Category Archives: Art

Disruptive Eruptions

I can understand why painters love sunrises and sunsets. They sell well. Both are visually striking, symbolically linked to new beginnings or twilight romanticism, but above all, it is possible to paint them in a more striking manner than what the reality is offering us within its daily urban diet. People who live in cities don’t see much of either anyway.

Why then do painters miss out on volcano eruptions? I feel there’s demand for them among the adventurous, explosive, and testosterone rich.

Look at Etna, informing Sicily that the planet was feeling a bit flatulent the other day.

5184 (1)

Isn’t it inspiring?

Imagine this photograph to be a painting though.

I bet art critics would write it off as a painter’s reference to a childhood accident with a box of matches, and what the painter’s father said about it afterwards. Critics would scoff at the painter’s implied intent to give the viewer cheap thrills through overdramatisation.

And, you know, I’d be among those critics too. We say “wow” to a photograph like this without questioning it (I hope you think it’s awesome too), because a photograph of an eruption has the documentary quality of a fact in much the same way that a painting doesn’t.

A painter invents and creates conflict in his work, and to avoid copying from a photograph, he would have to make the conflict more…dramatic, because there is no point in making it less dramatic. And, trying to make it “better” the painter would make it false and pretentious.

Indeed, in all the history of art, only a few volcano paintings are worth a second glance.

So, what do the famous painted eruptions have that makes them interesting?

Some of the eruption paintings are pure documentaries of artistic experiences. A modern consumer may not believe it, but before smart phones, artists usually had to be physically present at an eruption scene to sketch and remember it. Alas, these documentary illustrations have lost all their illustrative value once the public got access to colour photos.

It is surprising, really, how few eruption artworks proved to be disruptive enough to stay in art history. The ones that remained are less about volcanos and more about their impact on the surrounding nature and people.

Joseph Wright of Derby, an English painter, more known for his Caravaggio-styled paintings of scientific advancement in 18th-century England and failed attempts to win clients from Gainsborough, set the tone for volcano painting with dozens of works inspired by Mount Vesuvius activity he witnessed in Italy (he missed the big eruption that happened a few years after he left Napoli). 

His set the golden compositional standard for the theme: he would contrast tranquility of the sea and the dead light of the full moon against the startingly alive fire of the volcano, throwing in a few people at the foreground, who watched the eruption apprehensively or were doing their usual stuff while stealing alarmed glances at the mountain going whoopee.

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples

Joseph Wright, 1776-80, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples. The islands he painted can not be actually seen from the vantage point but help to emphasise the stillness of the sea.

At the bottom of the last painting, there’s a group of people carrying the body of a victim along the banks of a lava river. While the scene is intended to be dramatic, somehow, it loses out to the conflict in the skies and becomes an unnecessary sideline plot:

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Wright’s approach to the portrayal of eruptions gave rise to a whole school of painting, appropriately named the Volcano School that existed in the Aloha State in the late 19th century. It consisted of two dozens of non-native artists lured to the islands’ non-stop volcano activity. None of them could take the theme beyond the compositional ideas of Joseph Wright, so I am not showcasing their work.

Some forty years after Wright, Johan Christian Dahl, a Norwegian artist, witnessed a real eruption of Vesuvius, and created one of the most striking images of volcanos, shifting the focus from Man as Victim, to Man as Explorer (though many believe it is about Man as a curious-idiot-who-doesn’t-know-when-to take-cover-until-it’s-too-late).

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

Unlike Wright, Dahl witnessed the real eruption and was decidedly true to nature (this is a photo of an Aloha volcano):


Still, just like Wright, Dahl tried to embrace the unembraceable by squeezing a massive eruption scene and two tourists with their guides and mules into a single painting. The human aspect of the story was pushed to the sidelines, again.

I.C.Dahl_Vesuv (2)

Dahl would then rework the painting several times to highlight the travellers, adding more contrast to the figures and reducing their numbers, but that didn’t amount to much:

Dahl fragment

The artist who realised that you don’t have to show the whole eruption to convey its horror and beauty, was a Russian.

Nikolai Yaroshenko painted this Man Vs. Nature statement in 1898. It is unfair that it is virtually unknown.

Н.А. Ярошенко. Извержение вулкана. 1898 год. Холст, масло. Калужский художественный музей.

