LKucian Freud and the Difficulty with Modern Art

The recent death of the painter Lucian Freud has sparked an upturn of interest in his work. I saw a documentary last week about him which provoked some thoughts in me.

The first thing that comes to me is that Lucian Freud is accessible in a certain way. That is, he can draw. What he paints looks like something. So we like him. Most of us find it difficult to understand really abstract art.

But here is the rub. As soon as anyone puts a mark on canvas or paper, it becomes an abstraction. Even a photograph is an abstraction because the photographer must choose where to put the frame of the photograph. But once we recognize that all art is to one degree or another an abstraction from something else, the question arises ‘What does it mean?’

Going back in time, we have art from the renaissance and the mediaeval times that is highly ‘representational’ in so far as we can see that ‘Yes, here is a picture of a person or a tree’, and it is possible to see the skill involved in the execution of these pictures. But do they mean anything more than an abstract painting today?

Since all art is an abstraction, one has to learn to ‘read’ the paintings from those times to find out what they ‘mean’.

Back then, it was the Church who had a lot of money to spend on art, and it was the Church who determined the meaning of life too, to a large degree. So the pictures that were done were of biblical themes. The colours that were chosen were recognized as representing certain qualities (red for passion, blue for purity and so on). Often the items in a picture were also symbolic. Dogs represented faithfulness, certain flowers conveyed meaning. The meaning of the paintings was also determined by the subject matter chosen from biblical themes, and often the background of the painting gave an interpretative clue to the main picture which was in the foreground.

These rules of interpretation were shared by nearly everyone, so that at one level, everyone could ‘read’ them. The paintings became intelligible because the world of meaning of the artist was shared by the people viewing the paintings.

This leaves room for some addition of detail. One of the most famous pictures of Jesus on the Cross is the one in the Chapel at the hospital Grunewald. This hospital gave shelter to a lot of very diseased people. So the crucifixion scene has Jesus too as a diseased person. Those who wanted to come to him for succour, recognised their own suffering in Him. There are many other times when local people placed themselves within the biblical scenes, so that they could say “I too want to be part of God’s story”.

So coming to the late 19th and the 20th Century the world of faith begins to recede as a patron of the arts and a controller of the subject matter of painting. One painter from this period I know a little bit about is Picasso. Let me start with him.

I have never seen a Picasso which for me was not a very satisfying image. He somehow knows how to compose and paint shapes that fit together. I remember seeing a sculpture of bird, which was made out of a lump of plaster of Paris, two pieces of wood for wings, and two twisted pieces of wire for legs. But this sculpture just spoke to me ‘BIRD!!!’ But this technical brilliance does not attend to the question of ‘So what do his pictures mean?’

Once I was visiting a gallery in Berlin where there were hundreds of Picassos. One whole room was devoted to his muse at one time , Dora. I was wondering ‘Why does he do so many different pictures of her?’ Then, looking at the many different moods of each of the pictures of the same person it occurred to me ‘He is not just painting her, but is trying to capture on canvas his relationship to Dora.’ For me the paintings became not pictures of ‘Dora’ but pictures of ‘Picasso and how he felt about Dora at that moment.’ So the picture ‘means’ the ‘relationship’. I got this same message when visiting an exhibition of Eduard Munch (‘The Scream’) paintings. What he was painting was his inner state of ‘screaming’ and his relationships (mostly unhappy) with his partners.

Here is where I begin to have problems and come back to Lucian Freud. The documentary I saw, said the same thing about Lucian Freud as I had noticed about Picasso: that he was brutally honest in painting his relationships with people. It is very clear in the pictures. Most people are not clothed, so they are revealed ‘warts and all’. As Freud’s relationships with people change, so does the ‘look’ of the different paintings he does of them.

So I ask ‘Well that is very nice for Lucian Freud, that he can paint out his relationships on canvas. But does it mean anything to anyone else?

The problem for me is that the ‘personal’ has been separated from any wider context, that can hold it, and give meaning to an individual life.
There is a saying by Jean-Paul Sartre ‘For man to be free, God must be dead’. This means that ‘meaning’ becomes the creation of humanity. Individual meaning is also then separated from a wider context. The result is that individual artists paint their individuality, but have difficulty conveying any shared meaning to anyone else, hence our difficulty with modern art. So Why would I buy it? Like Picasso’s paintings, they may be very satisfying images, but the difficulty lies in deriving anything other than a personal meaning from the pictures.

For me, the act of painting a picture is too lightweight an activity to actually bear the weight of a human soul. I think that human beings need a bigger framework to be a part of: to rest their souls into so that something can bear them up when that soul itself is in dissolution. (Like a liturgy). This is where being a Christian becomes important for me. Sartre says that human beings are condemned to be free because God does not exist. I say ‘Because God does exist, human freedom is guaranteed by the framework of meaning provided by the story of Jesus, and this is true freedom.’ This for me feels more solid. Instead of anxiously painting out my relationships, as formed by influences of which I am unconscious, I want to paint out ‘O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee. I give thee back the life I owe, that in thy ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.’

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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