Tag Archives: Painting

Sean Scully: the artist of a higher dimension


If you were in an exhibition of Sean Scully’s work and walked up to a random viewer and asked him or her to describe what hey see when they look at one of his paintings, most often the answer would be “patterns of color and geometric shapes”.

Although a cursory glance might lend some truth to that observation, the same answer could be said of quite a lot of wallpaper – and it doesn’t help to understand why some people are enchanted and captivated by his work.

Similarly, it is often difficult to venture beyond the formal description of an abstract work of art intellectually or emotionally, in a same way that’s impossible to appreciate the beauty of E=mc² unless you’ve covered quite a lot of basic physics –or the brilliance of a famous chess move unless you are familiar with the rules of the game.

What we will do now, is prepare our minds for Sean Scully and, together, we will be able to decipher the magic and power of this artist.

Imagine any spring (like the old fashioned ones for beds). In order for it to release its energy it has to be compressed first. Similarly, to think big, to let one’s imagination explode, it is necessary for the ‘thinker’ to reduce “the big picture” and think small before freeing their mind and letting it go loose. Our brain uses the same mechanism when we look at a scaled model of a sculpture or a building (or anything monumental) to better understand the workings of a complex machine.

When math students are first introduced to the abstraction of a multi-dimensional space it is difficult for them to really comprehend what it means. We are so used to three dimensions that even the next step up, a four-dimensional space, is a concept that is often impossible to grasp – the way to understand the basic idea of a 4d space, however paradoxical it may seem, is to reduce the number of dimensions; most often that does the trick.

Imagine a two dimensional space such as the image below – yes, view image on your screen as a sheet of paper. As you can see, it is inhabited by dots.


The dots can’t jump off the page, as they are not aware of the third dimension. They are not even aware of our existence.  Look at the square and imagine a dot has locked itself in its house, certain no one can see it. It is true that other dots only see the walls. But we see the furtive dot perfectly well.


And, if we want to punish the dot, we can hit it on the head, erase it, cut it in half, and the dot would never even know from whence came the flogging arm.

In effect, we are the dots’ ‘gods’.

And, if we try to imagine what a dot in this universe we have just created is capable of seeing it would be something such as the image below:


A red dot, a blue house, a green house, a blue dot, a red house.

The way the dot sees its flat world is vastly different from the way we see it from above.

By applying the principle we just used with the dots, it is possible to imagine what four-dimensional beings may feel about us. They simply wouldn’t see the same picture. We don’t know what exactly they would see. They would see some pattern that we can’t even fathom.

Or can we?

It is possible the picture they would see would have different colors, high and low temperatures, order and chaos, busy life and inanimate stillness. However, similarly to our situation with the world of our dots, they would see much more than we can comprehend, albeit in a completely, maybe even undecipherable, way.

And this is exactly the way to approach Sean Scully’s work.

His patterns have the rhythmic order of a world governed by physics’ laws but the chaos of the paint inside the stripes makes life possible.

Scully’s order is beautiful because it is calming, predictable and quieting. Scully’s chaos is excitingly unpredictable because of the different energies it radiates. Somewhere within this, life is born and, at the same time, inanimate death is lurking somewhere near.

Inside his paintings exist elements, patterns, synergies, and rhythm – -everything we know about this world and exploring them raises the observer to another dimension.

It does not have to be an intellectual exercise (you don’t have to know physics to get a kick out of flying a hand glider), just approach them in a different way, as we approached the dots, and permit yourself (and his is the important part…allowing oneself), to revel in the sheer fun of being up there with the omnipotent gods, enjoying the patterns of this 3D universe.

DSC_5994 - копия

DSC_5981 - копия

And while standing in front of some of his pieces note your own shadow walking thought the space of the picture, with the effect much like the one achieved by Gerhard Richter in his grey mirror paintings. 


I inside a Sean Scully painting

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.


It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?



The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:


And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:


To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):


You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:


Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.


As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:


If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.


She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:


Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.


You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!

There is money in fandom

We all know there’s lots of money in fandom: all those tickets, scarves, t-shirts, badges, and hospital bills for cracked skulls, squashed faces, and broken teeth. When I think of fans, and especially fans of popular games, I imagine a legion of happy bartenders, dentists, and Chinese exporters of fake club paraphernalia.

Ever since men first united for a mammoth hunt, they’ve been happy to splash on tools and tokens that would help them reach their cause, even if it was another evolutionary dead-end.

Fans, and especially male fans, are a treasure trove for any trade, because men get irrational when it comes to being a club member, especially when this club encourages mad behaviours, idiotic hats, and girls’ getting topless.