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Volcano Eruption, 1898

The two tiny figures at the edge of the crater stand firmly in stark contrast against the unfathomable power of the volcano, and the stones that blast out and would start falling any moment make me, the viewer, cringe and awe at the courage of the explorers.

In terms of colour, this is a clever piece too.

Yaroshenko reinforces the conflict by using complimentary colours. He contrasts the green shoulder of the crater against the red of the fire inside it, and the orange lighting of the cloud of smoke in the centre with the blue shading of the mountains at the back.


The most famous volcano painting was also done by a Russian artist who lived in Italy at the time. It is the Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov.

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

When exhibited in Milan for the first time, it brought Bryullov (who was 30 at the time) to such fame that people in theatres would stand up and applause him whenever they’d notice him entering, and admirers would literally lift him up in their hands and carry their hero through Milanese streets if they saw him walking.

This painting is a great example of classicism fused with romanticism, as well as Bryullov’s passion towards a beautiful Russian princess who posed for one of the women in the painting.

But, as it is not, really, about a volcano eruption, I will not talk about it, except for one thing. Everyone is running, stumbling and trying to get away in this painting. And yet, its composition is constructed in such a way that you KNOW they won’t escape from the box of the painting. Take a moment to reflect on how this is achieved, it’s fun.

Surprisingly, volcano art ends here. I’ve got nothing else to show. How tiny is this heritage if compared to millions of sunrises and sunsets you find in galleries and museums!

The irony in this comparison is that without volcanos some of the most famous sunsets would not exist. 

A group of Greek and German scientists studied  red-to-green ratios in sunsets by famous masters and discovered that the more artistically and emotionally sticking sunsets were painted in the years immediately following volcanic eruptions that created a imbalance in the atmosphere resulting in sunsets having more reds and oranges with greens and blues filtered out by ash particles.

This link takes you to their paper, which you will have no problem to understand if you have a Physics PhD in your pocket or a healthy dose of masochism in your character.

PS. Before you click out of this blog, please tell me if you are interested in me talking more about Bryullov or romantic classicism makes you sick. 

And if you missed my previous post on art use in movies, check it out – I’d love to know what you think.


Art and Movies Snuggle up Together

What inspires film directors to make movies? Fat salaries, Oscar dreams, sexy starlets, the need to pass on their “message” to the unenlightened spectator? I don’t know much about cinema, so I can’t be certain of anything beyond what I am told by people who do.

For instance, I read that Lars von Trier filmed Melancholia because he’d wanted to vent out his depression, which he accomplished with double success. He has cured himself and passed it on to millions of his fans. This also makes it a unique case of depression treatment, which is hugely profitable to the sufferer, though not easily accessible to the public at large.

Even though I am not a cinephile (excluding Star Wars, of course), I am curious about ways art of the past inspires modern film directors.

Sometimes, a painting can inspire a scene that becomes iconic and, perhaps, becomes known to more people than the painting that inspired it. I remembered von Trier because he seems to have stolen fame of Ophelia by Everett Millais (1862) in his Melancholia.


For me, Lars’ cutting his palette down to green and white shows he understands as much about Millais as I understand about his movies. The painting’s concept is in the contrast between the live red flowers and green duckweed. Without it, all you get is an ordinary drowned woman.

Sometimes, film directors are inspired by stuff everyone knows, like Goya’s Saturn devouring his children or Botticelli’s Venus. I don’t know why they do it: It is difficult to make a quote interesting by just quoting it.

Did Guillermo del Toro invent a new monster in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)? No, borrowing ideas from Goya was not enough.


Toro’s creature is sickeningly ugly, but Goya’s Saturn is way scarier, don’t you think?

Unike Toro, who uses paintings to help him out with images, Terry Gilliam (in The Adventures of Baron Munchausenuses art to build narrative, like in this animation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486):

I once read that “Gilliam uses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a vehicle to critique overelaboration and the illusory grandeur of illustration. As a figure divorced from her context, Venus appears embarrassed and self-conscious”. I struggle with this logic because, first, I don’t know why would anyone could be concerned with “the illusory grandeur of illustration” to the point that its critique would be appreciated, and second, Botticelli’s Venus is pretty much self-conscious and a lot more embarrassed than the Gilliam’s twin, not to mention that Simonetta Vespucci who inspired Botticelli was indeed a beauty goddess while Uma Thurman is just an A-list celebrity.


