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On Sunday 3ed March 2019, I went out on a bitterly cold, wet and stormy day to Dun Laoghaire with Carol to see Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen in the Pavilion Theatre. It was the first time since late 1992 that I had been to Dun Laoghaire, when I had given up my studio in the area within a few months, because my social anxiety made it so hard for me to paint outside the safety of my bedroom at home. Before that, the last time I had been in Dun Laoghaire had been when I had drunkenly returned to the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design a few months after I had been expelled - because of my dismal performance and a fight I had with a young man in my class. I had thought my peers would welcome seeing me again - but it quickly became obvious they were uncomfortable and afraid of my reappearance and I was asked to leave.     

 

My trip to Dun Laoghaire with Carol was one of my rare trips out and about - since I had given up all interest in contemporary art and had become contemptuous of the whole absurd, pretentious, effete, snobbish, vain, greedy, manipulative and hypocritical art world. Besides, I had not heard of a single exhibition in Dublin after the Emil Nolde exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland in March 2018 - that I wanted or frankly needed to see. I only wished to leave my house and travel to Dun Laoghaire to see Young Picasso because since my youth I had been obsessed with Picasso and in particular with his early work and development - and I doubted if I would ever have the money or energy to visit his museums again. The 85-minute documentary highlighted the early work of Picasso in the Picasso museums in Malaga, Barcelona and Paris as well as other museums like MoMA and showed his progress from child prodigy to moody painter of the Blue and Rose Periods and ended with his creation of the iconoclastic Modernist masterpiece Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. I had visited the Musée Picasso in Paris in August 1990 and February 2001 and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona in August 1999. But I had never visited the Museo Picasso Málaga, though I had looked through its fat orange catalogue raisonné in the NCAD library. At home I also had dozens of books on Picasso and many on his early work. So, I went to Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen just to relive what I had already seen and studied.                                                                                         

 

 

When we arrived in Dun Laoghaire at about 3pm, we went to Starbucks and had coffees. Then we went to Dun Laoghaire shopping centre - which I had not been to since a teenager in around 1989 - and I was shocked by how small, drab and dated it was. Trying to kill time, we went in the pouring rain down to the pier and Carol photographed the stormy sea. Afterwards we went to Easons and I bought the magazine Bringing History to Life: Greatest Battles of WWII. In the late evening, we went to McDonalds and had Big Mac meals. Afterwards, we walked about the village as it started to snow! At 6pm, we went back to Starbucks and had coffees and killed time before the movie. Finally, we went over to the Pavilion Theatre so see the movie.

                                                                                                                                                          

 

I had foolishly though that many young art students and artists would have flocked to see this story of youthful development - but the audience was overwhelming elderly men and women. In fact, there were only a handful of middle-aged people our age there - though there were some who had brought their well-behaved young daughters or granddaughters. It seemed that most young artists did not give a dam about Picasso! For me, the greatest documentary ever made on Picasso was the three-part one made by John Richardson in 2001 called Picasso: Magic, Sex & DeathYoung Picasso was not as good as that, but it was very informative, and I even learned things I had not known before or had forgotten.                                              

 

Picasso would be merely remembered today as realist child prodigy and minor Symbolist painter, if in 1907 he had not painted Les Demoiselle d’Avignon the single most radical painting of Modernism and then went on to invent Cubism with George Braque - the most revolutionary reorganizing of form since the Renaissance - which then became the most influential movement of Modernism. After Cubism, Picasso continued to startle, perplex and astonish the art world with his protean creativity and constant stylistic changes. But he also came to dominate the gossip pages through his charismatic persona and stories about his innumerable exhibitions, womanising, social climbing, immense wealth, pacifism, and hypocritical membership of the Communist Party. When he died in 1973, he had become the richest and most famous artist in history. And even before his death, his creativity was talked about mythically in divine or demonic terms.                                                                                                                                                            

 

Lost in the long story of Picasso the great artist, was his humble origins as Pablo Ruiz the young son of a mediocre academic painter of pigeons in provincial Spain. Most people were happy to laud Picasso the genius - without ever wondering how he became so great. If people did mention his early work, it was just to prove to philistines who thought Modern art was hoax – that at least Picasso could draw and paint conventionally. But as an ambitious teenage artist, I was obsessed with how Picasso became so brilliant and I thought that I could only beat him as a mature artist - if I mirrored his early development and earned the right to my own future iconoclasm. I recall that when I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland, art was still a very elitist activity, and for the general public and TV audiences alike, virtually all artistic people were considered idiotic con-artists and sexually dubious poseurs - apart from a tiny select few geniuses that might be included in magazine part-works like The Great Artists or Discovering the Great PaintingsAnd only children in artistic families or in rich private schools were given the kind of creative encouragement many young people enjoy today because creativity has finally been recoginsed as vital to contemporary advertising, branding and social media companies. 

                                                                                                                       

 

Personally my artistic ambition was regarded as a delusional embarrassment by most of my family and they did little to encourage me and mostly tried to ignore it - in the hope I would abandon it. In fact, until I got accepted on the basis of exceptional talent into Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design in September 1989 – my mother fought my ambition tooth and nail and belittled me constantly. So apart from the praise of a few of my art teachers, I had to motivate myself and sacrifice almost everything in my life to pursue my dream. Because so much of my artistic development was self-directed, I chose to look at the early work of artists I admired like Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani and Egon Schiele and try to match their early efforts. And it was no coincidence that all my heroes were men – because the brotherhood of art - gave me relief from the terrifying and abominable presence of women. In my mind, I was in an imaginary classroom with my heroes and i thought that only by achieving the conventional skills they possessed at my age - could I earn the right to call myself an artist and later break the rules. Then I discovered the early work of Picasso and my heart was broken - because even at seventeen - I was an abject failure compared to the young Picasso! On the other hand, I suddenly had a visual textbook of youthful creativity from which I could learn. And even now, in bleak periods of artist’s block, I look at the work of the young Picasso for inspiration.                                                                                      

 

However, I did not realise at seventeen, how perverse and artistically nïave I was to seek to emulate the dated late nineteenth century realism of Picasso in 1988 - rather than reflect the nature of my own time. (Though ironically, it could be argued that ideologically Ireland in the 1980s was similar to late nineteenth century Spain with its Nationalism, insularity, provincialism, dire poverty, petite-bourgeois conformity, medieval Catholic hatred of sex and the flesh, paternalistic censorship, moral restrictions on almost every aspect of life, hatred of rebellious youth, misogyny and ambivalence towards both modernity and Modernism.) I also did not realise that by 1988, Picasso was considered an irrelevant dinosaur in the contemporary art world abroad that believed that the anti-art ready-mades and proto-conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp were far more important.                                                                        

 

What I also did not know at the time, was that by trying to emulate Picasso’s early development - I was making things far more difficult for myself - than if I had just arrogantly painted whatever way I felt like and just bluffed it like so many others. I also did not know that no matter what technical achievements I made in my art – they would be undermined and warped by my arrested development, psychological defects and growing mental illness. At seventeen, I had no idea how alienated I had already become from both society and reality and how that would limit the humanity of my art and reduce me to drawing and painting mostly from second-hand media images throughout my life - rather than engaging in the real world with real people like the young Picasso had done so thoroughly. Nor did I realise then, how the damage done to me in childhood would seep into my art - making it anti-social, misanthropic and misogynistic - and guarantee that few people would ever accept it. I also had a totally naïve idea that all an artist had to do was make great artworks and the world would come running. I had no idea how much bravado, hype, salesmanship, seduction, manipulation, arse-licking and social-climbing were involved in promoting one’s art and getting people to believe in and collect it.                                                                                          

 

What I did know, was that art was literally the only thing I lived for and after making a vow at the age of ten to become a great artist - I would die trying to achieve my dream. Art was the only thing I excelled at as a teenager, it was the only thing I was ever praised for, and most importantly it was the only thing that eased my agonising mental pain and gave me a sense of purpose and mastery. And I foolishly thought that if I became a great artist like Picasso, I would finally be loved, respected, valued and understood. But I did not realise that I was asking for things art could never satisfy, that my childhood neglect could never be made up for, and that most people did not give a dam about art, knew nothing about it and only took notice when fame and money were involved.

                                                                                                    

 

If I had seen the Young Picasso documentary in 1988 at the age of seventeen, I might in desperation, have considered throwing myself in front of a train on the way home! Because I totally lacked Picasso’s talent, preternatural skill, work ethic, self-confidence, mental-strength, happy childhood, family support and encouragement and his father’s artistic training and guidance. While Picasso had a cast-iron extrovert self-confidence and self-belief – my mind was shattered and weak and I was an anti-social introvert. On the other-hand, I also lacked the casually arrogant defensiveness of the talentless and unambitious who just cynically shrug at the triumphs of others, make absurd excuses for their own abject failure and make personal attacks on those who have achieved greatness. So, for me as a youth it really did matter to me how crap I was compared to the young Picasso. And as a teenager, I felt like I was wading desperately through a tar-pit in a darkened cave - while the young Picasso danced freely above me on the sunny uplands surrounded by adoring groupies.

 

                                                                                                                  

 

Night after night, I would try through sheer force of will to match Picasso - but he had never had to force his genuine talent. But it is notable that while I mimicked some of his styles and subjects - I was more obsessed by his sheer production numbers - so I sought to produce as many pornographic paintings as I could and bizarrely thought that I could become a better artist than Picasso by being obscener. I was even driven to backdate my work from early January 1987 to late January 1993, to make it seem that I was more precocious than I was. And my obsessive-compulsive backdating was such a shameful and mortal secret to me - that when I finally admitted it to my therapist - I tried to kill myself later that night. But when I survived, I thankful gave up my backdating and shuck off my obsession with Picasso’s productivity.

                   

 

Now as a forty-eight-year-old failure, I am still a wreak of a man, but I am also more realistic about myself, my art and the nature of life. I continue to paint, because I vowed as a child to never quit, but really, I continue to make art more as a form of therapy than out of any real hope of success. Besides the idealistic vision I had of art as a boy has been destroyed for me by contact with its reality - and I feel I belong even less to the world now - than I did as a boy.                                                                                             

 

I also have a more mature and pragmatic understanding of the nature of artistic prodigies and their frequent ultimate mature failures. Because as Edgar Degas observed, "Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty". And graveyards around the world are filled with the anonymous, forgotten and overgrown graves of arrogant prodigies - who thought they would become historically significant. Moreover, given the nature of today’s art glut - they will continue to be filled for decades to come. But Picasso was rare amongst child prodigies, because he continued to excel and innovate throughout his life and in fact vastly outperformed his early promise. So, while I later abandoned many of my childhood heroes, I continued to be inspired by Picasso and considered him the greatest artist of the twentieth century.              

 

Not only are the combined early childhood artworks of Picasso in the Museu Picasso Barcelona, Musée Picasso Paris and Museo Picasso Málaga the largest for any major artist in art history, it is doubtful if any significant artist will ever bequeath such a body of youthfully painted and drawn work again - given that most children today spend so much of their time indolently and passively watching TV and computer screens and have the attention spans of houseflies. Moreover, while art may never die, and will no doubt exploit the vast new technologies like virtual reality - for me, art has been in terminal decline since the late 1990s and the rise of politically-correct art. Because art it is now so much a part of the global and anti-democratic liberal élite committed to progressive fantasies and no longer willing to say anything honest, troubling or transgressive because art has become so much about reputations, status, money and conformity. So, like a fanatical monk who has abandoned religion and become an aggressive atheist – I no longer believe in the manipulative farce of the art world and only revere a few exceptional geniuses.                 

