Veering into my own 60th year, having taken a sharp (and for some it would seem unhappy-making) turn in my own creative work over the past ten years, I have in recent years given thought to the trajectory of the so-called “creative” life – primarily in the work of painters, but also in other branches of the arts, including cinema. The following are some thoughts prompted by recent exhibitions and JL Godard’s last work.
Lucian Freud at the Tate Modern
At the Tate Modern (the older Tate museum) there was recently a retrospective of the work of Lucian Freud. I managed an hour during a rather packed Sunday afternoon, also the exhibition’s final day, not really comfortable, but all I was able to squeeze into my stay in London. Aside from having to elbow one’s way to see the paintings – past people clutching their lecture devices who don’t really look but stand three or five feet away listening to what I am sure is an academic facts and figures summary like dates, where he was living, and other not really so important things vis á vis the painting, with ready-made interpretations of the meaning of this or that – it wasn’t really enough time, but so life goes.
Freud’s earliest work (early 1940s) shows an immediate painterly talent. It is heavily influenced by surrealist qualities and mannerisms – juxtaposing odd things (zebra head coming in through a window), strongly distorted features, and so on. After a brief flirt in this direction he quickly settled in on portraiture, at first while very skilled, using thin washes, built up in layers, these works sometimes come perilously close to illustration – very good illustration but illustration. An early series of portraits limits the exaggeration to large eyes and a slightly bulging top of head (a well-known one from this series is among a group with excessively big eyes that goes dangerously into Walter Keane territory – a really trashy kitsch painter from ’60s America). For this period his color palette is if not bright, at least not so limited and muted as it would become. Clearly he is no colorist.
Quickly enough, with some painterly hints from his friendship with Francis Bacon visible, Freud gravitated towards his idea fixee, which he then pursued with obsessive intensity for the next 50 plus years – portraiture, often nudes, in a palette of skin tones, earths, occasional reds, and when other “colors” enter, very muted. Here and there are a few images without people, of foliage. At the outset of this his paint is thin, washes built up to make a dense textural richness. This gave way to a thicker paint, in which in a meticulous manner he harnessed very fine aspects of the brush, with small little ridges of paint showing the traces of the individual hairs of the brush; this was done in a careful manner, heightening the richness of fine details. From a few steps back the images, like Caravaggio, seem somewhat clear and tight; with your nose in the painting, the fluid painterly qualities come to the fore. His balance in this is often perfect.
Such careful and meticulous detailing frequently (whether done in a painterly manner or more photo-realist one) results in a rigid and dead image. For several decades Freud pursued this aesthetic, certainly an obsessive and laborious process. Perhaps the best example is a large canvas of foliage, leached of color, a rich field of tan, slight earths, depicting leaves and the dense bramble of a bush. At a distance the sense of depth is amazing, one layer giving way to that behind it, several fold. Up close the depth vanishes, and what becomes clear are the amazingly small but very painterly details – the edge of a leaf defined by a meticulous fringe of thick paint trails of a stiff brush, applied with an exactitude which for anyone who has painted, seems astounding. It is a very big canvas, and its surface is completely covered. I cannot imagine how many hours it took, but certainly very very many. Unlike most such paintings, in which technique tends to overwhelm the painting itself, here the balance is immaculate, the push-pull tension between the “image” and the “painting” as precise as a tightrope walker’s step. This is just the opposite of the numerous examples in Western art of the ‘look-at-me’ still-life exercises of flowers, peeled fruits and glasses in which the virtuoso act of painterly perfection destroys the image, the tour-de-force sucking out any interest beyond an academic, yep, you sure can make that illusion.
In his portraits, limited in his color range, Freud though engages in discreet but in fact very strong spatial manipulations. The space is normally flattened out, so that, for example, the legs of the sitter in the chair are being looked down on while the torso and perhaps face are seen frontally. Within this unrolled space are often foreshortenings pushed to slight extremes, such that one is not really aware, as one might be in surrealist work, of the spatial warp, but feels it is “natural” while in fact it is highly unnatural. Through this spatial play Freud imparts both a sense of monumentality to the most ordinary (a person in a chair or on a bed), and at the same time secures a rich sense of psychological penetration of the person (always a bit grim and unhappy – Freud must be approached with a buoyant spirit or he will fast take you down).