Or take the famous still from Coppola’s Lost in Translation literally quoting the work of John Kacere, a butt-crazy photo-realistic painter whose heritage is 90% female back sides. With all due respect, we know many men are fixated on this part of the female body, but spending a life painting it photo-realistically seems a case for therapy rather than artistic recognition.

lost in translation

What surprises me is the massive applause the film got from critics known for their feminist stance.  A female film director uses Scarlett Johansson’s butt as the main selling point with deafening success. Doesn’t it make all the debate about female objectification sound a bit artificial?

I like it when paintings inspire directors to do more than just quote them.

This portrait of an emancipated journalist and poet by Otto Dix (1926) was briefly quoted in the opening sequence of Cabaret, but it also defined how the German society was portrayed in the movie further on.


Otto Dix created a portrait of a generation. It is a great work of art. I can imagine only a single organisation to be reticent about it: the World Health Organisation. Not surprisingly, its idea could roll out into a movie.

I am not sure I know any other example of art being cleverly used in a movie. Help me out, please. Do you remember art in movies being more than just a passing reference, or a primitive quote? As of today, I have a feeling film directors, generally, love talking about great art of the past that inspires them, but fail to create something bigger than the art that allegedly inspired them. I’d love to be proven wrong. 

PS I just remembered this great series of Francis Bacon as the inspiration behind the Joker. Christopher Nolan produced a villain who was, actually, a step ahead of Bacon’s visions:



Art Tests Religious Argument

Art has many functions in a society and one of them is being a litmus test of political, religious or social argument or policy. This function is not invoked very often, but when it happens the consequences are usually very dramatic. “Is this art” may seem a hollow and innocuous debate topic for glamorously styled critics with posh neck scarves and pocket kerchiefs, right up to the moment it folds into a dialogue between the hangman and his victim.

A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet, to death the other day for apostasy, with the conviction based on a poetry book he wrote years ago and a witness who claimed he allegedly heard Fayadh cursing Islam and Saudi Arabia. There was also something about the long hair the poet was wearing at the time of the arrest.

For me, this is a test for all Muslims who say Islam is not a violent religion.

This is my logic:

Lately, ISIS terrorists blew up a Russian passenger plane with 224 people, killed 130 people in Paris, beheaded two hostages, slaughtered 20 people in Mali, and murdered numerous others in Syria and Iraq of whom we would never know anything.

As all of the atrocities have been preceded or accompanied by praise to Allah, non-Muslims inevitably develop Islamophobic feelings. Our brain is built this way. Once we know what a snake looks like, we recoil from it without thinking or rationalising why the hell did we jump away from something that looked like a snake.

Non-Muslims can’t escape fearing Muslims. 

A simple neuro test can prove, beyond any doubt, that even the most tolerant non-Muslims feel this fear even if they don’t admit it. Give me a most liberal Guardian reader, and his palms would start sweating when I show them photographs of Muslims in their traditional garb. There’s no cheating impartial electrodes, folks.

Non-Muslims can be blamed for their fear as much as gravitation can be blamed for not letting us somersault in the clouds instead of running on a treadmill.

But consciously, rationally following this fear with behaviour is a different story.

This is exactly what ISIS wants non-Muslims to do. Convert fear into hate; hate into behaviour; and make non-Muslims push the big red button of European apocalypse by raising the level of intolerance to Muslim communities, which will trigger its own chain reaction of alienation, protest, and more violence.

Hate-crime rate in the UK has reportedly surged 300% already. A few Americans were detained by police for making threatening calls to mosques in the States on the night of Paris attacks. A few mosques have been vandalized and even shot at.

Commenters, intent on preventing the escalation of violence, went online writing that Islam is a religion of peace; that if all Muslims were terrorists we’d all be dead by now; and that ISIS is not about Islam, but about their own version of it, which has nothing to do with true Islam.

Those are valid arguments, all of them.


If we follow this logic, European Muslims need to raise their united voice now in defense of Ashraf Fayadh.

Is Twitter flooded with messages addressed to the Saudi king with the hashtag #FreeAshrafFayadh?

Do we read reports of European squares and streets being blocked by marching protesters?