 

As for the nature of artistic prodigies - they are philosophically problematic for me today. They rarely innovate and tend to exploit the well-worn truths of an over-ripe period and style. Like annoying, pampered and displayed parrots - they often just spout prose others invented. So paradoxically, child prodigies are just as often sociologically and art historically the sign of an ending - rather than the heralding of a new beginning. More worryingly, recent child prodigy painters like Alexandra Nechita, Akiane Kramarik, Marla Olmstead and Kieron Williamson have been overexposed before their time, cynically marketed by their families, turned by into commercial and media pawns and uncritically praised - thus almost guaranteeing mature failure. While the ignorant public still think that art is either about painting realistically or with apparent wild and crazy abandon, the art world (at least since the Impressionists in the 1870s put personal, interpretive sensation ahead of objective reality and the tsunami of photography changed everyone’s understanding of the real and made most realist painting a waste of time) have considered realist painting redundant and since the late 1970s and Post-Structuralism the so called ‘death of the author’ are even more skeptical of claims of autonomous and spontaneous expressivity. So, the art of the aforementioned commercially successful child prodigies is treated like a sad joke, similar to the self-love of brain-dead reality stars on TV, who actually think they are the revered authors of their own lives and think people are laughing with them - when in fact they are laughing at them!                                       

 

In fact, today’s real, élite art world (which still upholds certain standards of originality, meaning and criticality) has turned aggressively against traditional manual skill and realist art which is considered elitist, reactionary and bankrupt. So, figurative painting and drawing has largely been pushed aside in favour of egalitarian abstraction, found-objects, assemblage, installations, performance, photography, multi-media, and ideas-based art. Besides, while it was quite common in the Renaissance for young teenagers to work full-time for up to ten years under a Master or in the late nineteenth century for teenage prodigies to attend art colleges full-time for years - today’s teenagers are lucky if they get to spend two hours a week in art class in high school. And because few Art Colleges today accept pupils on the basis of their portfolios alone - they also know that their only real chance of getting into an art college is to also do well in their other core subjects. So, in their brief art classes, they are encouraged to develop quick, catchy ideas which can be rapidly executed - rather than develop technical skills that require both aptitude and patience and may take years to mature. Meanwhile, if you are a contemporary conceptual artist today like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst and can’t draw for toffee - but you wish to create say photo-realist paintings or hyper-real sculptures - you can simply buy the souls of the vast unemployed proletariat of traditionally skilled artists and technicians - and instruct them to make what you want!                                                                                   

 

Then there is the great irony of Picasso’s career, he started as a respectable late nineteenth century prodigy but ended up as a late twentieth century Bad Painter of childlike obscene doodles anticipating Neo-Expressionism. As the arch-conservative art critic Brian Sewell wrote after viewing an exhibition of Picasso’s late artwork in 1988: “A thousand years hence, historians will strive to reverse the chronology, finding it inconceivable that such adolescent graffiti could succeed the intellectual weight of Cubism and the emotional power of the Pink and Blue periods – turn it on its head and it works much better backwards, for in his youth the brilliant Barcelona boy was never the nasty incompetent child he became in his senility”. (Brian Sewell, Late PicassoAlphabet of Villains. London: Bloomsbury, 1995, P. 178.) The traditional devolution of Picasso’s career was unique in art history (though fatuously exaggerated comparisons between late Picasso and late Titian and Rembrandt were made by his lackies) and was only possible in the twentieth century because ancient skills and traditional standards had been replaced by an art market desire for the rapid turnover of novel styles and media need for sensation and scandal. But Picasso himself was well aware of his problematic relationship to tradition and late in life observed that: “Beginning with van Gogh, however great we may be, we are all, in a measure, auto-didacts – you might almost say primitive painters. Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must re-create an entire language. Every painter of our times is fully authorized to re-create that language from A to Z.” (Pablo Picasso quoted in Life with Picasso, Francoise Gilot & Carlton Lake, New York: McGraw Hill, 1964, P.67.)                                     

 

So, the display of Picasso’s early work is theoretically problematic - because even though it is stunning as the work of a child and even though he was proud he was a prodigy - it also represents everything he later rebelled against. Because Picasso’s entire later career in all its various styles, subject matter and ideas was a defiant assertion all of the things restrictive 19th century provincial Spain and Picasso’s father could not dream of in their philosophy. Moreover, the lavish display of Picasso’s early work is now only possible because Picasso later became an infamous Modernist Master and then the most famous and wealthiest artist in art history. 

                                                                                                                

 

It is notable that the last genuinely great and credible prodigy in art was the twenty-something Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s who was inspired by the late Picasso paintings so reviled by the likes of Brian Sewell. Basquiat inverted Picasso’s white Western pillaging of so-called ‘primitive’ Africa art. Basquiat deconstructed and reversed Picasso’s aesthetic colonisation and gave voice to the black lives, culture and history that had been excluded from Western Art History. He was the greatest Neo-Expressionist painter of the 1980s - but he was also a superb Conceptual artist whose first great idea was to draw like a street-smart psychotic child, and he relied more on stylistic ideas than conventional technical skill. Yet, technically Basquiat (who would have flunked any of the traditional academic test’s Picasso triumphed in as a teenager) also proved himself a virtuoso of the ‘primitive-look’ developed by the likes of Picasso and Dubuffet and he did so, in such a hip, Post-Modern and critical way that he avoided mere pastiche and contributed something genuinely new and telling. Like Picasso before him, Basquiat demonstrated that great art is about so much more than mere conventional talent or skill and requires many other things like creativity, original ideas, personality, awareness of both art history and artistic fashion and frankly something meaningful to say. Given the bankrupt and debased nature of contemporary art education, it is no surprise that far more young artists today, lazily try to mimic Basquiat’s ‘primitive’ and ‘child-like’ Neo-Expressionist mimicry of Picasso’s early ‘Negro’ Cubist mimicking of African ‘primitive’ art - than try to paint a large realist multiple-figure anecdotal canvas like The First Communion which Picasso painted at the age of fourteen. All three types of painting are of course now outdated and to copy them is a form of visual plagiarism. Yet, it is funny that while the vast majority of art students today cannot come up with an original idea, they can satisfactorily copy the African Tribal inspired early ‘Negro’ Cubist paintings of the twenty-six-year-old Picasso or the Neo-Expressionist paintings of the twenty-something Basquiat. Funnier still, is that virtually none of them can adequately copy the realist fourteen-year-old Picasso! And nor could I - even now at the age of forty-eight!                                                                                                                                             

 

Born in 1881, Picasso was lucky to be born into a family that considered art important, were convinced of little Pablo’s genius and who later did everything to preserve his earliest efforts. He was also born at a time in art history when the study of juvenilia had become fashionable and thought to provide vital clues to the development of artistic genius. Before the youth revolt of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century, the only work considered preserving was the work of mature masters and the idea of glorifying the efforts of children or teenagers would have seemed presumptuous and absurd. So, the early works on paper of student artists were rarely preserved and the oil paintings or sculptures they had worked on that were preserved were usually workshop or academic pieces made under the instruction of a Master - so despite being technically skilled even brilliant, they often lacked a sense of personal authorship. For example, while the early oil paintings of Anthony van Dyke and Théodore Chassériau were technically more complex and accomplished than Picasso’s early work, much of their work that has survived from their youth was produced either in the factory system of Rubens or the academy of Ingres and so they can lack individuality.                                                                                                                                         

 

Like so many talented and prodigious young artists, Pablo benefited from the fact that his father was an art teacher, who both encourage his talent and taught him the tricks of the trade. His father also bought him art materials, set him tests and hired and paid for models. First taught by his father, Picasso went on just before his eleventh birthday to study at the Corunna School of Arts where his father taught, then at the age of fourteen he was accepted into the Provincial School of Fine Arts (La Llotja) in Barcelona and finally he was accepted at the age of sixteen into the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. Later in life, Picasso liked to downplay the influence of his father and the various academies he studied in - which went down well in an age that had come to despise both patriarchy and academic art and extolled the virtues of youthful rebellion. Now while there is no doubt that Picasso was a prodigy and he achieved things most children of artists never go on to achieve, it is naïve to believe that his training did not help sharpen his skills - even if he later went on to break them. And if Picasso was later to claim with sadness that he had never drawn like a child - and tried to paint like a child in his later life - it was because the period after World War Two exalted innocent childish creativity in opposition to the catastrophic maturity that had brought about war.                                                                                                       

 

As it is, we have virtually nothing made before Picasso turned nine and some like John Richardson think Picasso destroyed this early work because it was so childlike and unremarkable. And far from being some kind of rebel, Picasso happily learned first from his father and then in the aforementioned academies until the age of sixteen and a half. So, throughout his academic training, Picasso produced a lot of brilliant and conformist academic work and proved that he had the talent, skill, craftsmanship, work ethic and ambition to succeed as a fine academic painter – but ultimately, he had different ambitions. It was only in the summer of 1898 that Picasso began to question what all this traditional training meant in the age of Modernism and his work from mid-1898 until late-1901 was marked by a restless search for a style that had meaning and modernity.            

 

From the moment Picasso left the academy and started to try to make a name for himself as an artist he shrewdly ingratiated himself with other young artists and used portraits of them to create bonds of trust. He also cunningly befriended intellectuals and writers who would champion his art. Picasso had been born after the seismic revolution of Impressionism with its stress upon the immediacy of the sketch, personal sensation and touch. So, one of the most distinct and modern qualities of Picasso’s early work was its often, unfinished, impetuous quality, whether that was in dramatic and intense realist portraits on canvas or on pages teeming with tiny little drawings of street life. Even in his early academic work Picasso rebelled against traditional expectations of finish and he seemed to be loathed to bring an artwork to a conventional conclusion.                                                                                    

 

It was in Picasso’s many and various portraits, nudes, figure studies and landscapes made in all kinds of mediums and mostly made from life or taken from him memory and imagination - that his tremendous innate creativity was revealed. A naturally fluent and effortless talent, Picasso was thus able to create a youthful visual diary unparalleled in art history. Even today, Picasso’s quick oil sketches, watercolours, pastels and drawings reminiscent of Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix and made for his own pleasure and self-realisation retain a freshness and vitality that is exceptional - and prove that he had the creativity needed to succeed as an innovator in the Modernist age.                                                               

 

It should also be noted for those unfamiliar with the various drawing and painting mediums, that they all have their own special qualities, difficulties and best practice. So, Picasso’s effortless youthful switching between mediums was remarkable. As was the lasting conservational quality of most of his work - which shows none of the disastrous technical errors that have plagued the conservation of the work of so many other Modern artists - who ignorantly and recklessly made their mediums do things that they were never made to do.                                                                                                                                  

 

Yet, as I have suggested above, the question of how relevant Picasso the child prodigy was to Picasso the Modernist Master remains debatable. Many Modernist painters from Cézanne to Pollock were technically traditional cripples and countless others from the 1910s onward as members of movements like Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract-Expressionism, Pop Art and Conceptualism had absolutely no traditional artistic talent or education - but they were still able to achieve recognition through eccentric showing-off, iconoclastic gestures and media stunts. However, following on from T. S. Eliot there have been many critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes who have argued that many of the lasting greats of Modernism like Picasso, Henri Matisse, Max Beckman and Willem de Kooning were first and foremost traditionally trained artists with a respect for craft, who combined a reverence for tradition with a Modernist need to recast the human condition in new forms. Although the public often thought they were crude incompetent frauds, the truth was they were very sophisticated artists who had de-skilled themselves so as to make eloquent and original modern works that avoided the traps of academicism and kitsch. Personally, despite what people may think from my anti-social and pornographic subject matter, I have always been philosophically and technically on the latter conservative side of art history. So, I don’t think that Picasso’s traditional grounding was incidental to his later greatness. But at the same time, I recognise that had Picasso not been so willful and radical and not sought to break away from the provincial realism of his youth, he would have just ended up like all those tediously stupid, unoriginal, facile and kitsch painters that fill the walls of shopping-mall galleries around the world with bucolic landscapes, jaunty cityscapes, chocolate-box still-lives and simpering female nudes. As a devastating iconoclastic rebel, Picasso first gained the authority of tradition - only to then repudiate it and thus his rejection was all the more profound. He chewed through all the subjects of realism and proved his genuine talent for it and then systematically deconstructed it and all its pretensions to meaning, value and truth.                                                                                     

