“The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model.”
Lucien Freud, 1954
Really, Mr. Freud?!
I’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s engaging new book Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud, just released this past October 2010 by Thames & Hudson. I was gratified to learn that the esteemed artist needed 40 sittings with his model Gayford, spanning 7 months, to complete the single modest canvas of the author’s head. Gayford explains it thus on page 145 of his book:
“Thus a painted image, certainly one by LF, is different in nature from an instantaneous image such as a photograph. David Hockney puts it like this: the painting of him by LF has over a hundred hours ‘layered into it,’ and with them innumerable visual sensations and thoughts.”
During the monstrous Bush II years here in the USA, I was appalled by the lack of accountability of those individuals running the Bush administration. They seemed to be able to break the law, in public, and get away with it. Yet at the same time, I was an artist, and claimed that right - to be unaccountable to anyone - for myself. Certainly I wasn’t committing crimes when I made art, yet still, if I demanded accountability of others I should be able to be held to account myself.
For me, portrait drawing has that quality of accountability. Anyone can visually evaluate a portrait’s accuracy, bypassing experts and holding an artist to account. A child can do it. We all spend our lives evaluating faces.
While it may be true that down the road, once an artwork has been released from the studio and sent into the world, each picture will be “on its own” with no original model to refer to, in the short run the work needs to hew closely to the world, even if a part of that world is the filter of an artist’s experiences and thoughts. Clearly Freud thinks so himself. Why else spend months looking at a particular individual’s face?
What I love about the portraits made by the dozen Central Park artists who have participated so far in the Portrait Exchange is, that they have created the beginnings of a physical baseline of drawings - using a particular face, in this case my own - that bypasses photography and that is calibrating the way people see and experience each other. A single drawing may be “on its own,” but the series as a whole illuminates the rigorous but imperfect manner in which artists evaluate the world.
Take another look at the drawings by clicking on the flickr slide show at the top of this blog.