became important in British literature – it was the age when the novel was born. From the pioneering efforts of Fielding and Richardson would be born a multi-million pound industry which continues to the present day.
Meanwhile, in ‘A Rake’s Progress’, Hogarth depicts Tom, the eponymous anti-hero, being sent to the horrendous Fleet debtor’s prison, where the artist’s own father was imprisoned for five years. The pictures were intended to amuse but never lose sight of a clear warning of moral danger.
The story continues to be rather amusing, too, as we follow the provenance of the picture as an heirloom down the the Schutz family generations. At a certain point the social embarrassment of prim upper class descendants gains the upper hand and the stream of vomit disappears, to be replaced by a newspaper! Vandalizing a family portrait to avoid blushes might seem a crazy and outrageous thing to do – but doubly so when you imagine some dull Victorian hack being paid to mess about with an original Hogarth portrait. Happily for us, though, the portrait has recently been restored to its puky glory.
Thursday, 6 October 2011
Hans Holbein sketches one of the most notoriously handsome men of the Tudor court, the Brad Pitt of his day, physically strong and more than six foot tall – Thomas Wyatt.
Wyatt’s father was a war hero who’d sided against Richard III in the Wars of the Roses, and had faced torture in the Tower of London. When Henry VII won the Battle of Bosworth field, though, it was all change for the Wyatts. The freed Sir Henry was suddenly an honoured man, permanently in favour at the newly crowned house of Tudor.This portrait dates from a turning point in British art, the moment when facial likenesses change from generic mask-like sameness to believable humanity. It began precisely as the medieval period concluded – the moment Henry VII saw off Richard III at Bosworth, bringing to a close the Wars of the Roses. I’ve always liked the idea that the medieval period in England had such a defined end – a literal date, 22nd August 1485.
Holbein, a German artist – and probably the greatest court painter England ever had – was a true gift to the Tudors, for he managed to create beauty that transcended generations. His life-like portraits enable us to see, empathize with and really imagine the human beings at the centre of the whirling cyclone of tortures and executions that characterized Henry VIII’s reign. In drawings like the portrait of Wyatt, we see Holbein’s work at its simplest and best. No lavish decorative conceits or symbolic settings here – just a human face sketched with complete confidence yet striking economy. A connection to the likeness of a man long dead, together with a suggestion of his inner life. Wyatt doesn’t meet our gaze yet nor does he really look elsewhere – he seems to be thinking. We can only wonder what’s on his mind.Whenever I look at Tudor portraits in the National Portrait Gallery I can hardly bear to read the accompanying captions. Most of them seem to have fallen from favour at some time or another, being tortured and/or executed. If they didn’t offend Henry VIII then most would go on to offend his daughter, Bloody Mary. You couldn’t really win. Some of Holbein’s greatest portraits were literally snapshots from the core of this insanity, often not merely depicting the dramatis personae of the times but directly influencing events.
The most famous example is Holbein’s portrait of Ann of Cleves, which the artist was dispatched to paint when Henry was seeking wife number four. Holbein was presumably in a bit of a pickle with this one – she was, after all, a member of European royalty. Should he flatter her, make her look beautiful? We can only judge his portrait by the events which unfolded; Henry loved the painting and agreed to a marriage, but when he finally met Anne he famously denounced her as a ‘mare’.
Henry’s Lord Chamberlain Thomas Cromwell, subject of another striking portrait by Holbein, was executed for his role in this sorry affair. Anne escaped with an annulment and Holbein, too, lived to fight another day.
Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Wyatt also depicts a man who had a front row seat on events which shaped England. The dashing man’s reputation lives on even to this day in English literature, for he was a gifted poet whose poems remain highly regarded, even pioneering – he popularized the sonnet.
Wyatt here is the young handsome man at court but potential disaster was only just around the corner, for he had enjoyed a flirtatious dalliance with Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn. This was not an adulterous liaison. At the time Anne was an unmarried young lady-in-waiting, with as yet no reason to believe she would be marrying the King of England. It also remains completely unknown whether the romance had even progressed as far as a kiss. What’s more, Wyatt had sensibly confessed his former infatuation to the King.
Wyatt’s life was placed in danger, however, when Henry began to tire of Anne. His ministers searched furiously for excuses to chop her head off – any scrap of evidence would do. The merest whisperings were enough for this purge - a young musician at court, Mark Smeaton, was arrested after being overheard talking to the Queen. He confessed under torture to being her lover, and faced the axe. Anne was charged with incest, her brother was executed and it was furthermore suggested that she had practiced witchcraft to ensnare the King. The moles on her body were described as ‘devil’s teats’.