  • Listening to: Morrissey
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When Picasso arrived in Paris in 1900, he quickly assimilated many of the styles then fashionable to produce a kind of proto-Fauvist body of work that was quickly and deliberately made to cause a sensation and attract buyers - which it did. But after his best friend Carles Casagemas’s committed suicide - Picasso was left feeling devastated and began to paint increasingly in blue to express his grief. These new works were not popular with dealers and soon Picasso was plunged into poverty because of his new artistic vision. The Blue Period was the most difficult and inward-looking of Picasso’s entire life. For the first time, his commitment to his art was really tested. Suffering poverty and depression, Picasso painted the poor and destitute as though they were Medieval saints or melancholy and tragic characters in a silent movie. Cynics have suggested that Picasso painted in blue because blue paint was cheap. But some of the blues he used like cerulean blue were very expensive and there was also passages of yellow, red, green and mauve in his Blue Period work. What was true, was that given his poverty it was cheaper to paint monochrome paintings than full colour ones. Nor were his blue painting unique. In fact, many Symbolist painters had shown a similar infatuation with blue. Given Picasso’s poverty at the time, it is also notable that many of his best works of the Blue Period were on paper in watercolour, pastel or ink.                                                                                             

 

Picasso’s Blue Period artworks revealed his youthful sympathy with the fate of his fellow human beings and his sadness for the plight of the poor, destitute, insane and marginalised including the desperate life of prostitutes who often became unmarried mothers and died young of syphilis. Yet, his introverted Blue Period was also notable for its lack of political engagement, tragic fatalism and realisation that there was little that Picasso himself could do about the situation - other than record it for posterity. Thus, the young Picasso never descended into the kind of adolescent political slogans and rants so typical of lesser artists - especially today.                                                                                                                          

 

In August 1904, Picasso fell in love with Fernande Olivier his first significant lover. When she first met Picasso, Fernande noted that he was very shy, and she was reluctant to be with him because she had already married unhappily as a teenager and had numerous affairs with other artists. At first Fernande simply referred to Picasso as “the Spanish painter” and complained that young Picasso’s personal hygiene was awful. It was only when Picasso introduced her to opium that she fell in love with him. Fernande thought Picasso was a repressed-Classist who had decided that no one would take him seriously if he revealed what a virtuoso he was. So, he had de-skilled himself in order to be fashionably Modern. Slowly, the blues in Picasso work gave way to pinks and ochres as things in his life improved. The happier mood of the Rose Period was not only a result of his happy romantic relationship with Fernande Olivier, it was also due to the languid dreaminess of opium, his growing band of champions like Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire and his growing success with collectors like Gertrude Stein and dealers like Ambroise Vollard. The cast of characters in his work also changed from the hopelessly poor and doomed to the free-spirited acrobats and harlequins of the circus. These were poor people on the edges of society who lived by their own rules and created beauty out of virtually nothing. Picasso liked to depict himself as a harlequin who had made a beautiful costume out of rags and was constantly changing his style. Picasso was also fond of the dark side of the harlequin who hid his true self behind a mask.                                                              

 

Picasso’s Rose Period was his sweetest and most beautiful period and was so androgynous and feminine that one might have thought that these works had been painted by a woman. Except that, despite all the ranting feminist propaganda today for the abilities of female artists dead and alive - no woman has ever painted as beautifully or poetically as this. Nor has any woman ever painted young men more handsomely, dreamily, sympathetically and with such humanity as Picasso did during his Rose Period.

 

The vast majority of artists would have continued to paint these pleasing pictures - which were both critically praised and commercial successful - and continued to rake in the cash and settle down to a comfortable life of artistic repetition. But not Picasso! He constantly took risks with his own career by changing and even repudiating profitable styles - regardless of the cost.                                                   

 

Seeing the success of Matisse and the Fauves who since 1905 had begun to be hailed as revolutionaries - Picasso realised that he was insignificant to the growing story of Modernism. So, in August 1906, he began to work on a huge canvas that would be his bid for the leadership of Modernism. At 96” x 92” (or 243.9 x 233.7cm) it was the largest canvas he had ever painted and because he preferred to work on fine grained canvas more suited to smaller works - he had it backed with a heavier canvas. Picasso decided to paint a brothel scene at first entitled The Wages of Sin - which was inspired by his memories of himself as a teenager visiting prostitutes in brothels in Calle d’Avinyó in Barcelona. One can only imagine the five-foot-four-inch Picasso, toiling on the massive canvas as his nearly eight-foot-tall prostitutes stared back at him. If Matisse and the Fauves had revolutionised colour in painting - he would revolutionise form. Over the course of three-quarters of a year, Picasso made no fewer than 809 studies for this new canvas which ranged from quick scribbles in sketchbooks to large drawings and even a couple of small painted studies. And the canvas itself underwent a number of transformations as he painted it. This vast quantity of studies and prolonged period of working would be astonishing for the average artist. But for an artist of such quicksilver creativity as Picasso - they signified an incredibly obsessive intellectual and creative process. Which is why historians and academics have written about its almost daily developments and argued over their possible dates and meanings.                                                                                                   

 

Picasso initially sought to create a rather stage like looking allegory of Eros and Thanatos in which a sailor was surrounded by five prostitutes - while a young medical student entered stage-left with a skull in his hand. It was supposed to be a dramatic tale about the dangers of promiscuity and syphilis and in many ways - it harked back to Picasso’s youthful realist anecdotal paintings like The First Communion and Science and Charity. But quickly Picasso realised how dated it looked. So, he removed the sailor and medical student and zoomed in – to create a pervert’s eye view of the prostitutes. All of a sudden, we are no longer the audience at a stage play set in a brothel – we are the paying customer being asked to choose which of the five brash prostitutes who stare at us provocatively we want to fuck - in a knowing nod to the Judgement of Paris with all its tragic consequences. Thus, we are implicated in the sexual scene in a way even more radical than Manet’s Olympia’s single haughty prostitute.                                                                                 

 

Yet, that was just the mere subject of his canvas. Picasso’s ambitious were far greater. He wanted to do nothing less than sum up the entire history of figuration in the West and then deconstruct it. None of the prostitutes in the painting were painted from life - instead they were lifted from famous nudes of art history. When Picasso started the painting, he was obsessed with the languorous, beautifully idealised and somewhat abstract nudes of Ingres. So, the central prostitute with one arm raised behind her back was taken from a nude in Ingres’s The Source from 1856. And the incredibly flat pink modelling of the bodies of the prostitutes in the early stages of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon - may also have been inspired by Ingres. But then Picasso came under the sway of Cézanne and his oddly blocky nudes in nature and multiple viewing points - which inspired Picasso to make it seem as though the figures of the prostitutes were moving in space. The squatting prostitute on the lower right-hand side may have been a reference to a seated female figure in Cézanne’s paintings like Three Bathers from 1879-82. Then Picasso became aware of 4th to 3ed Century BC Iberian sculptural figures which inspired him because they were part of his own heritage. In the canvas’s first version, Picasso painted all the faces of the prostitutes in an Iberian manner but subtly painted the four frontally facing faces with noses drawn in profile. Meanwhile he also became obsessed with El Greco and in particular El Greco’s squarish canvas Apocalyptic Vision from 1608-14 which he saw in a Spanish painter’s studio in Paris. One can detect El Greco’s influence in both the dimensions of the canvas, its apocalyptic vision and the glass-like shards in the centre of the canvas - that echo the spiritually torn looking skies of El Greco.                                                                                                                

 

Picasso finished the first version of the canvas around the spring of 1907 - but he remained unsatisfied with it. The painting lacked something for him. Since around 1902, Picasso had been passionate about the work of Paul Gauguin who was the first major artist to bring awareness of ‘primitive’ Polynesian tribal culture to Paris and marry it with his own Post-Impressionist work. Picasso had also probably seen African tribal masks and totems in the studios of artists like Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain and Henri Matisse in Paris where they had become fashionable to collect and muse over. But Picasso thought he might actually have some practical use for them. So, he did not simply stumble into the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro – he was searching for a revelation! And he found it the African and Oceanic tribal artworks. Historians still debate how much Picasso actually copied from African art. Some suggest that it simply confirmed for him things he had already started doing to his faces and figures. As early as the Blue Period, Picasso had been begun reducing faces to mask-like constructions - a tendency that reached a peak with his portrait of Gertrude Stein in the autumn of 1906. And although the face of the prostitute squatting on the lower right-hand side was clearly influenced by African tribal art, historians argue that the way Picasso painted the mask-like face frontally but with a nose that could be seen in profile was his own invention. Notice too, the way he blinded the eye of the prostitute with the African mask on the upper far right holding open the curtain. However, it also seems that Picasso was egotistically reluctant to later give credit or too simplistic an explanation for his greatest achievement to African artists. Yet, it is all too clear that in July 1907, they influenced Picasso to vandalise the Iberian faces of the two prostitutes on the right-hand side - with over-painted African tribal like masks. He also gave the face of the woman on the far left a face that was both Egyptian and African looking and although her face was seen in profile Picasso made her eye appear frontally which was another of his innovations. Yet, he stopped short of transforming the whole canvas in accord with this new influence and simply abandoned it. He may or may not have wanted to go back and finish it - but he never did. Perhaps he recognised that its psycho-sexual psychotic look - had achieved what he had want. Years later, Picasso admitted that the tribal artists of Africa had taught him that art was about magic - and that it could be used to make manifest one’s terrors and desires so that one could exorcize them. African tribal art gave Picasso a ‘primitive’ version of form that could transform his twisted but still benign prostitutes into figures of real sexual dread.                                                                    

 

 

But that was not the end of the story, in the late 1990’s new sources for Picasso’s imagery in Les Demoiselle d’Avignon were discovered. Anne Baldassari found black and white photographs of semi-naked African tribes’ women in Picasso’s photographic archive - whose poses were strikingly similar to those of the figures in Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Yet, when Picasso had acquired these photographs and how much they influenced Les Demoiselle d’Avignon remains debatable. Usually, such a dogs-dinner of influences would have resulted in total disaster and a painting that was merely a collection of pastiches. So, it is a mark of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon’s greatness that it only added to its mystique and made it one of those rare paintings that so many things can be read into.

                                                                                                 

 

If Picasso thought that his brothel painting would be hailed as masterpiece - he was sadly disappointed. Most of the artists, intellectuals and dealers he showed the work to thought he had lost his mind or that the painting was some kind of sick joke. But though no one knew it at the time the twenty-six-year-old Picasso had just changed the course of art history. Meanwhile, it was André Salmon not Picasso who gave the picture its acceptable title Les Demoiselle d’Avignon or The Young Ladies of Avignon. Picasso himself preferred the title Le Bordel d’Avignon or The Brothel of Avignon. Because it was so poorly received, Picasso put it away and it was not exhibited until 1916 and it was only in the early 1920’s that Surrealists like André Breton hailed its ground-breaking importance. And since then, it has been seen as a prophetic canvas that foresaw developments in Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism.    