Do we read embarrassed comments of Saudi officials who can’t get to their embassies around the globe because they are picketed by hijab-wearing true-to-Quran Muslim protesters demanding freedom for the Palestinian poet?

I am afraid the answer is “no” to all these questions.

Even an online petition to free the poet stands at 13,000 and not tens of millions of true Muslim votes.

If murdering people who live and think differently is not true Islam, then Saudi Arabia shall become the focus of European Muslim protest right this minute.

To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t happen.

And if it doesn’t happen, does it mean that European Muslims, who denounce ISIS methods, approve of morbid brutality when it is prescribed by the Saudi King? If Islam is a religion of peace, beheading a poet for his art is a crime against Islam, just as obvious as any of the terror attacks by ISIS.


I want to understand (not criticize) Muslims who say Islam is a religion of peace but approve or fail to denounce its continued brutality.

It is time for true Muslims, who believe that violence is not an endemic Islamic feature, to start opposing and condemning non-true Muslims, who think beheading is good. Otherwise, the main argument about Islamists being of a different faith than Non-Violent Muslims loses credibility as a punctured hot air balloon.

If you are a Muslim and don’t sign this petition, you are making three errors in the word “PEACE” when you place it next to Islam, because it is, in fact, “DEATH“.

PS Tell me what you think, please, and don’t try to be correct politically or in some other way. Just tell me what’s on your mind. 

Watching boring life can be exciting

If you love Russian literature, you will probably like this realistic painter whose oils give the viewer iconic scenery fit for any of Chekhov’s plays or Turgenev’s novels.

He is a typical Russian artist, whose work rarely shows any conflict, be it the one between colours or shapes, or lines. His palette is soft, pastel, and very predictable. His style is like that of an impressionist painter who’s been warned not to use pure colours unless he wants to end up with all his fingers broken.

Think of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for instance. Let’s walk inside it.

Reduced whole

The table, set for tea, might welcome you to step into the painting and take one of the chairs if the artist thought of putting tea cups on it. Let’s assume it was a servant’s oversight, so now you can vent out your frustration at Natasha or whatever was the name of that young housemaid, and then complain to your friends about servants being not as good as they were in the old days.


Otherwise, the setting is perfect. The red-backed sofa makes the table the centre of attention via its subtle contrast with the greens outside. The highlights on the table-cloth are the brightest spot in this painting, and the more detailed brushwork, with which it is painted, glue the eyes to the play of light on the pots standing on it (this can be easily seen on the picture with reduced brightness).


As your eye roams the table and appreciates the coziness of cushion on the chairs, the painter offers you a few more elements to help you walk through the scene: a carefully arranged bouquet of  flowers on the right side (at least the maid knows how to do that), and a row of potted plants on the left.


It is easy to imagine yourself on this terrace, waiting for your cup to be brought from the family china cabinet, and listening to the rustle of trees.

It is just as easy to imagine yourself bored to death with this life, and, following Chekhov’s sisters, crying passionately, “To Moscow!” meaning, please, get me the hell out of here, and don’t mention the rustling trees ever again.

This painting would probably fetch something like 1.5 or 2 thousand dollars from a buyer who has never had a country estate with a terrace, and won’t be complaining about servants because he has never had one:  a buyer who wants a dream of peaceful rural life to hang on his wall.

Did you want to step into the painting when you saw it first time?

Do you like it? Do you like the style or the colours?

Do you think there is some potential here, if the artist is forcibly taken away from the confines of his Russian context and, say, taken to New York or Paris for a refreshment of themes and ideas?

Young Russian aritsts don’t want to stand out

This weekend I went to Moscow’s Central House of Artists, which is a huge building stuffed with dozens of shows of contemporary painters and sculptors. It was a sad experience, except for one sculptor (not, actually, young) about whom I’ll write next week, after I talk to him this Friday.

I never stop looking for new talent among young (below 35?) Russian artists, but the more the country is descending into a soft multi-religious tyranny, the less interesting its art tends to become. Young artists don’t want to stand out, except for Pavlensky whose work is impossible to collect, because it’s mostly about mutilating his own body, which, for better or worse, is soon going to be tucked away into one of the famously comfy Russian prisons anyway.