Poor Thomas must have been horrified to find himself arrested for treason and placed in the Tower of London. From his prison cell, it is believed that he could actually see Tower Green, and was therefore able to witness Anne Boleyn’s head being chopped off with a sword. He can have been in little doubt that his own execution would soon follow.
Luckily for Sir Thomas, then, this saga had an unusually happy ending – he was a rare survivor of the Boleyn accused. It’s believed his father’s influence at court secured his release and he lived on to the ripe old age of... er... 39.
Wednesday, 5 October 2011
Here is the first of an occasional series of six short pieces about portraits I love.
Toulouse-Lautrec was born to an aristocratic family, who gave their name to the French city of Toulouse. He was the heir to a fabulous fortune, the latest in line from a family not without its share of troubles.
Inter-breeding, in this case the marriage of family members to first cousins, is thought to have been the root cause of a series of birth defects which were decimating the family by the late 19th century. Toulouse Lautrec himself was a dwarf, and suffered constant pain in his legs. His family expected him to live a life of leisure and seclusion on the family estate but, fortunately for us, Lautrec wanted more. He spent his confined indoor hours painting, and eventually left for Paris to be an artist, much against his fathers wishes. This was no silver spoon situation. When his father learned that he was signing his pictures with the family name, Lautrec was partially disinherited, and his uncle angrily cast his early works on an open bonfire. After a childhood cosseted in material wealth, Lautrec now joined the poverty stricken painters of late 19th century Montmarte.
Lautrec was known to be a physically unattractive man who found it very difficult to attract a partner, hence a fascination with prostitutes which grew to an obsession (and ended in syphilis). His paintings of prostitutes never seemed idealized or judgemental. In many cases they became his friends.
A large percentage of his output documents the vibrant club scene in Paris, delighting openly in the hedonism of it all, whilst never losing the bittersweet edge which suggests he understood its transience, and felt removed from it all somehow. A case in point is found by comparing Renoir’s fluffy, insipid painting of the Moulin de la Galette dancehall with Lautrec’s later version – executed from almost the exact spot.
Renoir’s picture shimmers with light, the figures all glancing towards the artist in a moment of shared, respectable bonhomie.
In Lautrec’s picture, the figures are more isolated and the club seems seedier and more claustrophobic. The green glow is slightly sickly and redolent of the dubious pleasures contained in a glass of absinthe – pleasures the artist himself would be destroyed by.
The sitter in our portrait is a habitué of seedy Paris night-spots - Louise Weber, known as La Goulue, ‘The Glutton’. It’s not certain how she got her nickname – some believe it was from her buxom figure, others have cited her greedy propensity to drain the beer glasses of unsuspecting Moulin Rouge punters. Either way, few would disagree that she was nursing a growing alcohol addiction.
His advertisments for the club are among the first truly memorable mass produced lithographic posters and, in a pre TV and cinema age, brought the club’s stars to a wider audience than any entertainment act had previously known.
Interestingly, the haughty Goulue (despite enjoying her new found success) failed to appreciate the influence Toulouse-Lautrec had wielded over her career – she repeatedly turned down requests to sit from life. The only way the besotted Lautrec could force his muse to pose for this picture was to convince the Moulin Rouge staff (who did indeed appreciate his power) to place it in her contract.
Our portrait puts the spectator in a kind of fan role, perhaps waiting to catch a glimpse of their idol outside the doors of the club as she strolls in. Not for Lautrec the traditional portrait pose, where the sitter meets us eye to eye in a studio setting. She doesn’t even ‘sit’, she is captured, paparazzi style, as she glides past. The picture shows a fascinating character whose face simultaneously displays arrogance and vulnerable sadness. Apparently she hated it, and it’s easy to see why. She’s not idealized or beautified. And isn’t that a double chin?
Some critics have suggested that the picture was a kind of premonition of the future – showing her not as she looked in 1892 but as she would come to look a decade or two later.
Her story has a sad ending – she self-funded a vainglorious attempt to break free from the Moulin Rouge and set up a travelling dance show, which flopped to leave her an alcoholic destitute. Lautrec’s alcoholism killed him in 1901 but La Goulue lived on until 1928 as an anonymous Parisian street dweller, selling matches outside the club where she once danced.