 

Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was a schizophrenic and unfinished painting that made no conventional sense – but it was the also the very antithesis of stylish kitsch with spoon-fed meaning - which is why it has provoked so much debate and speculation. Rather than telling one story it tells numerous ones. What started out, as yet another conventional anecdotal academic picture titled The Wages of Sin – quickly became a vast laboratory used by Picasso to deconstruct Western figuration and confront the geometry of his own sexual fears. Yet Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was not a hot and heavy confession – it was more like a cold and dispassionate philosophical dissertation. Rather than being painted in one style it was painted in three or more. Rather than being a conventional ‘masterpiece’ that was the summation of all he had learned it was an experimental work that expressed all Picasso’s doubts about traditional figuration, the nature of reality and Westerns Arts idealistic, passive and innocent vision of femininity. It was not only Picasso’s bid for leadership of modern painting it was a challenge to the growing ubiquity and authority of photography and film. Thus, Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was both the summation and repudiation of all the assumptions of Western Art before the twentieth century. It marked both the explosive end of the Western figurative tradition and the start of a completely new understanding of reality and what art could be. Instead of presenting answers – it asked endless questions. It was the two-dimensional record of aesthetic thought - radically changing through the passage of time and psychological awareness. In the past, there had been plenty of preliminary drawings by Old Masters that had been re-worked with changes of composition and emphasis - but no one had ever turned a huge oil on canvas into a thought-process artwork like this. That is why there is even a conceptual quality to it - and why it is so demanding on the viewer who has to think through all its implications.                                                                                                                     

 

For too long, I believe that the myth of Picasso the macho lover has obscured the reality of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Not least because, Picasso like most men of that generation never revealed any psychological weakness to others - and maintained a macho front. But behind the strutting machismo of every man - lies the dread of impotence and failure. As Camille Paglia has observed: “An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of the imagination. The male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow of his mother and of all women. Failure and humiliation constantly wait in the wings. No woman has to prove herself a woman in the grim way a man has to prove himself a man. He must perform, or the show does not go on. Social convention is irrelevant. A flop is a flop.” (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, London: Penguin Books 1990, P. 20.)                                                                                                              

 

The early writings on Picasso - which were overwhelmingly written by friends indebted to him - are mostly just a long series of tall-tales about how amazing Picasso was at everything. So, Picasso’s stories retold by his lackeys suggest that he lost his virginity aged fourteen to a prostitute in a brothel in Barcelona’s notorious Barri Xino and then continued to regularly visit these brothels. Writers like John Richardson recall these events as though the young Picasso was a stud. Apparently, there was no loneliness, no sad longing, no embarrassing moments, no awkward fumbling’s, no premature ejaculation, no impotence, no guilt and certainly no fears. The young Picasso was apparently as great a prodigy at fucking as drawing and painting. Yet, despite Richardson’s awe for Picasso and even crush on him, the young Picasso was just a pampered, teenage, bourgeois painter boy and these prostitutes were fully grown man-eaters! Richardson even went so far as to suggest that since Picasso had very little money but was very charming - the prostitutes might have offered to fuck him for free! The trouble is, the sexual ability of most young boys is laughable to most grown women - and it seems absurd they would take pity on him and fuck him out of charity rather than getting a paying customer - which is the only reason prostitutes fuck strange men or boys. Unfortunately, everyone who got close to Picasso were in such awe of him and so afraid to anger him, that they rarely had the guts to question him about his private life and then challenge his answers – so we are left with just macho myths.                                                                                           

 

 

What is not a myth, is the reality of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon a twisting, gyrating group of compliant prostitutes offering up themselves for Picasso - who turned in the process of its long making into mostly vicious towering medusas' surrounding him. No endless lists of Picasso’s stylistic influences and all the movements Les Demoiselle d’Avignon later influenced, or blow-by-blow accounts of how its composition changed from page to page of his sketchbooks from a stage set with actors in a dated allegory about the dangers of promiscuity and syphilis, or how it was finished as an Iberian influenced harem of eager prostitutes that looked like it could have been taken from the page of an erotic comic book and was then repainted with three of the women turning into tribal influenced monsters - can obscure what happened psychologically to Picasso as he spent three-quarters of a year making it. It may have started as a macho painting of phallic power - but he literally could not keep it up - and it became a horrific image of voyeuristic trauma, post-coital tristesse, fear of castration and abject terror of the feminine. And we all know it! Which is why it has remained on public view with little socio-political controversy since the late 1930s in MoMA - when other far more straightforwardly sexist and misogynistic works have been relegated to the storerooms of museums. It is a painting that appears to pander to macho ideology – but actually reveals masculine weakness and impotence - and the greater and more constant sexual power of multiply-orgasmic women. If the painting’s castration-fears are not talked about much and mostly passed over in silence - it is because emasculation is such a shameful thing for men - and even for women who as mothers and lovers spend their lives stroking men’s fragile egos. Moreover, most feminists who naïvely believe macho propaganda and politically insist on being victims - refuse to see the truth behind so called phallic power.        

 

There were probably many reasons for the psycho-sexual breakdown of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Picasso had started taking opium in the summer of 1904 and was still using it in 1907. While an opium user can at first feel euphoria, relaxation, reduced anxiety, a sense of detachment and like they are floating outside themselves. Long-term use can produce mental deterioration, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and impaired vision. Then there is the fact that he tried to sum up the entire history of the nude in Western Art and load too much other content into one painting. While at first his vision was fresh, bold, energetic and optimistic - it could easily have become worn-out, plagued by myopic details, pessimistic and tortured. As a result, he may have become technically and psychologically fatigued and anguished - and subconsciously allowed that agony infect his work. I think it was this inner anguish that made Picasso transform the brothel scene into an involuntary confession of primal masculine terror in the face of primitive, insatiable, female sexuality. And for me, as a pornographic painter, obsessed with sexuality, this is what is far more important about Les Demoiselle d’Avignon than its art historical significance as the mother of Cubism - which is now as old-fashioned as the unicycle, is irrelevant to contemporary art and has proved a dead-end.                        

 

 

In my experience, many prostitutes in brothels have a knowing fearlessness of most men - as a result of their vast experience of men of all ages and of all shapes and sizes, awareness of what weakness frequently lurks behind macho bravado and personal experience of men’s vulnerability and inadequacy. Reviled, marginalised and even brutalised they also have the freedom and fearlessness of the damned. As Camille Paglia noted: “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who controls the sexual channel between nature and culture.” (Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, London: Viking, 1992, P. 18.) 

                                                                                                                 

 

It seems unquestionable to me that at any time in art history - Picasso would have found a way to excel. However, the flaws and limitations to Picasso the prodigy and later virtuoso manipulator of style were many. He could be thoughtlessly happy just to fill canvases with glib painted forms merely for the sake of productivity and he could be facile and verge on pastiche at his worst. While, his development of so many styles was dazzling and in the case of Cubism historically momentous – it also left the question of who the real Picasso was hanging over his oeuvre - and promoted the likes of Carl Jung to speculate that he was schizophrenic (though the term was used much more broadly at the time than it is today). Not only was Picasso’s work on a strategic level stylistically diverse – it was also tactically diverse on the level of the fracture of his individual paintings as he constantly varied his drawing technique, thinness and thickness of paint, brush marks and colour combinations. Thus, even in individual paintings we can see how he was never satisfied with a routine and formulaic approach. He constantly sought to surprise himself and question the architecture of drawing and painting. This was also the way he avoided the kind of rote technique and slick virtuosity that had become so discredited through nineteenth century academicism and Belle Epoch portraiture. So, Picasso’s art displayed an incredible variety of visual ideas not only in his various artistic periods or his individual paintings but also in the space of a few square inches in single artworks.                                                                                                                                         

 

Although Picasso was the co-creator of Cubism, it can be argued that Georges Braque was the finer Cubist painter and more innovative. As a colourist and Modernist painter Picasso lacked the sophistication of Henri Matisse. Nor was Picasso ever a painterly painter who could allow the paint to tell its own story and he was not a natural colourist, so his brushwork, paint and colour mostly just served his draughtsmanship. And while he was undoubtedly the greatest draughtsman of the Twentieth century - because of the quality, size and duration of his oeuvre and because of the variety of mediums, styles and moods he explored - he never possessed the shooting-star brilliance and stylistic explosiveness of Egon Schiele. Nor did Picasso ever achieve the transcendent humanism of Rembrandt or visionary feeling of van Gogh. As the sexually normative, pampered, adored and well adjusted-child of a middle-class family, Picasso could never - nor would have ever wanted to - produce the kind of truly sexually perverse and transgressive work made by the likes of Egon Schiele, Salvador Dalí or Hans Bellmer. Nor did Picasso have the capacity for the violent expression of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman or Jackson Pollock. And because he was so gifted as a figurative artist, Picasso could never bring himself to fully developed his art abstractly like Wassily Kandinsky or Piet Mondrian. Because his talents were so instinctive and grounded in traditional mediums and craftsmanship, Picasso could never play with pure ideas like Marcel Duchamp. And because he was so in love with art and his own abilities Picasso was never an anti-artist. Finally, because he was so self-confident and macho, played the art game so well, was so critically and commercially successful and so famous - his life and art largely lacked the tragic drama and visionary grandeur of artists from Michelangelo to Rembrandt, van Gogh, Pollock and Basquiat.                                                  

 

And now in the post MeToo era with all its self-righteous morality and lynch-mob mentality Picasso has been attacked as misogynistic abuser of women whose work should be ignored. But frankly, if you removed Picasso from the story of Modern art - it would be like removing the foundations to a vast skyscraper - the whole era would collapse into total meaningless. Yet, many contemporary feminists with their cheap sophomoric morality would probably prefer that - than try to achieve even a tenth of what Picasso did. Personally, as an artist with a reverence for the achievement of the Old and Modern Masters - I refuse to avoid the challenge of the Canon. And as a student of both history and art history since my youth, I find morality is too often used by ignorant people who can’t be bothered to understand the complexity of life – which is far removed from childish notions of goodies and baddies. We are all fallen creatures, but we only study the work of people who made something significant out of their fallen state. 

  • Listening to: Morrissey
  • Reading: Too many to list.
  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

On Sunday 3ed March 2019, I went out on a bitterly cold, wet and stormy day to Dun Laoghaire with Carol to see Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen in the Pavilion Theatre. It was the first time since late 1992 that I had been to Dun Laoghaire, when I had given up my studio in the area within a few months, because my social anxiety made it so hard for me to paint outside the safety of my bedroom at home. Before that, the last time I had been in Dun Laoghaire had been when I had drunkenly returned to the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design a few months after I had been expelled - because of my dismal performance and a fight I had with a young man in my class. I had thought my peers would welcome seeing me again - but it quickly became obvious they were uncomfortable and afraid of my reappearance and I was asked to leave.     

 

My trip to Dun Laoghaire with Carol was one of my rare trips out and about - since I had given up all interest in contemporary art and had become contemptuous of the whole absurd, pretentious, effete, snobbish, vain, greedy, manipulative and hypocritical art world. Besides, I had not heard of a single exhibition in Dublin after the Emil Nolde exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland in March 2018 - that I wanted or frankly needed to see. I only wished to leave my house and travel to Dun Laoghaire to see Young Picasso because since my youth I had been obsessed with Picasso and in particular with his early work and development - and I doubted if I would ever have the money or energy to visit his museums again. The 85-minute documentary highlighted the early work of Picasso in the Picasso museums in Malaga, Barcelona and Paris as well as other museums like MoMA and showed his progress from child prodigy to moody painter of the Blue and Rose Periods and ended with his creation of the iconoclastic Modernist masterpiece Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. I had visited the Musée Picasso in Paris in August 1990 and February 2001 and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona in August 1999. But I had never visited the Museo Picasso Málaga, though I had looked through its fat orange catalogue raisonné in the NCAD library. At home I also had dozens of books on Picasso and many on his early work. So, I went to Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen just to relive what I had already seen and studied.                                                                                         

 

 

When we arrived in Dun Laoghaire at about 3pm, we went to Starbucks and had coffees. Then we went to Dun Laoghaire shopping centre - which I had not been to since a teenager in around 1989 - and I was shocked by how small, drab and dated it was. Trying to kill time, we went in the pouring rain down to the pier and Carol photographed the stormy sea. Afterwards we went to Easons and I bought the magazine Bringing History to Life: Greatest Battles of WWII. In the late evening, we went to McDonalds and had Big Mac meals. Afterwards, we walked about the village as it started to snow! At 6pm, we went back to Starbucks and had coffees and killed time before the movie. Finally, we went over to the Pavilion Theatre so see the movie.

                                                                                                                                                          

 

I had foolishly though that many young art students and artists would have flocked to see this story of youthful development - but the audience was overwhelming elderly men and women. In fact, there were only a handful of middle-aged people our age there - though there were some who had brought their well-behaved young daughters or granddaughters. It seemed that most young artists did not give a dam about Picasso! For me, the greatest documentary ever made on Picasso was the three-part one made by John Richardson in 2001 called Picasso: Magic, Sex & DeathYoung Picasso was not as good as that, but it was very informative, and I even learned things I had not known before or had forgotten.                                              

 

Picasso would be merely remembered today as realist child prodigy and minor Symbolist painter, if in 1907 he had not painted Les Demoiselle d’Avignon the single most radical painting of Modernism and then went on to invent Cubism with George Braque - the most revolutionary reorganizing of form since the Renaissance - which then became the most influential movement of Modernism. After Cubism, Picasso continued to startle, perplex and astonish the art world with his protean creativity and constant stylistic changes. But he also came to dominate the gossip pages through his charismatic persona and stories about his innumerable exhibitions, womanising, social climbing, immense wealth, pacifism, and hypocritical membership of the Communist Party. When he died in 1973, he had become the richest and most famous artist in history. And even before his death, his creativity was talked about mythically in divine or demonic terms.                                                                                                                                                            

 

Lost in the long story of Picasso the great artist, was his humble origins as Pablo Ruiz the young son of a mediocre academic painter of pigeons in provincial Spain. Most people were happy to laud Picasso the genius - without ever wondering how he became so great. If people did mention his early work, it was just to prove to philistines who thought Modern art was hoax – that at least Picasso could draw and paint conventionally. But as an ambitious teenage artist, I was obsessed with how Picasso became so brilliant and I thought that I could only beat him as a mature artist - if I mirrored his early development and earned the right to my own future iconoclasm. I recall that when I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland, art was still a very elitist activity, and for the general public and TV audiences alike, virtually all artistic people were considered idiotic con-artists and sexually dubious poseurs - apart from a tiny select few geniuses that might be included in magazine part-works like The Great Artists or Discovering the Great PaintingsAnd only children in artistic families or in rich private schools were given the kind of creative encouragement many young people enjoy today because creativity has finally been recoginsed as vital to contemporary advertising, branding and social media companies. 

                                                                                                                       

 

Personally my artistic ambition was regarded as a delusional embarrassment by most of my family and they did little to encourage me and mostly tried to ignore it - in the hope I would abandon it. In fact, until I got accepted on the basis of exceptional talent into Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design in September 1989 – my mother fought my ambition tooth and nail and belittled me constantly. So apart from the praise of a few of my art teachers, I had to motivate myself and sacrifice almost everything in my life to pursue my dream. Because so much of my artistic development was self-directed, I chose to look at the early work of artists I admired like Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani and Egon Schiele and try to match their early efforts. And it was no coincidence that all my heroes were men – because the brotherhood of art - gave me relief from the terrifying and abominable presence of women. In my mind, I was in an imaginary classroom with my heroes and i thought that only by achieving the conventional skills they possessed at my age - could I earn the right to call myself an artist and later break the rules. Then I discovered the early work of Picasso and my heart was broken - because even at seventeen - I was an abject failure compared to the young Picasso! On the other hand, I suddenly had a visual textbook of youthful creativity from which I could learn. And even now, in bleak periods of artist’s block, I look at the work of the young Picasso for inspiration.                                                                                      

 

However, I did not realise at seventeen, how perverse and artistically nïave I was to seek to emulate the dated late nineteenth century realism of Picasso in 1988 - rather than reflect the nature of my own time. (Though ironically, it could be argued that ideologically Ireland in the 1980s was similar to late nineteenth century Spain with its Nationalism, insularity, provincialism, dire poverty, petite-bourgeois conformity, medieval Catholic hatred of sex and the flesh, paternalistic censorship, moral restrictions on almost every aspect of life, hatred of rebellious youth, misogyny and ambivalence towards both modernity and Modernism.) I also did not realise that by 1988, Picasso was considered an irrelevant dinosaur in the contemporary art world abroad that believed that the anti-art ready-mades and proto-conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp were far more important.                                                                        

 

What I also did not know at the time, was that by trying to emulate Picasso’s early development - I was making things far more difficult for myself - than if I had just arrogantly painted whatever way I felt like and just bluffed it like so many others. I also did not know that no matter what technical achievements I made in my art – they would be undermined and warped by my arrested development, psychological defects and growing mental illness. At seventeen, I had no idea how alienated I had already become from both society and reality and how that would limit the humanity of my art and reduce me to drawing and painting mostly from second-hand media images throughout my life - rather than engaging in the real world with real people like the young Picasso had done so thoroughly. Nor did I realise then, how the damage done to me in childhood would seep into my art - making it anti-social, misanthropic and misogynistic - and guarantee that few people would ever accept it. I also had a totally naïve idea that all an artist had to do was make great artworks and the world would come running. I had no idea how much bravado, hype, salesmanship, seduction, manipulation, arse-licking and social-climbing were involved in promoting one’s art and getting people to believe in and collect it.                                                                                          

 

What I did know, was that art was literally the only thing I lived for and after making a vow at the age of ten to become a great artist - I would die trying to achieve my dream. Art was the only thing I excelled at as a teenager, it was the only thing I was ever praised for, and most importantly it was the only thing that eased my agonising mental pain and gave me a sense of purpose and mastery. And I foolishly thought that if I became a great artist like Picasso, I would finally be loved, respected, valued and understood. But I did not realise that I was asking for things art could never satisfy, that my childhood neglect could never be made up for, and that most people did not give a dam about art, knew nothing about it and only took notice when fame and money were involved.

                                                                                                    

 

If I had seen the Young Picasso documentary in 1988 at the age of seventeen, I might in desperation, have considered throwing myself in front of a train on the way home! Because I totally lacked Picasso’s talent, preternatural skill, work ethic, self-confidence, mental-strength, happy childhood, family support and encouragement and his father’s artistic training and guidance. While Picasso had a cast-iron extrovert self-confidence and self-belief – my mind was shattered and weak and I was an anti-social introvert. On the other-hand, I also lacked the casually arrogant defensiveness of the talentless and unambitious who just cynically shrug at the triumphs of others, make absurd excuses for their own abject failure and make personal attacks on those who have achieved greatness. So, for me as a youth it really did matter to me how crap I was compared to the young Picasso. And as a teenager, I felt like I was wading desperately through a tar-pit in a darkened cave - while the young Picasso danced freely above me on the sunny uplands surrounded by adoring groupies.

 

                                                                                                                  

 

Night after night, I would try through sheer force of will to match Picasso - but he had never had to force his genuine talent. But it is notable that while I mimicked some of his styles and subjects - I was more obsessed by his sheer production numbers - so I sought to produce as many pornographic paintings as I could and bizarrely thought that I could become a better artist than Picasso by being obscener. I was even driven to backdate my work from early January 1987 to late January 1993, to make it seem that I was more precocious than I was. And my obsessive-compulsive backdating was such a shameful and mortal secret to me - that when I finally admitted it to my therapist - I tried to kill myself later that night. But when I survived, I thankful gave up my backdating and shuck off my obsession with Picasso’s productivity.

                   

 

Now as a forty-eight-year-old failure, I am still a wreak of a man, but I am also more realistic about myself, my art and the nature of life. I continue to paint, because I vowed as a child to never quit, but really, I continue to make art more as a form of therapy than out of any real hope of success. Besides the idealistic vision I had of art as a boy has been destroyed for me by contact with its reality - and I feel I belong even less to the world now - than I did as a boy.                                                                                             

 

I also have a more mature and pragmatic understanding of the nature of artistic prodigies and their frequent ultimate mature failures. Because as Edgar Degas observed, "Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty". And graveyards around the world are filled with the anonymous, forgotten and overgrown graves of arrogant prodigies - who thought they would become historically significant. Moreover, given the nature of today’s art glut - they will continue to be filled for decades to come. But Picasso was rare amongst child prodigies, because he continued to excel and innovate throughout his life and in fact vastly outperformed his early promise. So, while I later abandoned many of my childhood heroes, I continued to be inspired by Picasso and considered him the greatest artist of the twentieth century.              

 

Not only are the combined early childhood artworks of Picasso in the Museu Picasso Barcelona, Musée Picasso Paris and Museo Picasso Málaga the largest for any major artist in art history, it is doubtful if any significant artist will ever bequeath such a body of youthfully painted and drawn work again - given that most children today spend so much of their time indolently and passively watching TV and computer screens and have the attention spans of houseflies. Moreover, while art may never die, and will no doubt exploit the vast new technologies like virtual reality - for me, art has been in terminal decline since the late 1990s and the rise of politically-correct art. Because art it is now so much a part of the global and anti-democratic liberal élite committed to progressive fantasies and no longer willing to say anything honest, troubling or transgressive because art has become so much about reputations, status, money and conformity. So, like a fanatical monk who has abandoned religion and become an aggressive atheist – I no longer believe in the manipulative farce of the art world and only revere a few exceptional geniuses.                 

 

As for the nature of artistic prodigies - they are philosophically problematic for me today. They rarely innovate and tend to exploit the well-worn truths of an over-ripe period and style. Like annoying, pampered and displayed parrots - they often just spout prose others invented. So paradoxically, child prodigies are just as often sociologically and art historically the sign of an ending - rather than the heralding of a new beginning. More worryingly, recent child prodigy painters like Alexandra Nechita, Akiane Kramarik, Marla Olmstead and Kieron Williamson have been overexposed before their time, cynically marketed by their families, turned by into commercial and media pawns and uncritically praised - thus almost guaranteeing mature failure. While the ignorant public still think that art is either about painting realistically or with apparent wild and crazy abandon, the art world (at least since the Impressionists in the 1870s put personal, interpretive sensation ahead of objective reality and the tsunami of photography changed everyone’s understanding of the real and made most realist painting a waste of time) have considered realist painting redundant and since the late 1970s and Post-Structuralism the so called ‘death of the author’ are even more skeptical of claims of autonomous and spontaneous expressivity. So, the art of the aforementioned commercially successful child prodigies is treated like a sad joke, similar to the self-love of brain-dead reality stars on TV, who actually think they are the revered authors of their own lives and think people are laughing with them - when in fact they are laughing at them!                                       

 

In fact, today’s real, élite art world (which still upholds certain standards of originality, meaning and criticality) has turned aggressively against traditional manual skill and realist art which is considered elitist, reactionary and bankrupt. So, figurative painting and drawing has largely been pushed aside in favour of egalitarian abstraction, found-objects, assemblage, installations, performance, photography, multi-media, and ideas-based art. Besides, while it was quite common in the Renaissance for young teenagers to work full-time for up to ten years under a Master or in the late nineteenth century for teenage prodigies to attend art colleges full-time for years - today’s teenagers are lucky if they get to spend two hours a week in art class in high school. And because few Art Colleges today accept pupils on the basis of their portfolios alone - they also know that their only real chance of getting into an art college is to also do well in their other core subjects. So, in their brief art classes, they are encouraged to develop quick, catchy ideas which can be rapidly executed - rather than develop technical skills that require both aptitude and patience and may take years to mature. Meanwhile, if you are a contemporary conceptual artist today like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst and can’t draw for toffee - but you wish to create say photo-realist paintings or hyper-real sculptures - you can simply buy the souls of the vast unemployed proletariat of traditionally skilled artists and technicians - and instruct them to make what you want!                                                                                   

 

Then there is the great irony of Picasso’s career, he started as a respectable late nineteenth century prodigy but ended up as a late twentieth century Bad Painter of childlike obscene doodles anticipating Neo-Expressionism. As the arch-conservative art critic Brian Sewell wrote after viewing an exhibition of Picasso’s late artwork in 1988: “A thousand years hence, historians will strive to reverse the chronology, finding it inconceivable that such adolescent graffiti could succeed the intellectual weight of Cubism and the emotional power of the Pink and Blue periods – turn it on its head and it works much better backwards, for in his youth the brilliant Barcelona boy was never the nasty incompetent child he became in his senility”. (Brian Sewell, Late PicassoAlphabet of Villains. London: Bloomsbury, 1995, P. 178.) The traditional devolution of Picasso’s career was unique in art history (though fatuously exaggerated comparisons between late Picasso and late Titian and Rembrandt were made by his lackies) and was only possible in the twentieth century because ancient skills and traditional standards had been replaced by an art market desire for the rapid turnover of novel styles and media need for sensation and scandal. But Picasso himself was well aware of his problematic relationship to tradition and late in life observed that: “Beginning with van Gogh, however great we may be, we are all, in a measure, auto-didacts – you might almost say primitive painters. Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must re-create an entire language. Every painter of our times is fully authorized to re-create that language from A to Z.” (Pablo Picasso quoted in Life with Picasso, Francoise Gilot & Carlton Lake, New York: McGraw Hill, 1964, P.67.)                                     

 

So, the display of Picasso’s early work is theoretically problematic - because even though it is stunning as the work of a child and even though he was proud he was a prodigy - it also represents everything he later rebelled against. Because Picasso’s entire later career in all its various styles, subject matter and ideas was a defiant assertion all of the things restrictive 19th century provincial Spain and Picasso’s father could not dream of in their philosophy. Moreover, the lavish display of Picasso’s early work is now only possible because Picasso later became an infamous Modernist Master and then the most famous and wealthiest artist in art history. 

                                                                                                                

 

It is notable that the last genuinely great and credible prodigy in art was the twenty-something Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s who was inspired by the late Picasso paintings so reviled by the likes of Brian Sewell. Basquiat inverted Picasso’s white Western pillaging of so-called ‘primitive’ Africa art. Basquiat deconstructed and reversed Picasso’s aesthetic colonisation and gave voice to the black lives, culture and history that had been excluded from Western Art History. He was the greatest Neo-Expressionist painter of the 1980s - but he was also a superb Conceptual artist whose first great idea was to draw like a street-smart psychotic child, and he relied more on stylistic ideas than conventional technical skill. Yet, technically Basquiat (who would have flunked any of the traditional academic test’s Picasso triumphed in as a teenager) also proved himself a virtuoso of the ‘primitive-look’ developed by the likes of Picasso and Dubuffet and he did so, in such a hip, Post-Modern and critical way that he avoided mere pastiche and contributed something genuinely new and telling. Like Picasso before him, Basquiat demonstrated that great art is about so much more than mere conventional talent or skill and requires many other things like creativity, original ideas, personality, awareness of both art history and artistic fashion and frankly something meaningful to say. Given the bankrupt and debased nature of contemporary art education, it is no surprise that far more young artists today, lazily try to mimic Basquiat’s ‘primitive’ and ‘child-like’ Neo-Expressionist mimicry of Picasso’s early ‘Negro’ Cubist mimicking of African ‘primitive’ art - than try to paint a large realist multiple-figure anecdotal canvas like The First Communion which Picasso painted at the age of fourteen. All three types of painting are of course now outdated and to copy them is a form of visual plagiarism. Yet, it is funny that while the vast majority of art students today cannot come up with an original idea, they can satisfactorily copy the African Tribal inspired early ‘Negro’ Cubist paintings of the twenty-six-year-old Picasso or the Neo-Expressionist paintings of the twenty-something Basquiat. Funnier still, is that virtually none of them can adequately copy the realist fourteen-year-old Picasso! And nor could I - even now at the age of forty-eight!                                                                                                                                             

 

Born in 1881, Picasso was lucky to be born into a family that considered art important, were convinced of little Pablo’s genius and who later did everything to preserve his earliest efforts. He was also born at a time in art history when the study of juvenilia had become fashionable and thought to provide vital clues to the development of artistic genius. Before the youth revolt of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century, the only work considered preserving was the work of mature masters and the idea of glorifying the efforts of children or teenagers would have seemed presumptuous and absurd. So, the early works on paper of student artists were rarely preserved and the oil paintings or sculptures they had worked on that were preserved were usually workshop or academic pieces made under the instruction of a Master - so despite being technically skilled even brilliant, they often lacked a sense of personal authorship. For example, while the early oil paintings of Anthony van Dyke and Théodore Chassériau were technically more complex and accomplished than Picasso’s early work, much of their work that has survived from their youth was produced either in the factory system of Rubens or the academy of Ingres and so they can lack individuality.                                                                                                                                         

 

Like so many talented and prodigious young artists, Pablo benefited from the fact that his father was an art teacher, who both encourage his talent and taught him the tricks of the trade. His father also bought him art materials, set him tests and hired and paid for models. First taught by his father, Picasso went on just before his eleventh birthday to study at the Corunna School of Arts where his father taught, then at the age of fourteen he was accepted into the Provincial School of Fine Arts (La Llotja) in Barcelona and finally he was accepted at the age of sixteen into the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. Later in life, Picasso liked to downplay the influence of his father and the various academies he studied in - which went down well in an age that had come to despise both patriarchy and academic art and extolled the virtues of youthful rebellion. Now while there is no doubt that Picasso was a prodigy and he achieved things most children of artists never go on to achieve, it is naïve to believe that his training did not help sharpen his skills - even if he later went on to break them. And if Picasso was later to claim with sadness that he had never drawn like a child - and tried to paint like a child in his later life - it was because the period after World War Two exalted innocent childish creativity in opposition to the catastrophic maturity that had brought about war.                                                                                                       

 

As it is, we have virtually nothing made before Picasso turned nine and some like John Richardson think Picasso destroyed this early work because it was so childlike and unremarkable. And far from being some kind of rebel, Picasso happily learned first from his father and then in the aforementioned academies until the age of sixteen and a half. So, throughout his academic training, Picasso produced a lot of brilliant and conformist academic work and proved that he had the talent, skill, craftsmanship, work ethic and ambition to succeed as a fine academic painter – but ultimately, he had different ambitions. It was only in the summer of 1898 that Picasso began to question what all this traditional training meant in the age of Modernism and his work from mid-1898 until late-1901 was marked by a restless search for a style that had meaning and modernity.            

 

From the moment Picasso left the academy and started to try to make a name for himself as an artist he shrewdly ingratiated himself with other young artists and used portraits of them to create bonds of trust. He also cunningly befriended intellectuals and writers who would champion his art. Picasso had been born after the seismic revolution of Impressionism with its stress upon the immediacy of the sketch, personal sensation and touch. So, one of the most distinct and modern qualities of Picasso’s early work was its often, unfinished, impetuous quality, whether that was in dramatic and intense realist portraits on canvas or on pages teeming with tiny little drawings of street life. Even in his early academic work Picasso rebelled against traditional expectations of finish and he seemed to be loathed to bring an artwork to a conventional conclusion.                                                                                    

 

It was in Picasso’s many and various portraits, nudes, figure studies and landscapes made in all kinds of mediums and mostly made from life or taken from him memory and imagination - that his tremendous innate creativity was revealed. A naturally fluent and effortless talent, Picasso was thus able to create a youthful visual diary unparalleled in art history. Even today, Picasso’s quick oil sketches, watercolours, pastels and drawings reminiscent of Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix and made for his own pleasure and self-realisation retain a freshness and vitality that is exceptional - and prove that he had the creativity needed to succeed as an innovator in the Modernist age.                                                               

 

It should also be noted for those unfamiliar with the various drawing and painting mediums, that they all have their own special qualities, difficulties and best practice. So, Picasso’s effortless youthful switching between mediums was remarkable. As was the lasting conservational quality of most of his work - which shows none of the disastrous technical errors that have plagued the conservation of the work of so many other Modern artists - who ignorantly and recklessly made their mediums do things that they were never made to do.                                                                                                                                  

 

Yet, as I have suggested above, the question of how relevant Picasso the child prodigy was to Picasso the Modernist Master remains debatable. Many Modernist painters from Cézanne to Pollock were technically traditional cripples and countless others from the 1910s onward as members of movements like Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract-Expressionism, Pop Art and Conceptualism had absolutely no traditional artistic talent or education - but they were still able to achieve recognition through eccentric showing-off, iconoclastic gestures and media stunts. However, following on from T. S. Eliot there have been many critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes who have argued that many of the lasting greats of Modernism like Picasso, Henri Matisse, Max Beckman and Willem de Kooning were first and foremost traditionally trained artists with a respect for craft, who combined a reverence for tradition with a Modernist need to recast the human condition in new forms. Although the public often thought they were crude incompetent frauds, the truth was they were very sophisticated artists who had de-skilled themselves so as to make eloquent and original modern works that avoided the traps of academicism and kitsch. Personally, despite what people may think from my anti-social and pornographic subject matter, I have always been philosophically and technically on the latter conservative side of art history. So, I don’t think that Picasso’s traditional grounding was incidental to his later greatness. But at the same time, I recognise that had Picasso not been so willful and radical and not sought to break away from the provincial realism of his youth, he would have just ended up like all those tediously stupid, unoriginal, facile and kitsch painters that fill the walls of shopping-mall galleries around the world with bucolic landscapes, jaunty cityscapes, chocolate-box still-lives and simpering female nudes. As a devastating iconoclastic rebel, Picasso first gained the authority of tradition - only to then repudiate it and thus his rejection was all the more profound. He chewed through all the subjects of realism and proved his genuine talent for it and then systematically deconstructed it and all its pretensions to meaning, value and truth.                                                                                     

  • Listening to: Morrissey
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  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

When Picasso arrived in Paris in 1900, he quickly assimilated many of the styles then fashionable to produce a kind of proto-Fauvist body of work that was quickly and deliberately made to cause a sensation and attract buyers - which it did. But after his best friend Carles Casagemas’s committed suicide - Picasso was left feeling devastated and began to paint increasingly in blue to express his grief. These new works were not popular with dealers and soon Picasso was plunged into poverty because of his new artistic vision. The Blue Period was the most difficult and inward-looking of Picasso’s entire life. For the first time, his commitment to his art was really tested. Suffering poverty and depression, Picasso painted the poor and destitute as though they were Medieval saints or melancholy and tragic characters in a silent movie. Cynics have suggested that Picasso painted in blue because blue paint was cheap. But some of the blues he used like cerulean blue were very expensive and there was also passages of yellow, red, green and mauve in his Blue Period work. What was true, was that given his poverty it was cheaper to paint monochrome paintings than full colour ones. Nor were his blue painting unique. In fact, many Symbolist painters had shown a similar infatuation with blue. Given Picasso’s poverty at the time, it is also notable that many of his best works of the Blue Period were on paper in watercolour, pastel or ink.                                                                                             

 

Picasso’s Blue Period artworks revealed his youthful sympathy with the fate of his fellow human beings and his sadness for the plight of the poor, destitute, insane and marginalised including the desperate life of prostitutes who often became unmarried mothers and died young of syphilis. Yet, his introverted Blue Period was also notable for its lack of political engagement, tragic fatalism and realisation that there was little that Picasso himself could do about the situation - other than record it for posterity. Thus, the young Picasso never descended into the kind of adolescent political slogans and rants so typical of lesser artists - especially today.                                                                                                                          

 

In August 1904, Picasso fell in love with Fernande Olivier his first significant lover. When she first met Picasso, Fernande noted that he was very shy, and she was reluctant to be with him because she had already married unhappily as a teenager and had numerous affairs with other artists. At first Fernande simply referred to Picasso as “the Spanish painter” and complained that young Picasso’s personal hygiene was awful. It was only when Picasso introduced her to opium that she fell in love with him. Fernande thought Picasso was a repressed-Classist who had decided that no one would take him seriously if he revealed what a virtuoso he was. So, he had de-skilled himself in order to be fashionably Modern. Slowly, the blues in Picasso work gave way to pinks and ochres as things in his life improved. The happier mood of the Rose Period was not only a result of his happy romantic relationship with Fernande Olivier, it was also due to the languid dreaminess of opium, his growing band of champions like Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire and his growing success with collectors like Gertrude Stein and dealers like Ambroise Vollard. The cast of characters in his work also changed from the hopelessly poor and doomed to the free-spirited acrobats and harlequins of the circus. These were poor people on the edges of society who lived by their own rules and created beauty out of virtually nothing. Picasso liked to depict himself as a harlequin who had made a beautiful costume out of rags and was constantly changing his style. Picasso was also fond of the dark side of the harlequin who hid his true self behind a mask.                                                              

 

Picasso’s Rose Period was his sweetest and most beautiful period and was so androgynous and feminine that one might have thought that these works had been painted by a woman. Except that, despite all the ranting feminist propaganda today for the abilities of female artists dead and alive - no woman has ever painted as beautifully or poetically as this. Nor has any woman ever painted young men more handsomely, dreamily, sympathetically and with such humanity as Picasso did during his Rose Period.

