Sunday, 19 February 2012


In the past weeks I was fortunate enough to see shows of the most eminent figurative painters of today. I am now trying to make sense of what I saw, the amount of information I have gathered on these three artists and what influence they had and will have on my work.

I wrote about seeing Antonio Lopez Garcia's show in Spain here a few weeks ago, I went to the National Portrait Gallery for Freud's "Portraits" on Friday and I visited  Hockney's "A Bigger Picture" today.
The shows were all retrospectives, Lopez Garcia's being the most complete as it spanned all his life and took into account all aspects of his work, all painting genres as well as drawing and sculpture. All these shows are impressive for the amount of exceptional works the painters have produced, particularly considering the slow pace of Freud and Lopez when painting.

Of the three, Lopez is my favourite. Technically unsurpassed and with an enormous emotional content in all his paintings. The tenderness of his feelings towards the subject, his love for Madrid's light, his everyday objects, food, flowers, the quiet of his empty studio, his family, is always there beneath the surface.

Hockney's show was a total surprise. I had overlooked his work for many years, I didn't get it and found it technically unsatisfying, but I understand now I just wasn't ready for it. My sympathy for Hockney started really when he published his book " Secret Knowledge".  How liberating it was having formal permission from dozens of old masters to paint from photographs and be merry and guilt-free !
Visual technology is not evil, an enemy, is something that can be used, submitted.
What I admire in Hockney is his mental youth, the enthusiasm with which he stays up to date, doing something new within the framework of centuries past.

I think that painting is the least suitable art form to speak about current times: video, installations, assemblage, sound, they can do the job so much better. Painting, though, can speak about human nature, about those elements of human nature that have not changed in the whole history of mankind. And painting talks in the language of painting, the language of portraits, landscape, still-life. What I loved in Hockney's show is the fact that he is sticking to traditional landscape, might it be in his studio or in the field ( I generally preferred the paintings he did from observation) without trying to revolutionise anything, just doing the same thing hundreds of others had done before him, with modesty and serious commitment.
The work is about man and nature, vision, the passing of time. What can be more human than that?

Actually what he tries to revolutionise instead is technology: he looks for a new and different way of filming nature ( still referencing his previous photographic works) that is more akin to human vision, and he is the most popular testimonial for using the newest gadget as a traditional medium.
The display is just a feast for the eyes, and one comes out of the show slightly lightheaded and certainly uplifted.

The opposite happens coming out of Lucien Freud's show. Fascination for the painter, for his dedication, for his immense personality, but after seeing all those paintings I felt almost empty, void.
Freud often said he wanted his models to be like animals: fall into that state of just living in the moment, like dogs do.
At the end of the show, having looked at all his sitters, almost always alone, neutral if not sad, their gaze rarely meeting the viewer's, makes me wonder if there was any emotion at all in this man, any concern for his sitters. Many of them are there like a lump of meat, a deaf heap of molecules.

I saw the latest documentary about Freud on the BBC and the image that emerges is one of a man that has had many lovers but hasn't loved anyone except his time at the easel.
He fathered three children from different women in the same year. The daughters that appear in his paintings talk fondly about him in the documentary, but I wonder about the feelings of the other eleven ones.

Freud's little involvement with the sitter, his dominating point of view, the unforgiving light, those clumsy feet, they all made me feel chilly. I used to revere his paintings but less so now. 
Anyway I feel very fortunate for being able to see all these works of art and I am sure they will resonate in my mind for a long time.


Katherine Tyrrell said...

Go and see the drawings Ilaria - it's a much better exhibition in terms of Freud's interests and provides a better balance.

The "phrase" that kept coming into my head when I saw the portraits was "still life". It's not so much that he's treating his models as if they were animals - because it's very clear that he loved his animals!

The Hockney exhibition is odd. I've taken two people now who "get him" much better after seeing the exhibition than before.

I don't think I've ever seen any work by Antonio Lopez Garcia - is there any in this country?

Ilaria said...

I certainly will go see the drawings, Katherine. I think I understand what Freud meant when he said animals: he wasn't saying it in a derogatory way, he wanted the sitter in that state of quiet existence, like the result of meditation maybe.

Not all portraits have that quality, but seeing them all together I felt a lack of empathy and a certain sadness, perhaps particularly so because of the comparison with Hockney's exhuberance.

There is no Lopez Garcia here, I only once saw one of his landscapes at Christie's. That's why I had to go to Spain, I have several books of his paintings.

There are many inages of his work here:

and Erice's prizewinning film on him is on youtube in six parts here: