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i have always loved the paintings of lucian freud. many of them at any rate. along with the pictures of peter blake and david hockney, they were the first exciting contemporary paintings i had ever seen (not very recherche; but i came from northampton; a scuplture by henry moore and a painting by graham sutherland in st matthew's church were the only modern artworks i can recall in the town). freud, of course, also painted portraits. later in life i'd spend a lot of my time drawing and painting people in one way or another and i don't know whether freud's pictures of his mother / frank auerbach / john miton et al. tapped into an obsession i didn't yet know i was going to have or (it only now occurs to me) whether it caused it. strangely he even changed my handwriting. i was briefly working for isis, a student magazine at oxford (drawing cartoon portraits, appropriately), when one of the other students received a short letter from him. i can remember vividly that it was written in a faux-naive childish hand, all lower case, the letters unjoined and the words turning downwards when he ran out of space at the edge of the page. i was mesmerised and have written largely in unjoined-up ever since and been mildly allergic to capital letters.
apart from the obvious pleasures of seeing more of a painter's work in the flesh as well as pictures i've never seen before in any form, i've always found that one of things i get from a big retrsopective is finding out what i don't like about even a loved artist's pictures, which in turn somehow defines more accurately what i do like about it. en route to the exhibition i was talking to a knowledgeable friend who said she didn't like the later paintings. i disagreed and found, half an hour later, that i had to eat my words, though the boundary between early and late fell in a place that caught me by surprise.
in short: there are many things i love about the early portraits. one of which is that they are fascinating however near to the canvas you stand. you can step back and see them purely as portraits (and most of them are utterly gripping as such). or you can step closer and enjoy the near-abstract detail of painted flesh (which is nearly always swirling with e nergy). as you move in and out these two things toggle and swap, paint-person-paint-person which i think says something profound about the nature of painting which i still can't quite put my finger on (see woman smiling, 1958-9, below). this is what starts to disappear from the paintings from the mid-80's onwards, from c. the masterpiece of two irishmen in w11 (copy and paste into google if you don't know the picture i mean). most of them look wonderful in reproduction or from a distance (the pictures of leigh bowery and sue tilley command a room) but the surface of the paintings is no longer so interesting, no longer a sensual pleasure. places where the eyes and hands have lingered (faces, breasts, genitals) are often clotted with paint, not in a frank-aurberach-y way, but in a way which feels troubled.
the ecthings, however, remain astonishing all the way through.
footnote: obviously, every big exhibition now has themed gifts for sale along with the catalogue and the postcards. in the national portrait gallery shop you can buy a small and hilariously naff felt model of one of the dogs in freud's paintings (the whippet eli, i think). i can't imagine freud sanctioning it so i assume it was an opportunistic posthumous kitsch marketing opportunity. if only they'd had benefit supervisor sleeping on a tea towel, i might have bought it.
the sunday times asked several writers for a 50 word short story last week. then said it didn't want them after all. here's mine.
two hundred kilos of explosives. some grey councilor pushes the button and the whole shitty block comes down. for a couple of seconds smoke clings to the ghost of the building and I see the kids we once were running down corridors of air not believing they will ever fall.
at the risk of seeming too proud of my own achievements (but this one was rather leftfield, if that's any excuse), i won an award last night (the st cuthbert's mill award, no less) in the rws contemporary watercolour cometition at their bankside gallery. very very satisfying to win a prize for something that's not a book (wonderful as that kind of award is). the picture is a portrait of stu west. professor stu west indeed, despite the potentially wrong-footing tattoo. it's also a great compensation for my recent discovery that the npg national portrait award does not accept entries on paper, under glass or in water-based media (see previous gripe - 'portrait award'). here's the painting (up for a second time, but in the circumstances, what the hell).
i've just finished reading a proof of patrick white's novel, which he left unfinished at his death (due, it seems, to old age, fatigue, the demands on his time created by the recent publication of his autobiography, flaws in the glass, and by the relatively smaller effort of a play he had been asked to write). backstory: thirty years ago, white was the first contemporary, living, modernist novelist whom i read, loved and wolfed down in great quantities. i hadn't gone back to him for a long, long time so i was worried that he might have changed for the worse in my absence, as both thomas pynchon and armistead maupin seemed to have done when i returned to them after a similar gap. he hadn't. the novel contains all the things i once loved about his writing. it's unfinished in the sense that it is (or so we assume) the first of the intended three parts of the novel, so it reads like a novella with an inconclusive ending, but i don't think most of white's readers are / were greatly driven by a desire to know what happens next. he's simply not that kind of writer. he is all about about language and style and vision and sensuality. thankfully, he seems to have carefully edited the text as it stands (he also, rather frighteningly, seems to have produced an exceptionally polished first draft), leaving only a couple of notes to himself and a handful of passages an editor might want to question (part of the fun of this kind of unfinished novel, is that you can play the editor).
the book is the story of eirene / irene / reenie, a half-greek 'reffo', desposited in australia during the second world war by her mother who leaves her first with her temporary marzipan-fleshed guardian, mrs bulpit, then with her chain-smoking, gin-drinking aunt. substantial parts of it are wonderful, written with that drunken hallucinatory quality i'd always loved in his novels, where points of view and times and places, internal and external landscapes, slide effortlessly into one another and the reader is never quite sure what is happening. indeed i'd forgotten how much he owes to virginia woolf, not least in the way that the literal world keeps blazing up into something brigher and truer and stranger. being patrick white, he also has a queasy fascination with flesh and bodliy fluids, sweat, semen, spit, of which you don't get a great deal in woolf (though there is a diary entry in which she likens letter-writing to having a crap, in that one thinks one has finished 'then another coil comes out'; an image which has, unfortunately, been seared permanently into my memory).
in short, if you've read patrick white, you can read this without being disppointed, if you don't know white's work, read some, then read this. afterwards, like me, you'll start to wonder why on earth he's slipped off the anglo-american lierary radar (post-colonial snobbery is, of course, partly to blame).
the hanging garden is going to be published in april by that fine imprint, jonathan cape. no cover yet, so you'll have to settle for a picture of white himself. don't let it put you off...
i'm painting writers at the moment. this will eventually be paul farley...