 

The vast majority of artists would have continued to paint these pleasing pictures - which were both critically praised and commercial successful - and continued to rake in the cash and settle down to a comfortable life of artistic repetition. But not Picasso! He constantly took risks with his own career by changing and even repudiating profitable styles - regardless of the cost.                                                   

 

Seeing the success of Matisse and the Fauves who since 1905 had begun to be hailed as revolutionaries - Picasso realised that he was insignificant to the growing story of Modernism. So, in August 1906, he began to work on a huge canvas that would be his bid for the leadership of Modernism. At 96” x 92” (or 243.9 x 233.7cm) it was the largest canvas he had ever painted and because he preferred to work on fine grained canvas more suited to smaller works - he had it backed with a heavier canvas. Picasso decided to paint a brothel scene at first entitled The Wages of Sin - which was inspired by his memories of himself as a teenager visiting prostitutes in brothels in Calle d’Avinyó in Barcelona. One can only imagine the five-foot-four-inch Picasso, toiling on the massive canvas as his nearly eight-foot-tall prostitutes stared back at him. If Matisse and the Fauves had revolutionised colour in painting - he would revolutionise form. Over the course of three-quarters of a year, Picasso made no fewer than 809 studies for this new canvas which ranged from quick scribbles in sketchbooks to large drawings and even a couple of small painted studies. And the canvas itself underwent a number of transformations as he painted it. This vast quantity of studies and prolonged period of working would be astonishing for the average artist. But for an artist of such quicksilver creativity as Picasso - they signified an incredibly obsessive intellectual and creative process. Which is why historians and academics have written about its almost daily developments and argued over their possible dates and meanings.                                                                                                   

 

Picasso initially sought to create a rather stage like looking allegory of Eros and Thanatos in which a sailor was surrounded by five prostitutes - while a young medical student entered stage-left with a skull in his hand. It was supposed to be a dramatic tale about the dangers of promiscuity and syphilis and in many ways - it harked back to Picasso’s youthful realist anecdotal paintings like The First Communion and Science and Charity. But quickly Picasso realised how dated it looked. So, he removed the sailor and medical student and zoomed in – to create a pervert’s eye view of the prostitutes. All of a sudden, we are no longer the audience at a stage play set in a brothel – we are the paying customer being asked to choose which of the five brash prostitutes who stare at us provocatively we want to fuck - in a knowing nod to the Judgement of Paris with all its tragic consequences. Thus, we are implicated in the sexual scene in a way even more radical than Manet’s Olympia’s single haughty prostitute.                                                                                 

 

Yet, that was just the mere subject of his canvas. Picasso’s ambitious were far greater. He wanted to do nothing less than sum up the entire history of figuration in the West and then deconstruct it. None of the prostitutes in the painting were painted from life - instead they were lifted from famous nudes of art history. When Picasso started the painting, he was obsessed with the languorous, beautifully idealised and somewhat abstract nudes of Ingres. So, the central prostitute with one arm raised behind her back was taken from a nude in Ingres’s The Source from 1856. And the incredibly flat pink modelling of the bodies of the prostitutes in the early stages of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon - may also have been inspired by Ingres. But then Picasso came under the sway of Cézanne and his oddly blocky nudes in nature and multiple viewing points - which inspired Picasso to make it seem as though the figures of the prostitutes were moving in space. The squatting prostitute on the lower right-hand side may have been a reference to a seated female figure in Cézanne’s paintings like Three Bathers from 1879-82. Then Picasso became aware of 4th to 3ed Century BC Iberian sculptural figures which inspired him because they were part of his own heritage. In the canvas’s first version, Picasso painted all the faces of the prostitutes in an Iberian manner but subtly painted the four frontally facing faces with noses drawn in profile. Meanwhile he also became obsessed with El Greco and in particular El Greco’s squarish canvas Apocalyptic Vision from 1608-14 which he saw in a Spanish painter’s studio in Paris. One can detect El Greco’s influence in both the dimensions of the canvas, its apocalyptic vision and the glass-like shards in the centre of the canvas - that echo the spiritually torn looking skies of El Greco.                                                                                                                

 

Picasso finished the first version of the canvas around the spring of 1907 - but he remained unsatisfied with it. The painting lacked something for him. Since around 1902, Picasso had been passionate about the work of Paul Gauguin who was the first major artist to bring awareness of ‘primitive’ Polynesian tribal culture to Paris and marry it with his own Post-Impressionist work. Picasso had also probably seen African tribal masks and totems in the studios of artists like Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain and Henri Matisse in Paris where they had become fashionable to collect and muse over. But Picasso thought he might actually have some practical use for them. So, he did not simply stumble into the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro – he was searching for a revelation! And he found it the African and Oceanic tribal artworks. Historians still debate how much Picasso actually copied from African art. Some suggest that it simply confirmed for him things he had already started doing to his faces and figures. As early as the Blue Period, Picasso had been begun reducing faces to mask-like constructions - a tendency that reached a peak with his portrait of Gertrude Stein in the autumn of 1906. And although the face of the prostitute squatting on the lower right-hand side was clearly influenced by African tribal art, historians argue that the way Picasso painted the mask-like face frontally but with a nose that could be seen in profile was his own invention. Notice too, the way he blinded the eye of the prostitute with the African mask on the upper far right holding open the curtain. However, it also seems that Picasso was egotistically reluctant to later give credit or too simplistic an explanation for his greatest achievement to African artists. Yet, it is all too clear that in July 1907, they influenced Picasso to vandalise the Iberian faces of the two prostitutes on the right-hand side - with over-painted African tribal like masks. He also gave the face of the woman on the far left a face that was both Egyptian and African looking and although her face was seen in profile Picasso made her eye appear frontally which was another of his innovations. Yet, he stopped short of transforming the whole canvas in accord with this new influence and simply abandoned it. He may or may not have wanted to go back and finish it - but he never did. Perhaps he recognised that its psycho-sexual psychotic look - had achieved what he had want. Years later, Picasso admitted that the tribal artists of Africa had taught him that art was about magic - and that it could be used to make manifest one’s terrors and desires so that one could exorcize them. African tribal art gave Picasso a ‘primitive’ version of form that could transform his twisted but still benign prostitutes into figures of real sexual dread.                                                                    

 

 

But that was not the end of the story, in the late 1990’s new sources for Picasso’s imagery in Les Demoiselle d’Avignon were discovered. Anne Baldassari found black and white photographs of semi-naked African tribes’ women in Picasso’s photographic archive - whose poses were strikingly similar to those of the figures in Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Yet, when Picasso had acquired these photographs and how much they influenced Les Demoiselle d’Avignon remains debatable. Usually, such a dogs-dinner of influences would have resulted in total disaster and a painting that was merely a collection of pastiches. So, it is a mark of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon’s greatness that it only added to its mystique and made it one of those rare paintings that so many things can be read into.

                                                                                                 

 

If Picasso thought that his brothel painting would be hailed as masterpiece - he was sadly disappointed. Most of the artists, intellectuals and dealers he showed the work to thought he had lost his mind or that the painting was some kind of sick joke. But though no one knew it at the time the twenty-six-year-old Picasso had just changed the course of art history. Meanwhile, it was André Salmon not Picasso who gave the picture its acceptable title Les Demoiselle d’Avignon or The Young Ladies of Avignon. Picasso himself preferred the title Le Bordel d’Avignon or The Brothel of Avignon. Because it was so poorly received, Picasso put it away and it was not exhibited until 1916 and it was only in the early 1920’s that Surrealists like André Breton hailed its ground-breaking importance. And since then, it has been seen as a prophetic canvas that foresaw developments in Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism.    

 

Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was a schizophrenic and unfinished painting that made no conventional sense – but it was the also the very antithesis of stylish kitsch with spoon-fed meaning - which is why it has provoked so much debate and speculation. Rather than telling one story it tells numerous ones. What started out, as yet another conventional anecdotal academic picture titled The Wages of Sin – quickly became a vast laboratory used by Picasso to deconstruct Western figuration and confront the geometry of his own sexual fears. Yet Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was not a hot and heavy confession – it was more like a cold and dispassionate philosophical dissertation. Rather than being painted in one style it was painted in three or more. Rather than being a conventional ‘masterpiece’ that was the summation of all he had learned it was an experimental work that expressed all Picasso’s doubts about traditional figuration, the nature of reality and Westerns Arts idealistic, passive and innocent vision of femininity. It was not only Picasso’s bid for leadership of modern painting it was a challenge to the growing ubiquity and authority of photography and film. Thus, Les Demoiselle d’Avignon was both the summation and repudiation of all the assumptions of Western Art before the twentieth century. It marked both the explosive end of the Western figurative tradition and the start of a completely new understanding of reality and what art could be. Instead of presenting answers – it asked endless questions. It was the two-dimensional record of aesthetic thought - radically changing through the passage of time and psychological awareness. In the past, there had been plenty of preliminary drawings by Old Masters that had been re-worked with changes of composition and emphasis - but no one had ever turned a huge oil on canvas into a thought-process artwork like this. That is why there is even a conceptual quality to it - and why it is so demanding on the viewer who has to think through all its implications.                                                                                                                     

 

For too long, I believe that the myth of Picasso the macho lover has obscured the reality of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Not least because, Picasso like most men of that generation never revealed any psychological weakness to others - and maintained a macho front. But behind the strutting machismo of every man - lies the dread of impotence and failure. As Camille Paglia has observed: “An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of the imagination. The male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow of his mother and of all women. Failure and humiliation constantly wait in the wings. No woman has to prove herself a woman in the grim way a man has to prove himself a man. He must perform, or the show does not go on. Social convention is irrelevant. A flop is a flop.” (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, London: Penguin Books 1990, P. 20.)                                                                                                              

 

The early writings on Picasso - which were overwhelmingly written by friends indebted to him - are mostly just a long series of tall-tales about how amazing Picasso was at everything. So, Picasso’s stories retold by his lackeys suggest that he lost his virginity aged fourteen to a prostitute in a brothel in Barcelona’s notorious Barri Xino and then continued to regularly visit these brothels. Writers like John Richardson recall these events as though the young Picasso was a stud. Apparently, there was no loneliness, no sad longing, no embarrassing moments, no awkward fumbling’s, no premature ejaculation, no impotence, no guilt and certainly no fears. The young Picasso was apparently as great a prodigy at fucking as drawing and painting. Yet, despite Richardson’s awe for Picasso and even crush on him, the young Picasso was just a pampered, teenage, bourgeois painter boy and these prostitutes were fully grown man-eaters! Richardson even went so far as to suggest that since Picasso had very little money but was very charming - the prostitutes might have offered to fuck him for free! The trouble is, the sexual ability of most young boys is laughable to most grown women - and it seems absurd they would take pity on him and fuck him out of charity rather than getting a paying customer - which is the only reason prostitutes fuck strange men or boys. Unfortunately, everyone who got close to Picasso were in such awe of him and so afraid to anger him, that they rarely had the guts to question him about his private life and then challenge his answers – so we are left with just macho myths.                                                                                           

 

 

What is not a myth, is the reality of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon a twisting, gyrating group of compliant prostitutes offering up themselves for Picasso - who turned in the process of its long making into mostly vicious towering medusas' surrounding him. No endless lists of Picasso’s stylistic influences and all the movements Les Demoiselle d’Avignon later influenced, or blow-by-blow accounts of how its composition changed from page to page of his sketchbooks from a stage set with actors in a dated allegory about the dangers of promiscuity and syphilis, or how it was finished as an Iberian influenced harem of eager prostitutes that looked like it could have been taken from the page of an erotic comic book and was then repainted with three of the women turning into tribal influenced monsters - can obscure what happened psychologically to Picasso as he spent three-quarters of a year making it. It may have started as a macho painting of phallic power - but he literally could not keep it up - and it became a horrific image of voyeuristic trauma, post-coital tristesse, fear of castration and abject terror of the feminine. And we all know it! Which is why it has remained on public view with little socio-political controversy since the late 1930s in MoMA - when other far more straightforwardly sexist and misogynistic works have been relegated to the storerooms of museums. It is a painting that appears to pander to macho ideology – but actually reveals masculine weakness and impotence - and the greater and more constant sexual power of multiply-orgasmic women. If the painting’s castration-fears are not talked about much and mostly passed over in silence - it is because emasculation is such a shameful thing for men - and even for women who as mothers and lovers spend their lives stroking men’s fragile egos. Moreover, most feminists who naïvely believe macho propaganda and politically insist on being victims - refuse to see the truth behind so called phallic power.        

 

There were probably many reasons for the psycho-sexual breakdown of Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. Picasso had started taking opium in the summer of 1904 and was still using it in 1907. While an opium user can at first feel euphoria, relaxation, reduced anxiety, a sense of detachment and like they are floating outside themselves. Long-term use can produce mental deterioration, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and impaired vision. Then there is the fact that he tried to sum up the entire history of the nude in Western Art and load too much other content into one painting. While at first his vision was fresh, bold, energetic and optimistic - it could easily have become worn-out, plagued by myopic details, pessimistic and tortured. As a result, he may have become technically and psychologically fatigued and anguished - and subconsciously allowed that agony infect his work. I think it was this inner anguish that made Picasso transform the brothel scene into an involuntary confession of primal masculine terror in the face of primitive, insatiable, female sexuality. And for me, as a pornographic painter, obsessed with sexuality, this is what is far more important about Les Demoiselle d’Avignon than its art historical significance as the mother of Cubism - which is now as old-fashioned as the unicycle, is irrelevant to contemporary art and has proved a dead-end.                        

