Even if you’re not partial to the spectacle of sporting competitions, 2012 is a significant - dare I say, stirring - year for Londoners. With the multifarious events of the Cultural Olympiad (along with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) enriching and civilizing the run-up to proceedings, Britons - both within and beyond the capital - have much to offer by way of creative output. One such project is Artists Taking the Lead: twelve public art commissions spanning the British Isles. English-born Anthony McCall’s “living” public installation presents a sinuous spiral of vapor twenty meters in diameter, reaching greater heights that the nearby landmark of Blackpool Tower and punctuating the Mersey skyline as it rises from the Wirral Waters. There is also Bus-Tops, a collaborative public installation in which thirty LED screens placed over bus-shelters are transformed into unremitting yet ephemeral platforms for artistic expression. With a new artist (anyone can take part) awarded ten of the thirty displays every month, the project engages a great number in both its conception/creation and its collective experience.
Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947
In a year with so much new work to see, it is fitting to discuss the momentous Lucian Freud retrospective, currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery. The planning of this highly anticipated exhibition began in 2006 when the news of London winning the 2012 Olympic bid first broke. Up until the death of the artist in July last year, the show was very much a collaboration between Freud and the Gallery. As the NPG’s Director Sandy Nairne importantly notes, this is not a memorial exhibition, but a “living” one, made with the artist. With the spirit of the great Lucian Freud almost tangible throughout this arresting and moving show, nobody could accuse the NPG of failing to deliver on their promise. This is not a solemn eulogy, but a resounding celebration of a lifetime’s achievement in painting.
When questioned on what he desired to accomplish in his work, the artist stated that he wanted his paintings to “astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” Proving this capacity entirely, the exhibition - charting the seven decades of Freud’s career - presents a vivid and resonant narrative of his shifting relationship with the depiction of the human form. In a coherent chronological display, it begins with his early works of the 1940s and 1950s: these are closely rendered, linear and stylized. In the beautiful Girl with a Kitten, Freud depicts his first wife, Kitty Garman, with absolute clarity: each hovering strand of hair, each whisker, is realized with wiry precision. The distant, pensive gaze of the sitter and her near-strangled pet confront the viewer directly. The tight brushwork affords a porcelain coolness to the skin, creating a finely poised, unsettling portrait.
Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery (Seated), 1990
In the 1960s and 1970s we see more painterly planes emerge in the pictures; the artist’s use of hog-hair brushes allows for an increasingly tactile, active surface, as his strokes begin to loosen. By the 1990s we see Freud applying paint to the canvas in broader, rougher gestures: the surface of these works are layered with dense smears of colour. Leigh Bowery (Seated) is on the scale of a history painting and evokes the weight of Bowery’s body as if it were a landscape. This monumental portrait (of one of Freud’s favourite sitters of the period) captivates the viewer with the confidence and authority of its gaze.
Already topping 50,000 visitors since its opening last month, this time I urge you - without hesitation - to follow the crowds. Freud’s work is not rooted in the singular notion of impact, nor the cool flux of market ascendency; his work is potent and timeless in its sincere and meaningful investigation of form.
David Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009
When the suitable moment for the David Hockney retrospective arrives, I’m sure it will carry equal credence as that of his old friend Freud’s. A Bigger Picture, the exhibition currently saturating every wall of the Royal Academy, does not tell the story of his long and distinguished career (and nor does it aim to), but rather presents a new body of work within the tradition of landscape painting. Broadly inspired by Yorkshire’s countryside, the patch of northern England where he spent his formative years and now resides, this exhibition of over one hundred and fifty works is rooted (at times literally) in the familiar and the accessible.
In its dizzying ambition alone, A Bigger Picture is a courageous show, with works in a broad range of media - from watercolours to charcoal to iPad prints. Hockney’s application of pure colour in some of his larger multi-canvas paintings is striking, even moving. Winter Timber, with its abandoned limbs of felled trees evoking loss and the endless cycle of life, is a piercing, hyper-real composition, in a near Fauvist palette.
What the exhibition does not showcase, however, is the groundbreaking, impeccable draftsman that we know Hockney to be. Some of the rooms delight with audacious colour and surprises of perspective, but others (like the iPad series) disappoint with flatness and willful nonchalance. There is memorable, effortless translation of immersive observation into delicate and evocative mark-making in his smaller charcoal studies, and ethereal wonder in his video landscapes, where each screen skews time and viewpoint by minute degrees. The sheer scale of this exhibition makes for a patchy final impression, but my admiration for Hockney’s skill and vision remains unblemished. And, judging by the hoards of people that have queued and shuffled to absorb A Bigger Picture since its opening, his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest artists is unlikely to fade any time soon.
Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, 101, 2012
Finally, a brief word on the latest work to top Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth: a piece that will remain in place until after the Olympics. Nordic duo Elmgreen and Dragset’s nostalgic nod to childhood innocence is not the most affecting work to top the vacant plinth, but it certainly points beyond itself in a pleasing manner. Depicting a golden cast of a boy on a rocking horse, this latest government commission seeks to create a dialogue with the permanent equestrian statue of George IV on the northeast side of Trafalgar Square. Powerless Structures, 101, in a rather linear way, toys with notion of the commemoration and celebration of heroism. This work is unquestionably a safe and manageable choice for the Olympic year: profound, poetic, arresting, it is not. Legible, moderately satirical, and almost likeable, it is.
Stephanie Hesz is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialised in art museum history and theory, contemporary public art, and memorials. She has worked and lectured at a number of art institutions including The Royal Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, and MoMA, New York. Currently living in London, she works as an art history educator and writer. She is Akimblog’s UK correspondent.
National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/
Lucian Freud: Portraits continues until May 27.
Royal Academy of Arts: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture continues until April 9.
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