Sunday, July 24, 2011

One Dies as Well as the Other

It's not unusual to have two or three famous individuals die on the same day or within a few days of each other. I don't know if there's a statistical formula to explain it, or if we sometimes just perceive patterns that aren't there. What I do know is that when it happens, news of one often crowds the other out of the press, and often it seems the forgotten one is the one I am more interested in. For example, about a decade ago the legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker died of old age. A little sad for me (my favorite of all bluesmen past and present), but at least I had the opportunity to see him perform live well before then. However, many news sources didn't publicize it because television actor Carroll O'Connor died on the same day, and that was the story. I've got nothing against O'Connor and it's likely that more people watched his groundbreaking show in any one week than ever bought one of Hooker's records in their whole lifetimes, but that's no excuse to ignore the passing of an American musical icon.

This week the same thing happened again. It was announced a few days ago that British figurative painter Lucien Freud had died. I found this out yesterday, looking at a copy of the previous day's NY Times, which contained a fairly comprehensive article toward the back of the B section. However, if I hadn't run across that abandoned paper, I might still not know, as none of the online news pages that come up in typical web surfing (at least those I was on) had a single mention of it.

I realize that Lucien Freud is not a household name, but he's been an influence on my art going back to my undergrad years, where my painting professor often showed slides of Freud's work to the painting classes. Like the earlier Egon Schiele, Freud is best known for his unidealized nudes, seeking every bit of visual information from his subjects, capturing every wrinkle and bulge of flesh. (maybe it's an Austrian thing- Lucien was the grandson of Sigmund) However, Schiele's work is typically expressionistic- energetic and exaggerated, and emphasizes contours and edges. Freud's paintings aim for realism and could take hundreds or thousands of hours to complete (all with the model in the pose) and emphasize volumes. The painting above is a classic example of his technique, finding every bit of sagging flesh, every wrinkle, and showing every plane change with hunks of color. I show examples of his work to my students every semester, as a demonstration of the effects of line, of value, and of color in representing a complex 3D surface. My charcoal drawings sit somewhere between Schiele and Freud, done with the speed of the former, but attempting a type of realism derived from face and body details as seen in the latter. A woodcut portrait starts the same way, except the pose is a bit longer, and I spend a lot more time refining the resulting drawing, but the level of detail ends up being about the same.

A few days after Freud's death, news broke everywhere about the death of (also British) singer/celebrity Amy Winehouse. No missing this story- those online news services have posted dozens of articles about it over the past couple of days. No official cause of death has been determined, but the universal assumption is one of the many substances she regularly abused must have finally caught up to her, adding her to a long list of musicians and singers dead at age 27. If anything, many are surprised she lived this long. She leaves behind a few hit records (though they may owe their success to the musical backing of the Dap-Kings as much as her vocals) and a long trail of documented bad behavior. This behavior was a staple of the celebrity tabloid shows for years, so there a lot more people around here who know who she is than know about the painter whose work appeared in prestigious galleries and museums for the past 50 years. A decade from now she will largely be forgotten (the current pop music world has a very short memory) and he will likely still be hanging in the museums and being shown to young art students, but for now the attention given seems all out of proportion.

She does have at least one connection to fine art that I know of, and that's in my work. Three years ago I included a few images based on her in the first boardwalk print. The full story can be seen here, but the short version is that I decided to let her represent a category of typical game prizes. Several dolls in her image can be seen in the print detail above, just over the shoulder of the girl running the game. When I created this print I thought of it as one of the present day scenes, but her passing will now cause me to think of this as a moment from a specific past.


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