A few decades ago this tendency toward monumentalizing in his work took a jump, and with it not only did the paintings get considerably bigger, but the poses, the foreshortenings, the nakedness took on an aggressive stance, the paintings clearly intended to shock the viewer: look at that cock, the folds of those labia, those BALLS! The willfulness of the intent to shock is a bit overbearing in these. At the same time the paint begins to thicken further, and the previous careful and obsessive detailing falls away, replaced by dense clotted clumps of pigment. The subjects are slowly subsumed into the paint, losing much of their psychological intensity along the way, with the scale and shock-value seemingly substituting for the loss in psychological penetration. Freud seems to get sloppy and indifferent, a sense of exhaustion pervading the canvases, as if he were saying “so fucking what?!” as the flesh sags, and the skin mottles into cellulite clumpiness. Surrounded by the hysterics of our media-hyped world and the slide of the arts scene into pure sensationalism (sliced cows, plasticized human bodies), the sense of shock has worn off, as well has the sense of painterly pleasure. By the end one feels he is doing it now for the big money, from habit, out of a dumb incapacity to do anything else. In the last room of the exhibit – mostly laid out chronologically – are some plain bad works. After 60 + years one must forgive, though perhaps Lucian should hang up the brushes, even if already a bit late. However the long mid-stretch of his career is rich and rewarding, with some incredibly good painting, albeit held tight within his very restricted range of interests and palette. As with most obsessive artists, the end result is a curdling inward finalizing in self-parody.
Gerhardt Richter at the San Francisco MOMA
A retrospective of 40 years of painting. I went a bit eager, perhaps over-eager, having admired the isolated picture seen in museums, and reproductions. The thought of seeing a large collection, spanning the career, seemed enticing. At first it was – the first rooms, in chronological order, having the eclectic mixture which I had known to expect: the soft-focus “realist” images, the raw and brutal scraped abstracts. In both cases these seemed to have the weight of seriousness. The images taken from newspapers, rendered in grays and black, their outlines softened with whiskered strokes, the facile rendering of mundane “reality” made mysterious with the reduction to monochrome and the distanced effect of the soft-focus. Juxtaposed against the harsh and large scraped panels, they played off each other nicely, as did the experiments in swirling paints done with a large and sometimes serrated blade. The early work harkened with its newspaper typography and imagery belonging to the American Pop art of the same time, but seemed invested with a German sense of gravity, and a more attentive painterly quality (a small gray roll of toilet paper casts a subtle shadow). Likewise the color panel experiments seemed a more severe case of Op art. Richter seemed ready to shamelessly touch all the bases, including nods to Abstract Expressionist Action Painting, and did so with such graceful ease that it seems almost a critique of these movements. Richter seems a born painter, able to hop from one mode to the next like a child. And yet…
And yet, as room followed room of essentially the same tactics, the radical shift from the hard abstracts to the gray and painterly city-scapes, Baeder Meinhof images, the gentle color land and sea-scapes, the saccharine portraits of his wife and child, the intermixing of soft-focusing and scraped smearing (his unpainting), the effect dulled, and slowly emerging from this accumulation came a powerful sense of obvious kitsch: what had seemed serious decayed into a shallow game, a kind of nose-thumbing “look how I can paint” sucked dry of any more meaningful content. The end result for me was a collapse into disappointment, all this obvious talent thrown away in a sequence of empty gestures. On quite another frequency, it is the same sense evoked by a Warhol, or Ed Ruscha retrospective: like Richter these are equally gifted with graphic talents, able to conjure the catchy image, to exploit a certain range of painterly or graphic quality and to hang it upon contemporary realities; and like these painters the more one sees, the thinner the content seems, until finally the enterprise folds in on itself, reduced to parody or self-caricature. Richter’s later images of his child and wife, unbearably kitsch in form and content, are not enhanced by the scraping then applied, rather the effect is as if Richter were assaulting himself, attempting to eradicate the facile manner in which he makes his images, as if scraping away the image would somehow rescue it from its fall into emptiness. It does not, but rather underlines the essential void which no amount of painterly talent can hide, and into which Richter’s entire career falls. The appearance of “significance” is a masquerade in this case, an accidental addendum to a lifetime of flight from such significance.