I am sure you are aware of Pavlensky’s latest performance when he set the main door of the FSB (former KGB) building on fire and stood in front of it until arrested. With all the media buzz it generated it appears as a powerful political statement, but… It’s a protest against a symptom of a disease, not the disease’s cause. It is a pity the FSB won’t be auctioning the door, even though they could get enough money for it to refit the whole building.


I had hoped that as the freedom of loud speech was getting restricted (because anyone can still whisper on Twitter or Facebook as much as they want), creativity would boil up to the surface. I expected that as Russia gravitates towards the Chinese level of freedom, a Russian Ai Weiwei will pop up. It doesn’t seem to be happening now, and I ask myself, why?

Quiet dissent is not banned in Russia (it is true that loud critics of the government or its policies risk a lot, including their freedom), and atheists are not branded terrorists like in Saudi Arabia so where are those clever artworks that would be delivering a subtle punch at society’s ills and pains?

Why does no one want to stand out? Come on, it is universally acknowledged that it is good to be a black sheep in a white community (no racial references here), a green apple in basket of red ones, or a urinal among works of classic art.

There are two answers to this question.

Some young artists believe it’s great to stand out, unless you are not crouching in a trench under fire, which is how they see the state of the arts in Russia nowadays, metaphorically.

You may say this is cowardice, but I say it is all about the habit.

Great works of art, rich in metaphor and deep in meaning, do not appear in tightly controlled societies on day one. It takes some time for artists to get used to the trench, so that their initial fear is replaced by a dream to get out of the ditch some day. Living in the trench must become a dull habit first. Then, as the dream grows and becomes stronger than fear, they start being creative.

Other young artists say standing out is great, of course, but obsequious crouching offers immediate benefits like participation in state-sponsored shows, sales to local rich customers, and getting on boards and panels of a variety of art groups, societies or events. They say they know they will not secure a place in art history by playing conformist, but putting bread on the table today is a far more attractive option than having their own bronze statue opened posthumously.

The good thing is that I don’t believe a great artist can remain a conformist for long, because creativity can rarely exist without ambition. Sooner or later creativity either dies out or takes over conformity.

So, my question is, how many more years I have to wait until creativity takes over acquiescence or crouching in the trenches grows into a nasty habit!? 

He might have used the N-word, but he wasn’t racist!

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow announced today they x-rayed the original Black Square by Malevich and discovered two colour compositions they called proto-suprematist beneath the Square itself plus some text. The compositions seem to be quite suprematist but the research team refers to them as proto-suprematist because suprematism had not yet been invented by Malevich. While some art historians may consider it awkward, it’s a trifling matter. It’s the text that is important, and potentially quite embarrassing. 

Two things that you must know about the original Black Square are that it is not a square and it is not made with black pigment. Your eyes are fooling your perceptions that fool your mind that fools your response, and then you say “I could paint a square, couldn’t I?” No, actually you couldn’t, so let’s skip the discussion of whether the Black Square should be getting so much attention. It’s one of the most famous paintings in history, and that’s a fact.

To the text now.

The gallery said they couldn’t yet read the whole of it. First, their X-Ray machine seems to have been confounded by all the layers of different pigments in the Black Square, and second, Malevich had a terrible hand when it came to writing.

They deciphered the first word, and it is “Battle”.

Logic now tells the researchers it is going to turn out as “The Battle of the Negroes in the deep dark cave at night” which is an obvious reference to the eponymous work by Alphonse Allais (1893) who painted a simple black rectangle (indeed it was a perfect rectangle painted with perfect black pigment, and thus failed to become an artistic breakthrough).


So, art lovers, critics, curators, and artists are asking each other a simple question: What do we have now instead of the Great Black Square which Malevich claimed to had painted in a trance under the influence of cosmic forces that were guiding his hand?

Does the new discovery send decades of critical thinking down the drain, and innumerable volumes of art history books in the dust bin? Did Malevich simply paint over something he didn’t want to show? Then he added a joking tagline, and art critics went bananas rushing to explain its deep meaning. Was it all a big fat case of over-interpretation?

Well, perhaps not. I have a theory.

I think, we have a successful attempt to cover a colourful suprematist composition (that Malevich thought of as a failure for some reason) with paint in a way that the colours would not show through the surface when it dries up. You can’t just over-paint red with black and expect the black to stay black, you know. So Malevich had to invent a certain mixture of colours that will dry up as black at the end but without the use of the black paint. It is also possible he intended the colour composition to be painted over, except that why would he say it was some divine intervention?

