The Figure and the Self Portrait
Inevitably the earlier artists are more representational than the later artists, but why? What is it that artists are seeking to depict in their work?
The human figure has, and always will be, an eternal subject. The human form can be described in many ways, lyrical, strong, athletic, fluid, full of movement, pathetic, frail and so on. All of these descriptive terms can and have been depicted by artists throughout the ages, and it is only in the twentieth Century that we see a change. Artists seek to explore the essence of being, through abstraction, semi abstraction, expressionism or by means of poetic realization that fits into none of these.
The work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) remains high on my list of admired artists, indeed it was seeing some of his work that urged me to take my own art more seriously. His pastel life drawings are as fresh and interesting today as ever. He once said: “Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see”. His work certainly does that. His remarkable compositional skills go a long way towards that, he understands the relevance of counter-change, the importance of line (in his case particularly vertical) in building a design, and he uses enclosing right angles and repetition a lot in his work. He understands tonal mass linking them and contrasting them masterfully. Significantly, through use of the camera, he very quickly learns to use cropping techniques. However it is his drawing skills which constantly amaze, his use of lost and found lines, the delicacy of touch and superb handling of colour with pastels that delivers masterpieces of such beauty. His early work in 1860s/70s is traditional or classical in style, but during the period 1870-1885, his unique style becomes established and later he starts to use “contouring” a lot more, possibly because of his eyesight of which he complained almost throughout his life.
In the Bellini Family Degas uses repetition here in the two strong white aprons, his use of verticals creates a square on the left with a rebatement on the right using the lines of the golden section. The blue and yellow are contrasting colours
The Racecourse 1876-78 gives an example of the cropping technique I mentioned earlier, the subtle repetitions in the wheels, the back of the hood and the black armed rider. Enclosing right-angles show up in the horses leg and the wheels. Mass blocking on the left in the plain grass countered by the busy right hand side.
The Blue Dancers, 1899
© Bridgeman Education Library
I had to include The Blue Dancers as it reminds me of the time I saw the painting at the Pushkin Gallery in St Petersburg, it took my breath away, quite literally.
In The Tub 1886 and Woman Combing her hair, 1887-1890 you can see how Degas moves more towards an abstract composition, but the elements mentioned in the introduction are still there.
The Tub, ©Bridgeman Education Library
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), like Degas, did not have a strong relationship with women, indeed by all accounts he was, in his early life a bit of a misanthrope, being both attracted and repelled by women, not forming a relationship until he was 30. One can sense in his painting “Medea”, painted1880, and his painting Bacchanal of 1890. As many of the Impressionists, Cézanne uses contouring around his figures, but they are relatively indistinct. In Large Bathers1900-05, one senses a move towards abstraction. Cezanne had been exploring the use of the cylinder, cone and sphere as templates for painting objects.Large Bathers starts to abstract in a similar style to the later Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943). Whilst I prefer these figures to those of Three Bathing Women of 1879-82, I still feel he does not get to the essence of his models, they become pictorial motifs in a landscape, without becoming part of it. However, in one of his last paintings Bathers, 1902-06, I feel he has finally got there. His portraiture whilst deliberately not exploring psychology and feeling, is nonetheless more evocative in the use of colour and form. His pursuit of the elemental, for me works with Portraiture and Landscape but not with figures. His often sombre palette has subtle colour combinations and his Temptation of St Anthony (1869-70) almost pre-cursors Matthew Smith.
Bathers, 1902 – 06 ©Bridgeman Education Library
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). There are several possibilities for his Blue Period (1901-1905), he himself said it was the death of a friend who shot himself, but there was also the death of his father, who kept and indeed painted pigeons, (hence the symbolism of one of his most well known icons) and there followed his general depressed state, it is not until 1905 that we hear of his first long term love – Fernande Olivier, so who is to know what was going on in his mind prior to that. Whatever the reason his pictures of that time are mournful subjects. Picasso says later that whenever he paints he thinks of his father, and as far as I know we are not aware of his relationship with his mother. There have been many derogatory remarks attributed to him but we can only look at his art as decide for ourselves if there might be any element of truth in them.
The melancholy is expressed in The Madman, Woman and Child and Portrait of the Poet, which is why many people are able to relate to the Blue Period. Likewise the Rose Period produces representational work that the average man in the street can understand. One interesting speculation on my part, because I don’t know the facts is the later painting, also in blue, entitled Sleeping Woman 5th April 1936. This was the year Marie Therese and Picasso part, a year after Maya was born. Why the specific date, I don’t know, but it is likely a portrait of Marie-Therese, and there is a foetal shape for the eyes, as well as blinkers (echoed by the “blinds”) in the background. Picasso had fallen in love with Dora Marr. It has to be remembered that much of his work is influenced by the women in his life and as each lover arrives on the scene there is usually a change of style.