GODARD at End Game
Which then leads to Godard’s latest, Éloge de l’amour. On the day of its release, I read the reviews in the Village Voice and New York Times (worthy of a look). I saw the film on DVD at a friend’s in London, certainly not an ideal manner in which to see richly visual work such as Godard’s. Éloge de l’amour certainly has an elegiac feel to it, the front 2/3rds in often lovely, if rather conservative, B&W imagery, much of it Parisian street scenes, a kind of documentary, but with a Huttonesque quality of being instantly old: lingering in the mind is that one has seen these images decades ago and draws to question the remaking of them – why? The camera is static, the compositions gelid, and lacking any originality. Rather they reprise a kind of history of photography of Paris, echoing rather directly a long sequence of photographers of the last 70 years. The “story” is one of the ones JLG has been telling for 40 years, starting perhaps with Le mépris (1963), and then repeatedly since: the story of making a movie that isn’t quite made.
Beneath this is the usual movie-centric subtext about culture, love/hate, America/Hollywood. In the reviews one gathers there is a much more coherent “story” than there really is, with the supportive critics busy doing the stitching job which Godard has neglected. Rather what is really there is a blank notebook, being filled in, or not filled in, by a surrogate Godard. Literally there is a (note)book shown, pages blank, which the character peruses here and there. JLG’s confession that beyond the aesthetics, beyond the now heavily redundant “content” there really isn’t much there is made openly. It is the cul de sac of the cineaste, the dead end of cinephilia. Godard, a self-admitted child of the cinema, was always trapped in the celluloid box, hence his often errant politics, the expression of a worldly naiveté in which nearly everything revolves around the cinema. Thus the capacity of the film critics to unravel what is really a hermetic thoroughly ingrown discourse which Godard now loops (often gorgeously) over and over to himself, followed by an ever diminishing chorus of fellow cinephiles for whom the in-references to this film, that text, etc. constitute a quasi-religious experience, a cabalistic cult of knowledge that narrows ever more as time passes.
The end result is a kind of decadence, in Godard’s case the inversion of the norm, where usually things get more florid and exaggerated. Éloge instead swerves to a severe Bressonian austerity until it suddenly breaks into a garish and somewhat schizoid and awful “video” which seems contrived to give digital video a bad name. Cranking the colors into not so bizarre extremes Godard actually does little but the most obvious with this medium, a severe disappointment in light of his past experiments in video and film. Juxtaposed to the careful black and white which precedes it, it seems a calculated (and misguided) jab, a backward lament for something about to be lost. One has no sense that he experimented with the new media for its own qualities, but rather attempted to impose filmic ones on it, and failing (as proper) then forced some dubious aesthetic pressure on it if only to laugh. Given his long ago work in video, long before it was in any manner fashionable, this is a bit of a surprise. On the other hand he is 71, and life takes its toll. One senses in the cumulative piece a tiredness of the work, of the failed (and illogical) fight, and of life. Godard was lost in Plato’s cave from the outset, so he should not be surprised when this illusory ersatz world of film proves unsatisfactory – as a replacement for life, it is indeed a very unsatisfactory substitute. One should not need 71 years to fathom that. In Godard’s case, the self-parody is, as perhaps it should be despite the Gallic setting, in Swiss Calvinist terms. You can’t go home again? Or you must?
Meanwhile, in the titanic struggle which Godard has foolishly assigned to himself, it is Spielberg who is winning and laughing all the way to the bank (if himself intermittently showing signs of his own unhappiness with his periodic and pathetic attempts at “artistic seriousness”): the contest between art and Mammon is ever a losing proposition, and Jean-Luc’s perpetual battle has taken on the character of Don Quixote. Jean-Luc’s bitterness is palpable, though had he “won” – had Hollywood been vanquished from his constant jabs – there is no doubt in my mind he would be equally unhappy and bitter: shadows are a very poor substitute for life, and Godard has been shadow-boxing for his entire life. It is far too late for him to recall the original entry into Plato’s cave wherein he lost himself.