And, let’s not forget it, he chose NOT to make it a perfect square. After all, he might have had a creative revelation along the way.

Of course, it is just a theory.

The Tretyakov Gallery promises a new book on the Black Square this year, and we will see if Malevich used the N-word or not. But something tells me my theory can be the right one. A lot of great things in human history have been created out of necessity. Perhaps, the Black Square is just one of them. 

There’s only one thing that disturbs me. What if some years later some memoirs of a Malevich friend will surface up in which his buddy would casually remark about the drunken state of Kazimir when he was painting the Black Square. That would really kill the imperfect square thing. That would be really embarrassing.

PS Chagall is in the works, but there are some headlines I can’t skip. 

Auerbach: Let me be frank with you

I hesitated to write about Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain. With Lucien Freud gone, Auerbach is seen as the most prominent living British painter. The show’s press coverage is dressed with superlatives so much that were those pepper, one could choke to death eating the dish.  I thought, “Who would be interested to read more on him?”

But as I went through rhapsodic newspaper reviews, I stumbled across a few dismissive comments in social media from celebrity intellectuals and art lovers.

I wondered if it might be useful to take a step back and talk about art that’s difficult to appreciate.

It is widely held that figurative art is more difficult to make and much easier to enjoy than abstract art.

It couldn’t be more untrue.

Great abstract art often takes more time to produce than a nice figurative painting; if you look up now, you’d see Rothko and Diebenkorn waving from the cloud at you and nodding in agreement. There’s a huge distance between “easily made” and “looking easily made”, which artists cover by working hard and (often) drinking a lot of alcohol.

Figurative art is often easy on the eye, true… but it can be hard-to-get as well.

Pre-Raphaelites are [mostly] easy.
Van Gogh is easy (or is made “seem easy” by mass media).
Claude Monet is so easy Cezanne referred to him as a “postcard maker”.
Even Francis Bacon is relatively easy, once you understand his view on life, universe, and everything.

Giacometti, some of Miro, most of Picasso, and Frank Auerbach are not easy at all.

We don’t like things we don’t understand. We get annoyed when something that we can’t get instantly is pushed our way. We are too busy to pause, watch, and ponder. That’s the way we are, it is the modern world, and it’s not our fault.

As a popular stand-up comedian put it,

She is right. When art is difficult, it often gets unpleasant instead of becoming a source of emotional uplift. Complicated art needs to be explained. Someone shall point out what is interesting, new, great, or exciting about it. Given time, years of education, and multiple visits anyone could, perhaps, “get it” entirely on their own. Alas, most visitors don’t have time for all this, and they need help. They are paying good money not to merely see art, but to enjoy it.

Does Tate offer any such help? Let’s read their comment to this Mornington Crecent:

Mornington Crescent

Straight from Tate’s mouth:

“It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority. They dominate their given space: the space always the same size as the idea, while the composition is as right as walking down the street. The mastery of these compositions is such that in spite of their often precarious balance, like a waiter pretending to slip while carrying a huge pile of plates, the structure never falters. It is the viewer who has to hold tight.”

Any sane person would read this commentary and wonder what exactly the curator wanted to say. How is this cityscape any different from any other similar work? Why should the viewer, who has to hold tight, enjoy this painting-induced giddiness? How is Auerbach giddiness (let’s assume such thing exists) better than the one a merry-go-round can give you? Because the latter is obviously better (fresh air) and safer (if you throw up you won’t damage expensive art). Does architecture always give authority to paintings? If not, what is so special about Auerbach’s buildings that makes them authoritative? These questions may go on and on, but Tate curators don’t come rushing to you with answers or ideas.

So I totally agree with Jenny Eclair (whose twit I quoted) that this show is unlikeable. Not because of the paintings though, but its curators.

I will now try to remedy this. I add “try” because Auerbach is one of those painters who can be truly appreciated only when you see his work live. It is important to watch it in live size, live colours, all the textures, and all the 3D effects created by layers of paint upon layers of paint. Also, I don’t have hi-res photographs of his paintings, which is a problem because some of the colour changes I will be pointing out are so minor that I really could use a quality picture to close up on them.

The comedian I am quoting could ask a legitimate question now, of course: “Why should I bother to try to understand something that’s not instantly clear and likeable?” 