Sleeping Women with shutters 25th April 1936, © Bridgeman Education Library
His Cubist style developed as much by Braque as Picasso, enables him to explore new ways of presenting women. I personally believe despite his affairs that he was a misogynist, why else would he paint Dora Marr so grotesquely and deny his wife Olga an inheritence, and I think this comes out in his paintings. He was also interested in African art at the time, which is clear from“Nude with raised arms” and of course his famous painting of prostitutes, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”
Nude with raised arms, 1908© Bridgeman Education Library
What can you say about Picasso, he was nothing if not innovative, an egotist and eccentric who lived to paint and was not afraid to explore, scribing, incising, colouring, blocking, destroying - his energy is there for all to see, and he owed a great deal to the dealer, Kahnweiler, who signed him up with a publicity campaign after seeing “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Sadly, for me personally, he does very little, I just don’t sense it, and it reminds me again of Degas’ quote: “Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see”. Nonetheless, Picasso’s influence in shaping new ways of looking at things cannot be denied.
I referred to the similarity of one of Cezanne’s paintings The Temptation of St Anthony as the colouring style of Matthew Smith, and I think his Reclining Nudes show this.
It is also interesting to note Matthew Smith’s (1879-1959) strong use of complementary colours in his work, shown with these two portraits, as well as the enclosing right angles in both works, repetition of the apples is used in the Thomas Good Portrait
Thomas Good Portrait © Bridgeman Education Library
William Roberts (1895-1980) and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) are obvious comparisons and in some cases it would be difficult to differentiate their styles. William Roberts builds on the cubist style, though his work , The Teabreak also reminds me of the Stalinist poster art, probably because of the work ethic depicted. He has a very controlled use of colour which is not strident and he too uses complementary contrasts, particularly in The Teabreak with yellow and blue and the related orange. I particularly like the rhythmic quality of this work and the use of geometrics, culminating in the triangle with the teapot as the central motif.
William Roberts, The Teabreak, © Bridgeman Education Library
Again, Roberts has a great use of rhythm his painting Palms Foretell, and it is similar to Stanley Spencer’s figures. It makes me realize the importance of rhythmic structures in a painting, he also uses quite subtle colours, which in the Palms Foretell is suited to the older people depicted.
Stanley Spencer, Choosing a Petticoat, 1936. © Bridgeman Education Library
Spencer’s sense of humour comes through in Choosing the Petticoat, 1936. We see the repetition in the legs and the use of perspective lines forming a triangle, as well as counterchange, and a high horizon as Klimt uses. In his nudes we see similarities with Lucien Freud, in their brutal reality.
Stanley Spencer, Seated Nude, © Bridgeman Education Library
© Bridgeman Library
Auerbach (b 1931) produces some amazing heavy impasto paintings which hardly reveal the nudes hidden within them, they become a decorative tour de force. I find these very interesting, but would find it difficult to replicate as the amount of oil required would be prohibitive unless on a small scale.
Walter Sickert (1860-1942) has developed a style following on from the Nabis and Vuillard, very similar to Ken Howard using a traditional style of painting, see: Mornington Crescent Nude, and The Newspaper.
Sickert uses colour in a very subtle way and like Degas, he uses vertical lines to strengthen his compositions, and I particularly like his subdued use of colour in the painting below.
Walter Sickert, Angel Basement
© Bridgeman Education Library
Chuck Close, I like the way he uses pixels but in a greatly modified way in his portraits, I haven’t seen any life paintings, but his photoreal work in the painting of Linda suggests they might be interesting.
Francis Bacon, probably the most difficult of all to admire, but once you get over the shock of the grotesque shapes, there is something to be admired. His study for the portrait of Mechel Leiris, has some interesting colouring and hatching.
Francis Bacon, Mechel Leiris,
© Bridgeman Education Library
The design of the Lying figure has some bizarre optical effects going on and the womb-like repose in an escutcheon shape suggests the key to life, past present and future. I wouldn’t want to distort faces as much as he does, but the fluidity with which he handles a composition is interesting.
My review of the artists I have looked at have enabled me to see the potential for expanding away from the purely representational form. I think it might be worthwhile my looking at a cubist approach because it lends itself so well to the figure. Composing a picture as a decorative scheme, and I don’t use the word decorative in a pejorative sense, has great possibilities, and I am thinking particularly of Auerbach, Colquhoun and Bacon. Having the ability to do this is another thing as I find myself almost inextricably drawn towards representation.