(Amsterdam, January 15, 2003)
I’m here, to give, tomorrow at a conference, a talk on digital media and its preservation (which, ever against the grain, I will suggest is a fruitless and unnecessary and even undesirable endeavor). I am in the Hotel de Filosoof, at a window looking out over Vondelpark, and perhaps by chance it is an appropriate place for these final musings. About ten days ago, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the last of a long sequence of screenings across the USA, a man, more or less my age, opened the post-screening discussion with a five minute long near eulogy, an embarrassing prelude of compliments on my past work, my seeming moral and ethical rectitude, all of which was difficult to accept – I am far more amenable to nasty criticism than cheerful slaps on the back. At the conclusion of his long list of positives he then landed what seemed in the context a sucker-punch, announcing that all his anticipations of, in his words, “enlightenment” had been dashed by the work I had shown, my last completed long piece, Oui Non (2002) being in his view an apparent complete failure, lacking the honesty of previous work, et al. I offered no response, aside from my apologies for having failed to live up to whatever expectations he had brought to the room, for which, frankly, I did not feel responsible. I chose not to note that I have never perceived myself as a giver of enlightenment, and have always been averse to either hero-worship or fandom, and decline to place others on pedestals or accept being put on one myself: the laws of gravity and the nature of human avarice both assure that there is only one exit route off a pedestal.
But, along with many other comments taken in during a 14 city, eight week tour of the USA – my first return at all to my native land in nearly ten years – it served to underline a recurrent theme: the wish of those of the audience familiar with past work to be served up, in effect, more of the same. Where, it was asked again and again, was the narrative, the political directness, the this and the that which was liked of past work, and would I be doing another film like All the Vermeers (1990), or The Bed You Sleep In (1993), or whichever was the speaker’s favorite. The frequent sense of disappointment in some for the new work – work which I willfully and happily and willingly did in a manner utterly unlike my previous – was vivid and palpable, almost a sense that I had betrayed the viewer, and hence myself and my own supposed talents. When I responded that I had grown bored with my own work – the process and the end result – even if perhaps it had been good, and that I had no interest in repeating myself as I saw other artists repeat themselves, this was met usually by those persons with dismay. When they insisted their desire for further narratives and on my seeming moral responsibility to provide it, I said that while I imagined I might in the future do something akin to my past narrative work, but that it would not look or be done in anything like the forms I had used before, and that I was not interested in making something I or they had ever seen the likes of before, this was met with a dubious air. In defense, not of the virtues or wonderfulness of my past years of DV work, I noted that in my own mind I had been, since commencing in DV, “playing” and that I thought, after 35 years of filmmaking, that I had earned the right to do so, as well as to shift gears and in a sense start anew, all over again. And that the “play” was fun, but also serious – an investigation and experimentation in a new realm, something I felt reinvigorated my interest in work, and through which I had learned a great deal. I did suggest, by way of pacifying my doubting Thomas’, and also telling the truth about my own thoughts, that I was – after six years of such experimentation – feeling just about ready to commence on a “serious” work which would embrace all that I had learned, but that this was not easy, since in effect I had no precursors to take as a guide or if I did, it was more in the realm of music, painting, poetry, than in the cinema.
Of course, such discussion provoked for me a curiousness about the flow of the creative fluid, and a greater awareness of its volatile, living nature. Some artists commence almost full-blown, and tail-spin immediately; some slowly grow, maturing over time; some last, some don’t. I am self-aware enough, and a harsh critic of myself, such that I consider these things, and ponder my own nature, wondering where – attempting not to be vain and fat-headed – just where in this spectrum I might fit. And I ponder, as I have counseled in the critiques above, metaphorically, hanging up my own brushes when the due time comes rather than plowing ahead, whether encouraged or discouraged by others, as a matter of habit or pride or arrogance. In the din of the present world, especially in the shrieking media-saturated world of America and its copy-cat cultures East and West, it would seem perhaps the proper and wisest stance would be withdrawal and silence.
While I do not have any idea if my scribblings (kept largely private) constitute “poetry” the following was written a handful of years ago, a musing prompted by consideration of the career of Emil Nolde, a favorite painter in my eyes, never mind his erratic output and ultimate decline:
By then Emil’s song had stuttered groundward the brush once free and risking, the palette ripe with pleasured chance that birthed small friends and miracles now hesitated, clumsy, unsure, daubing into cruder compilations, red and yellow and blue and green which grumbled only flower, recalling those of long ago that blossomed magic from his brush and now only aped the old song gone adrift somewhere the rift was time, the battered cortex tired? or boredom, as if to mutter, “still another flower, Emil?” descended to always present kitsch, once most often masked with tragedy, the gravity of death and irony weighing in with heavy elements – metals of uranium now sickly childfaces signaled here exhaustion, earned, but begging now for silence: lift not the brush, mark not the pristine papers – unless to risk still greater disappointments.
O Emil, our fates to live beyond our gifts.