Men frown at their wives when they want to change curtains bought ten years ago (“nothing’s wrong with the old ones!”), but are happy to buy club shirts that change design each season to make fans keep buying them, and then pay for tickets to stand-up shows to be informed by comedians of how stupid they all are.

Fandoms keep everyone happy. Except artists. 

Artists celebrate sports and sportsmen, but ignore fans and their fandoms.

My dear fellows, why do you turn your back on an opportunity that’s more generous than Donald Trump in his promises?

The global art market features precious few artworks that celebrate fans (if you take wedding cake toppers off the list).


Throughout art history fans only feature in supporting roles.

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs Борцы 1875

Alexandre Falguiere Lutteurs, Wrestlers, 1875

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey's (1909), oil on canvas

George Bellows Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), oil on canvas

And only occasionally, in preparatory drawings or sketches, fans take centre stage:

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

George Bellows, Preliminaries of the Big Bout (1916), lithograph

In the examples above, artists used the audience as a backdrop to enhance contrast in their work. The strained body of the fighter becomes all the more strained when contrasted with a relaxed pose of a spectator. The honestly of the fight becomes accentuated with a fat cat watching it with a betting interest in his eyes. Still, it’s never about fans themselves!

In my search of artworks dedicated to sport fans, I couldn’t walk past Toronto.

There, Michael Snow, a renowned polymath artist, mounted sculpted fans high up on the wall of a stadium. This is a rare case when sculptural caricature is paid for by the caricatured (indirectly via taxes, of course).

6732492143_b84b2b6617 The Audience (1)

I find it strange. Is there nothing to glorify about fans?

Fandom can be a good thing, you know. There are decent values in there, hidden beneath all the violence and stupid acts we get in the news.

First, fandom is about equality. It is about people being equal in the ecstasy of victory, in the drunken gloom of defeat, or in their meaningless fist-fights with men from other fandoms. Second, fandom is about togetherness, being a part of the pack. Give me a third or even fourth if you are a fan of anything, but even equality and togetherness alone are enough to cheer up the fandom concept.

Where is art that would celebrate this?

So far, I could find only a single artwork that would not be a mockery or social critique of fans. It is a work by a Latvian sculptor, Olita Abolinya.

Olita Abolinya, 1971 Latvia Болельшики.preview

Olita Abolinya, Fans, 1971

I assume this is a group of Soviet soccer fans. Soccer championships in the USSR were taking place in winter because sports were meant to build character rather than entertain.

It’s a good piece. It shows fans in cold weather but the pink clay somehow radiates warmth that the group generates by being connected to each other.

And this is it.

Just. One. Piece.

So, if you are an artist and want to sell to the profitable fan community or get over a creative block, look into the fandom good sides.

Show fans resolved to support their team when it lost.

Show a family, in which husband and wife support opposing teams, and do not fight over which club their kids will support when they grow up.

Show fans united not through a goal or win, but through deep understanding of tactics and strategy in football, soccer, hockey, golf, or sack jumping.

It’s all out there, waiting for your talent to crack it.

PS If you are not an artist, but have artist-friends, forward it to them. Make them rich!

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.

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?

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? They prompt this Mornington Crecent with a quote from Lucien Freud.

Mornington Crescent

Straight from Freud’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.”

As I read this commentary I wonder what exactly Freud 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-induced giddiness (let’s assume such a 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 simply, there’s a treasure chest buried in the ground, but 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.

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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.

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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.

Not a good painter, but a great artist

This autumn, the National Gallery in London hosts Goya: the Portraits, a show which preparation spanned a whole decade.

As you start looking at Goya’s portraits, a terrible realisation hits you like a ton of bricks. Goya was not a good painter, in the classical sense.

He was so bad with colour nuances that his seated men look like men whose legs were cut in half. He could rarely separate an object from the background and most of his characters look like cut-outs pasted on a background painted by an amateur theatre decorator. His attempts to add depth by mixing colours of the background and the garment of his sitter are appalling.

Here are a few examples of his failings:


Yet, he was a great artist.

To judge Goya by the standards of classical realism is like…judging Einstein by spelling errors in his thesis on the theory of relativity.

Goya was a prophet. He foresaw the new levels of inhumane cruelty that would blast the world apart a hundred years later. He felt that the time was coming when Man would become a suicidal mass murderer. He drew the WWI and WWII a hundred years before tanks and gas chambers were invented.

I understand there was no space for it, but if I curated the exhibition, I would show at least some of his Disasters of War to remind people of his greatness that exists beyond his career as a court painter.

But even if he never produced his haunting images, he would still be a great painter. His radical inventiveness might have come from his desire to hide his lack of painterly skill, but it doesn’t make his innovativeness any less seminal.

He brough the genre of Reclining Nude to a new high by replacing nudity with nakedness in his Nude Maja. It was not just about the body. It was about transforming women from a passive object of male desire into an active party in negotiating a sexual situation.