My answer is that the return on mental effort required to understand Auerbach’s work makes emotional life of the viewer richer than it used to be, which can lead to the viewer’s personal inspiration in whatever activities they are engaged in.

To put it simple, there’s a treasure buried in the ground, and to get it one needs to dig it out and break the rusty lock first.

Let’s get back to the Mornington Crescent of 1991.

Mornington Crescent

Let’s abstract ourselves from all the wikipedia knowledge of Auerbach’s horrible childhood and later years of hermiting his life away in Camden. Is this painting, stand-alone and out of context, any good?

Think of a big city. Think of a busy street in it. If you happen to live in one, I bet you cross such a street at least once daily. 

What do you remember of it? For most people (including myself) their home city (or any other city they’ve been to more than once) comes back as a blurred sensation of a place. It’s like a sea of people and cars with a few landmarks and familiar destinations perched up above the “sea level”.

Most people I’ve talked to about it believe they can “feel” their city but ask anyone to describe the building in which their office is located, and you’d be surprised they don’t remember what is the colour of the granite slab over the entrance they go through each day. So where do the “feelings” about a city come from? Perhaps, it is the crowd in the streets? Perhaps, it is the energy of the pedestrian and car traffic? Or, maybe, it is the layers of history hidden in its pavements, roads, and buildings? Or all this and something else, combined?

But do we know all these people or buildings’ history? Of course not. There is too much chaos, too many people, all following their own paths, going to their own destinations and destinies, for a casual observer to remember their faces, or their clothes, and to develop any interest in them.

Yet, they, their energies, the crisscrossing lines of their travels, their lives (which create all this chaos) are what makes the city or the street what it is.

If we take a photograph of the street (I am taking Mornington Crescent from Google maps from the spot Auerbach was standing at), we would lose the chaos, the dynamism of life, and, if we are lucky, we can “freeze” a few people here and there in this photograph in mid-stride, as if they have lost both their point of origin and destination. Mornington Crescent does look like a quiet neighbourhood that used to be slightly more pleasing until the industrially looking building on the right side was repainted white.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 18.47.29

So, if our objective is to make a portrait of the city = a portrait of our “feelings” about it, a photographically realistic “snap shot” is never going to do the job.

Frank Auerbach has found a way that works for him, and, as it turns out, for a lot more other people.

This is how it is done.

The really funny thing about this painting is that in terms of contrast it is indeed reminiscent of a face, if the colour is removed and the contrast is maxed up.

mornington-crescent - копия (3) - копия

Even if this effect has never been intended, Auerbach gives the viewer a bright spot towards which the eye gravitates along the lines provided by buildings vanishing in perspective:


Yet, the composition is a bit more complex: Auerbach doesn’t paint buildings standing perfectly vertically (or, like in a photograph, leaning towards each other), he changes the rules of the game perspective and opens the street up for you:


The net effect is that you are invited to walk inside the painting, towards the white building in the centre, as if the buildings stepped aside to let you through.

But this is only the first step.

Next, Auerbach brings you this street and the whole of London the way he feels [about] the place. He has developed his own language to tell a story to the viewer. In mathematical terms, it might be called a model with varying parameters such as:

  • colours, or palette
  • lines
  • length of brush strokes
  • number of layers of paint
  • strength, or energy of brush strokes (you can see it when you watch his paintings live, because energetic stokes leave furrows of varying intensity)
  • change of colour in a single brushstroke from its beginning until its end (I’ll show this in a minute)
  • etc.

I start being boring, don’t I? Well, the magic of his paintings is that nothing, not a single “parameter” in them is left to chance, but they look spontaneously expressive. As you look closely, it turns out to be the spontaneity of a genius who makes decisions based on years of study and months of painting a single piece. Just as in a good novel all the characters and scenes are justified and play a role, in a great painting no brushstrokes are unnecessary.

So, let me translate Auerbach’s language the way I understand it (if you look at his paintings long enough you may develop your own view of his vocabulary and grammar, of course).

It is a given that an artwork is not interesting unless there is a conflict inside. We don’t read books that don’t have conflicts. We won’t laugh at a joke without a “contrapunto”. In painting, one of the ways to create a conflict is to use complimentary colours, that is the ones that are located opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Auerbach uses green and red for buildings on the opposite sides of the street (pun intended, I believe as I doubt they have even been painted in these colours) with specs of red on the green house and the green chimney towering next to the red building.


