Blackpaint 699 – Lifeys and Detox at Tate Britain

Phil – one minute

My correspondent Laurie sent an interesting comment about life drawing on my last blog post, so I’m going to try to answer it here. It also gives me the opportunity to post a load of my “lifeys” which, given the variable quality, might otherwise be seen as self – indulgence (which it is, of course).

Laurie was particularly concerned at the tendency, on “Portrait Artist of the Year”, for example – a British TV programme – for many competitors to draw or paint from an image on screen or tablet, rather than from the model. He feels this is a “corrupting way of condensing the long look into a frozen snapshot”, and asks for my views.

Phil – portrait on old cardboard

As can be seen from the above effort, portraiture is not a forte of mine. It was done from a live model, however, so any corruption is my responsibility. I made a cursory and wholly unsuccessful stab at getting a good likeness, but that really wasn’t what I was after. What was I trying for? An arresting, colourful, interesting image that would hold the interest for more than a few seconds and which a viewer might return to and make new discoveries.

In other words, a good picture. That pretty much covers any effort of mine, representational, abstract, portrait, landscape, combination of any of these. “Corruption” is exactly the right word, I think, for what I do to the human body in my pictures, sometimes by intention, often by accident.

Phil one minute

I see what Laurie is driving at – you can get a greater sense of immediacy by attempting to capture a living, breathing pose than from a “frozen” one in a photo; but that is also to do with the imposition of a short time limit. It gives you a freedom of expression. The longer you’ve got, the more of that freedom drains away. Plus, of course, the more opportunity you’ve got to screw it up.

Phil with a bit of shading

Laurie was writing about portraiture though – if your intention, or main intention, is to produce a good likeness, I can see, perhaps, why a photograph might help; you can switch your gaze from one to the other, check your accuracy – what if you’ve got an inexperienced model who moves too much? You’re working against the clock, maybe?

There is another consideration with portraiture, which I think Francis Bacon once touched on – he was talking about his own pictures, but it could apply to others. He worked from photographs rather than models because (he said) he didn’t like them to see what he was doing to them.

Isabel Rawsthorne, Francis Bacon

Yes, it is recognisable as Rawsthorne. Yes, Bacon is an extreme example, but there is a pressure exerted by the presence of a model. I find extreme beauty in a model of either sex is a problem because you want to reproduce the beauty (whatever “beauty ” is – but the reader will know what I mean). If you read this Phil, or Francoise, I did say “extreme” beauty.

Phil, bending, cropped

Something I’ve done frequently is odd cropping. It seems to be highly regarded in many circles, since I’m sometimes complimented on it. The reason is simple – I can’t draw “small”, or not well, anyway. Whatever the size of paper I use, there’s never enough to get the whole image in. This image is not cropped – well, not more than a couple of centimetres – I just ran out of paper at the edges. Bad planning, really.

Francoise, bending down

Look how long those legs are! That’s a distortion of reality, of course, but I think it makes for a better picture. I’m not sure, of course – plotters, like Coldstream and Uglow wouldn’t agree; then again, I’ve seen some pretty long legs on Uglow paintings….

I’ve just realised how this reads – I’m not remotely comparing my poor effort to either of these distinguished painters; it’s the principle I’m writing about. I love the sheer solidity in Uglow’s work (a solidity that is illusory, but all the more admirable for that); but with the solidity goes a certain stasis.

Phil two minutes

“Toxic” Hogarth and Contemporaries

I’m not sure if the Hogarth is still on at Tate Britain, but I wanted to add a few pictures to those i posted a few weeks ago when I blogged on the show. I remarked that the captions were mostly concerned with the depiction of a racist, misogynistic, imperialist society and were somewhat ambivalent – not always clear whether it was the artist at fault or the society depicted – or both. Below is an example of the sort of caption I’m writing about:

So there we are – we are safe to look at these paintings, because possible wrong interpretations have been “detoxified” by the “Museum Detox Interpretation Group”. I’m interested to know whose idea this was and if it will become a regular feature of future exhibitions of “toxic” art – and maybe a condition of such art being shown at all.

Pietro Longhi, the Venetian master, I believe. I love those masked figures; wish I knew what was going on. Should have read what the Detox Group had to say….

Beautiful little painting (the woman is demeaning herself, unfortunately) – but isn’t that leg wrong? It’s coming from the wrong place, surely…

I meant to do Bacon at the RA today, but too much to show and say, so I’ll finish with my last painting (the last one I’ve done, not – I hope – my last ever):

Light in a Black Sea


Feb 23rd 2022


2 Responses to “Blackpaint 699 – Lifeys and Detox at Tate Britain”

  1. maliandjane Says:

    Hi Chris,

    I attach an article I just wrote on Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, Russian poet. I remember you borrowed my copy of his poems so I thought you might be interested. Sorry, the photos went missing in the copying across…

    Ukraine and its place in 20th century Russian literature:
    Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam
    (For Shirlene de Silva who introduced me to the Mandelstam’s writings )

    Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, the genius Russian-Jewish poet murdered by Stalin, met his Jewish wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna, in a nightclub in Kyiv when both were in their twenties. It was 1919, the second year of the Soviet revolution, which was finally getting going after the 1st world war.
    Both came from highly educated, middle class professional families: Nadezhda’s mother was a doctor, her father a lawyer in Kyiv. Mandelstam’s family were wealthy enough to send him to the Tenishev school in St Petersburg where the elite educated their sons. His mother was a noted music teacher.

    Nadezhda Mandelstam
    Osip Emilievich Mandelstam

    Mandelstam had ended up in Kyiv when he was just wandering around, having travelled through Europe to the Mediterranean. He had also adopted Lutheranism for political reasons while in Finland on his way back to Russia. Neither he nor Nadezhda came from families that practised any religion. They fell in love and, in the free spirit of the age, got engaged within a few weeks. Nadezhda was then a student at Kyiv University: she’d been having a fling with a wealthy young man with access to a biplane the week she met Osip. The couple lived together in Kyiv before finally marrying in 1921. Mandelstam was already a published poet, part of the Acmeist movement centred on Nikolay Gumilev, the first husband of celebrated poet Anna Akhmatova. Marina Tsvetaeva was also in the group.
    Anna Akhmatova
    Nikolay Gumilev shortly before he was shot.
    Wounds on his face are from a beating by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB.

    Gumilev died by Soviet firing squad in 1921. After that Acmeists were under suspicion and likely to be arrested and exiled at any moment. Soon the newly married Mandelstam’s found themselves swept up in a political vortex, first in the civil war between’ whites’ and ‘reds’, and then in the years of privation following the total restructuring of society under Soviet leadership. They spent time in the Crimea on the Black Sea, and at Odessa in Ukraine. Nadezhda became a language and literature teacher: Mandelstam wrote children’s books and made translations from classic German and French texts for Soviet publishing houses. They lived a peripatetic life, first in St Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, later Leningrad; then in Moscow, before returning to Ukraine, to Stary Krym, during the great famine of 1932/33.

    Although finding it increasingly difficult to get his poetry published after Gumilev’s death, Mandelstam did manage to publish four slim books of poetry before his first arrest in 1934. Friends managed to dilute the charges against him and he was exiled for some years to Voronezh, a city in the Steppes, the great plain of central Russia. But in 1938, he was accused of the most serious charge of ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ as part of Stalin’s second great purge and sentenced to five years hard-labour in a Siberian gulag. By then, he’d already had several heart attacks and a severe nervous breakdown, brought on by the stress of trying to be a writer of ‘truth to power’ under Stalin’s regime. He wasn’t allowed any medicine, so he quickly succumbed to the severe conditions in Siberia and died. He was forty-seven years old. The main reason for his harsh sentence was the Stalin Epigram, a poem written in 1934 but not published in Russia until the 1970’s. Mandelstam read this poem only to a few friends, but an informer got wind of it and a copy was found by the authorities.

    Stalin Epigram

    Our lives no longer feel the ground under them.
    At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
    But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
    It turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
    the ten thick worms his fingers,
    his words like measures of weight,
    the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
    the glitter of his boot-rims.
    Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses,
    he toys with the tributes of half-men.
    One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
    He pokes out his finger and he alone goes “Boom!”.
    He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes.
    One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
    He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
    He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home
    Stalin in 1941

    Nadezhda stayed with Osip throughout their journeyings and lived with him in exile in the Steppes. After his death, she was sent by Soviet authorities, as a punishment, to teach at a school in the far east of the USSR. But she wrote a memoir of her life with Osip and her hopes after his final arrest that he might survive the gulag. It was called “Hope Against Hope” (published in English in 1970) and has become one of the great memoirs of the 20th century. The sequel “Hope Abandoned” (1974) about her own life after Osip’s death is an indictment of the horror of life under Stalin and his autocratic successors.
    Nadezhda died in 1980, having survived all her persecutors. She lived long enough to see her memoirs published in Russia and abroad and her husband’s reputation established as one of Russia’s, and Europe’s, great poets.

    Jane Russell
    Camberwell, London

    • blackpaint Says:

      Thanks for this Jane. I read the Stalin poem years ago in the Penguin book of Socialist Verse (ed. Alan Bold) and one line stayed with me: « …And each new death to him is a berry confection « . I like your translation better.
      I must read Nadezhda’s memoirs.

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