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He then created the concept of eroticism that is still in use today with this reclining girl:


A note to my male readers. If a woman has never thrown herself at you, you may experience the feeling standing in front of this painting. Beware! She is also so innocent that when you catch her, you’d feel an immediate urge to propose.

Would you care then that the cover on the bed could be painted somewhat better? There were hundreds of classical artists all across Europe at the time, but you wouldn’t want to propose to any of their nudes or semi-dressed girls. In ten minutes, you wouldn’t even remember what they looked like.

Again, his nudes were not his major achievement as a painter. I began with them because I hoped they’d motivate you to read further on.

His most important contribution was the introduction of an artist’s attitude to the sitter as an essential element of portraiture. He was honest with his sitters, showing their faces with all the defects, wrinkles, and after-stroke consequences, and he was honest about his feelings towards them.

This makes his portraits alive and speaking to or even conversing with the modern observer. Not all of them, of course, because we are generally very selective about people we want and like to talk to, but regardless of how picky you are, you can find your perfect mate among the 70 portraits currently on show at the National Gallery.

Goya’s sitters have been dead for two centuries already, but their types live on.

A wise man who wants to make the world a better place and knows the recipe? To whose ideas the world resists (which is normal) and creates in the man a melancholic attitude?

Meet Mr Jovellanos, portrayed in 1798.


We can skip the symbolism of Minerva (she’s a retired goddess anyway) and, having appreciated the melancholic pose of the portrayed (who wouldn’t get stressed out by so much paperwork?), focus on the face:

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The guy is talking to us. Goya captured one of his words in mid-air. He may be tired, but he is still interested to know the observer’s (or, rather, the listener’s) thoughts on the subject he is talking about.

Perhaps, he is explaining why he hates wigs, and that the man’s fundamental freedom to wear his hair the way he wants it should be respected by the king? We don’t know. Appropriate this wise guy and make your own story.

Or, if you want to meet a man of action, here’s your hero, Mr Saavedra.


The man’s impatience is conveyed by his pose and the camp table that can be folded and moved any moment now. There are only a few sheets of paper on it. The sitter is not a man of many letters, but of much action.

I have to note that many observers go dizzy about the way the chair, the legs of the table and those of the sitter are arranged, wondering if Mr Saavedra may require assistance to disentangle himself, but, as I said at the beginning, the composition Goya had chosen for this portrait might simply have exceeded his abilities to paint it.

Eight legs are difficult to handle, but it is not an important (albeit funny) part of this painting. It’s the sitter’s eyes, his gaze, which is inexplicably intense and serene at the same time, that makes him into an archetypal action hero.

Or, perhaps, you don’t care for wise or action men, and want someone to share you passion for arts and music?

I have a buddy for you. The Marquis of Villafranca.


This man could become a second (or first) Casanova, but he’d chosen music as his passion. He is wealthy, but modest (his hat is quite ordinary). He is sporty (note the riding boots) but cultured (he leans on a piano). He’s got great legs and tender hands.

And the way he looks back to the observer still sends crowds swooning.

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You can imagine how many more friends there are in this show to choose from.

Goya brought his love, respect, adoration, and sometimes hate of the sitter into his paintings.

A modern man may wonder why an artist would want paint a portrait of someone he detests. That’s the downside of being a court painter who is obliged to paint his king.

So, here is my warning to you:

As I was standing yesterday in front of his official portrait of King Ferdinand, the tyrant who came to power after the French were finally kicked out of Spain, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kick first his knee, then his groin, and when he would have bent over with pain, his face. My murderous intent was so strong, I wondered if the National Gallery should place a couple of armed guards in front of this painting. I am afraid there bound to be a visitor who may not have the nerve to hold back.


Ferdinand VII was a bastard, metaphorically and literally. His mother confessed on her deathbed that none of her children were conceived by her husband, the king. Ferdinand was selfish, vengeful, dishonest, and, above all, dumb, which made him exceptionally cruel to his people, friends and enemies, both real and imaginary. He bankrupted his country and left it in the throes of a civil war upon his death. Well worth kicking in the groin, if you ask me.

I can’t recommend to skip, to walk past this portrait because it shows how innovative Goya could be when he had strong feelings towards his subject.

The embroidery on the king’s cape is pure abstract expressionism. In fact, it is so expressive it can be a painting in its own right. The royal symphony of pure reds, golds and silvers is poisoned by streaks of pure black that represent the chaotic and toxic character of the king better than a wikipedia article on him.

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So if you decide to go to Goya: the Portraits show at the National Gallery in London, leave all sharp objects at home for you might be tempted to use them on a painting.

Besides, there’s a bag search at the entrance.