And then he creates a dialogue or struggle between them because the green building emanates green and blue radiance and the red building emits reds and oranges that clash in the sky above them. Look back to the colour wheel above: while green and blue are friends (just as orange and red) blue is the opposite to orange. Using four fighting colours instead of just two makes the whole conflict quite spectacular.


Now, as we look down at the pavement below our feet, we can see yellow. Have you even seen yellow pavement in London? I don’t mean the yellow line that can get you fined if you park by it. Really yellow asphalt road? Frankly, I don’t know why it is yellow, except that it legitimises the use of magenta in the sky, and besides the conflict that rages between the left and right side of the painting creates a conflict between the bottom and the top.


Thus, using just one “variable”, the colour palette, Auerbach offers us several conflicting situations that create tension between all parts of the painting.

Does it look like a visual trampoline to you now?

Now you may want to inquire what’s the meaning of these conflicts. The artist, in his turn, would be absolutely right to tell you, “you are a big boy/girl, invent your own meaning”. Auerbach involves you in watching his paintings and then tells you that if for some reason it starts resonating with you, talk to your own shrink. I believe he secretly hopes that things he expressed in these conflicts ring a bell for quite a bunch of art collectors or Tate patrons, but he’d never admit it.

I find that this particular painting represents quite a lot of London’s character to me. I think of a prestigious postal code bordering on a poor neighbourhood with envy, arrogance, fear, respect, pride, and curiosity creating emotional tensions between them.  Eventually, all these micro tensions make London what it is, a unique multicoloured melting pot of cultures and civilisations. You can make your own story, of course!

There are a few more Auerbach’s variables you need to know about to enjoy his work even more.

He puts layers of colour on top of each other and then cuts through them with a single brushstroke. Its colour, upon contact with surrounding colours picks them up (or other colours interfere with it) and by the end of the brush stroke its colour becomes something else, sometimes, entirely different:


I have put “S” for “Start” and “F” for “Finish” for a few brushstrokes below. See how the colour changes each time:


This change-of-colour game reconciles “conflicting” colour areas and brings harmony out of chaos. It is also highly symbolic of change in general. Walk along a beeline through a few London neighbourhoods and see if your world view is changed. I am sure it will, but please stay away from those areas that tend to feature in evening crime news. We want a positive change, don’t we?

Another variable is the energy the artist used to make his brushstrokes, which makes tracing his streaks of paint a dynamic game, actually. The viewer goes with the line of the brushstroke and, without even touching the surface, can feel the energy with which the brush was making it because it leaves grooves in layers of paint beneath it (Unfortunately, this is something you can’t do with a photograph). As the viewer’s mind registers the artist’s energy trace (without any conscious effort, of course), it becomes attached to the colour, and you can have not just reds or greens now, but “energised green” and “quiet red” (yes, it is possible to find these contradictory colours in some of his paintings!)

And now, the last question:

Why do I (or anybody else) need a coloured heat map of Auerbach’s feelings about Mornington Crescent, London, Life, Universe, and Everything?

I guess, because it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s stimulates both the left and right side of the brain. In fact, it’s very close to music, or rather listening to music, because just like with opera, you can’t fast-forward Auerbach’s performance. You need to watch it in full, and in the right tempo to enjoy.  (I hope you don’t ask why should people listen to music)

And the very last question, at least for me, is whether Auerbach is indeed a great artist.

I think he expanded the language of painting significantly enough to secure a place in history. I also believe his compulsive choice of the same city scape motifs, and the very limited number of models he has used for portraits may prevent him from leaving a truly great heritage.

What is important is that if you are an artist you simply can’t skip a show of a man who [re]invented the lingo of painting.

Let me know what you think of Frank Auerbach! Especially if you see his work live.

PS. I am using the standard colour wheel, with pure colours. Auerbach doesn’t use pure colours, but their tonal values are more or less the same. What’s interesting, he chooses colours that are slightly different form being exactly complimentary. But describing this effect would be too much for this post. Truth is, I also didn’t cover the way Auerbach uses colours to create distance and space, which is often quite remarkable. Next time, then, when I am done with Part II on Chagall I promised some weeks ago.