 

 

In my experience, many prostitutes in brothels have a knowing fearlessness of most men - as a result of their vast experience of men of all ages and of all shapes and sizes, awareness of what weakness frequently lurks behind macho bravado and personal experience of men’s vulnerability and inadequacy. Reviled, marginalised and even brutalised they also have the freedom and fearlessness of the damned. As Camille Paglia noted: “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who controls the sexual channel between nature and culture.” (Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, London: Viking, 1992, P. 18.) 

                                                                                                                 

 

It seems unquestionable to me that at any time in art history - Picasso would have found a way to excel. However, the flaws and limitations to Picasso the prodigy and later virtuoso manipulator of style were many. He could be thoughtlessly happy just to fill canvases with glib painted forms merely for the sake of productivity and he could be facile and verge on pastiche at his worst. While, his development of so many styles was dazzling and in the case of Cubism historically momentous – it also left the question of who the real Picasso was hanging over his oeuvre - and promoted the likes of Carl Jung to speculate that he was schizophrenic (though the term was used much more broadly at the time than it is today). Not only was Picasso’s work on a strategic level stylistically diverse – it was also tactically diverse on the level of the fracture of his individual paintings as he constantly varied his drawing technique, thinness and thickness of paint, brush marks and colour combinations. Thus, even in individual paintings we can see how he was never satisfied with a routine and formulaic approach. He constantly sought to surprise himself and question the architecture of drawing and painting. This was also the way he avoided the kind of rote technique and slick virtuosity that had become so discredited through nineteenth century academicism and Belle Epoch portraiture. So, Picasso’s art displayed an incredible variety of visual ideas not only in his various artistic periods or his individual paintings but also in the space of a few square inches in single artworks.                                                                                                                                         

 

Although Picasso was the co-creator of Cubism, it can be argued that Georges Braque was the finer Cubist painter and more innovative. As a colourist and Modernist painter Picasso lacked the sophistication of Henri Matisse. Nor was Picasso ever a painterly painter who could allow the paint to tell its own story and he was not a natural colourist, so his brushwork, paint and colour mostly just served his draughtsmanship. And while he was undoubtedly the greatest draughtsman of the Twentieth century - because of the quality, size and duration of his oeuvre and because of the variety of mediums, styles and moods he explored - he never possessed the shooting-star brilliance and stylistic explosiveness of Egon Schiele. Nor did Picasso ever achieve the transcendent humanism of Rembrandt or visionary feeling of van Gogh. As the sexually normative, pampered, adored and well adjusted-child of a middle-class family, Picasso could never - nor would have ever wanted to - produce the kind of truly sexually perverse and transgressive work made by the likes of Egon Schiele, Salvador Dalí or Hans Bellmer. Nor did Picasso have the capacity for the violent expression of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman or Jackson Pollock. And because he was so gifted as a figurative artist, Picasso could never bring himself to fully developed his art abstractly like Wassily Kandinsky or Piet Mondrian. Because his talents were so instinctive and grounded in traditional mediums and craftsmanship, Picasso could never play with pure ideas like Marcel Duchamp. And because he was so in love with art and his own abilities Picasso was never an anti-artist. Finally, because he was so self-confident and macho, played the art game so well, was so critically and commercially successful and so famous - his life and art largely lacked the tragic drama and visionary grandeur of artists from Michelangelo to Rembrandt, van Gogh, Pollock and Basquiat.                                                  

 

And now in the post MeToo era with all its self-righteous morality and lynch-mob mentality Picasso has been attacked as misogynistic abuser of women whose work should be ignored. But frankly, if you removed Picasso from the story of Modern art - it would be like removing the foundations to a vast skyscraper - the whole era would collapse into total meaningless. Yet, many contemporary feminists with their cheap sophomoric morality would probably prefer that - than try to achieve even a tenth of what Picasso did. Personally, as an artist with a reverence for the achievement of the Old and Modern Masters - I refuse to avoid the challenge of the Canon. And as a student of both history and art history since my youth, I find morality is too often used by ignorant people who can’t be bothered to understand the complexity of life – which is far removed from childish notions of goodies and baddies. We are all fallen creatures, but we only study the work of people who made something significant out of their fallen state. 

  • Listening to: Morrissey
  • Reading: Too many to list.
  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

On the afternoon of Saturday 19th August 2017, my sister and brother drove Carol and I into the National Gallery of Ireland to see the touring exhibition Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. When we went into the exhibition space - my heart sank - when I saw the throngs of people! In hindsight, going at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon was not a good idea! Briefly, I was delighted to see that the walls were not cluttered with text plaques. Then I realised that the names of the painters and paintings were printed up at the very top of the walls - so you had to crane your neck up to try and see them! It was all beginning to seem like an insane curatorial exercise!  Then I realised what a room full of people looking up to the ceiling to try to read the titles, listening to audio guides and reading exhibition guides - meant for someone actually trying to look at the art! Instead of looking at a painting and then graciously moving on to look at another painting - people stood in front of paintings they were only looking at as part of a historical slideshow - and only moved when their audio guide moved on to the next exhibit. It was a nightmarish revenge of the philistines! I rapidly exited from the first few rooms where there was a bottleneck of viewers and made my way further into the exhibition were there was less people. But I could feel my hackles rising as I struggled to get lost in the paintings. A few minutes later Carol came up to me - and I explained my anxiety and frustration. Carol thought I was being unreasonable and thought people had a right to listen to audio guides. But I was adamant that an art gallery was a place to look at art not read or listen to audio guides! It was as bizarre to me - as reading a book at a concert, great fight or orgy! Carol gave me a hug and soothed by her, I calmed down and simply started going back and forth in the exhibition wherever I saw an unblocked painting - especially an unblocked painting by Vermeer. Still, I have to say it was one of the most unpleasant viewings in an exhibition I had ever had - in any museum in the world. That Vermeer’s paintings amidst the throngs of people - still lingered in my mind weeks later - like the memory of the faces of long lost loves - was a tribute to the transcendent beauty of Vermeer’s art.                

 

The exhibition Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry had ten paintings by Johannes Vermeer and a further fifty paintings by his best peers and rivals like Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris. Accompanying the exhibition was an incredibly detailed historical survey of the period that was a must for Vermeer fanatics but my own interest in Vermeer was less obsessive - since I had always preferred the dashing alla-prima brushstrokes of Franz Hals’s portraits and the imaginative expressivity of Rembrandt the painter, draughtsman and printmaker.                                                                                                                                     
    

The whole point of Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry was to wreck revenge upon Tracy Chevalier’s book Girl with a Pearl Earring and in particular the Hollywood film based on it. Since the Twentieth century there has been antagonism between the artistic establishment and the Romantic representation of artists in Hollywood movies. The depiction of an artist battling for recognition against a hidebound art world is made for film as much as the story of a boxer trying to achieve success in the ring. It allows film makers to concentrate on human drama of the most personal kind. The trouble is, the script for the average movie is eighty pages long and there is only so much you can say about an artist in a little over an hour and a half. So historians grumble about Romantic exaggeration, factual inaccuracy and lack of context. Then they produce books like Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry - which is the artistic equivalent of a train-spotters guide to Dutch Genre Painting. It is laden with the most obscure and pointless facts about Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris and Johanne Vermeer; where they lived, where they may have travelled to, who they many have known, how many paintings they painted, what kind of prices they achieved in their lifetimes for each painting and after their deaths, what kinds of pigments they used, how they painted fur, silk, walls, skin, and so on…  The exhibition and catalogue showed conclusively how Vermeer’s peers like Gerard ter Borch invented many of the visual tropes of Dutch Genre and how it was Frans van Mieris that was the most successful and famous of the group well into the Eighteenth century. Well, call me a boorish, but I ended up longing for the myth of Vermeer the exceptional human being and genius. And to be spared the academic forest of influences and symbols - and walls filled with paintings by minor painters - I did not give a dam about! All I longed for was to be left alone in a room with just Vermeer’s paintings! Despite all their efforts to create a liberal community of equal artists – Vermeer stood out like a sore thumb with his singular genius, evocation of soul and refusal to be deconstructed by academic hacks. So despite all this contemporary research, I concurred with John Berger’s observation from 1966 that, “... the only thing Vermeer had in common with the other Dutch interior painters was his subject matter, and this was no more than his starting point.” (John Berger, The Painter in His Studio, John Berger: Selected Essays, New York: Pantheon Books, 2001, P. 122.) Thus sometimes, ‘myths’ tell us far more than the smart arsed retrospective carping of academics devoid of connoisseurship and determined to make a point.                                                                                  

 

Since I had already enjoyed an extensive exhibition of Metsu over six years ago and we already had two of the finest Metsu’s in the world in the National Gallery - I was not that interested in looking at his work again. And try as I might to summon interest in the rest of Vermeer’s peers, I was left unmoved. They were all technically fine painters – but as Berger noted, Vermeer was doing something so much more than painting rich people enjoying their wealth. Yes, Vermeer used and built upon many of the tropes of genre painting at the time, for example; the depiction of women reading letters, playing musical instruments or wistfully busying themselves with domestic chores or the use of rooms seen through doorways from outside other rooms. But it was how he constructed these scenes and then painted them that made his works speak in the most sophisticated way about the philosophy of painting!                                                                      


Apart from Vermeer, my favourite paintings were by
Gabriel Metsu and Gerard ter Borch - but I was shocked by how uneven they were from painting to painting. I loathed the work of Gerrit Dou who was consistently technically smug and aesthetically awful and to a lesser extent the inexpressive Frans van Mieris. Compared with Vermeer, the work of the likes of Gerrit Dou appeared too impersonal, fantastical, extravagant and technically narcissistic, Gerard ter Borch’s work was too inconsistent, awkward, mundane and superficial, Jan Steen too slick, anecdotal and trivial, Gabriel Metsu too inconsistent, cold and tedious, Pieter de Hooch varied from imitative mastery to shocking crudeness and Frans van Mieris was too slick, trivial and soulless.                                                                                                                                

Most of the dramatic tableaus of Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris were like amateur theatre compared with the cinema vérité of Vermeer. Vermeer’s people went beyond mere people posing - to people posing and actually exposing their souls despite themselves - because of the human insight of Vermeer and his masterful lighting, composition, and abstract painterly genius.                                                                                                                                 

Overall too many of Vermeer’s peer’s paintings were full of clunky symbolism and ham acting and most importantly their painting technique was vacuously skilful. For example, in Vermeer’s day Gerrit Dou a star pupil of Rembrandt was one of the most successful painters of the day. But looking at his syrupy detailed painting The Dropsical Woman from 1663 - I found nauseating. Despite an obviously high work ethic and technical command, Gerrit Dou’s work lacked any real humanity or aesthetic vision – instead he looked to me like someone who today would be making kitsch, fantasy illustrations - that are all style and no substance.                                                                                                                                      

The ‘fine’ painting techniques of these painters who strove for a kind of hyperrealism - were feats of skill. But technique and skill are only part of the story of artistic greatness - without personal vision, soul, ideas and humanity they mean nothing. Most of these paintings were valuable only as historical records of the vanity of the rich at the time. So the whole world of Dutch Genre painting left me feeling unexpected Marxist disgust for such smug painterly servitude and such a decadent world of material exhibitionism – it was like being forced to watch The Kardashians for hours on end.           
                                                  

Living and working in Delft a small town ringed with canals with a population of a mere 25,000, Vermeer proved genius can emerge anywhere. Long before the Impressionists, the first bourgeois art movement occurred in Holland were artists created paintings about and for their fellow citizens. Yet coming at the tail end of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer had only a couple of decades to enjoy the buoyant art market in Holland before the war brought an abrupt end to the Dutch Golden Age and catastrophe for tiny Holland.           
                                                                                                                              

We know virtually nothing about Vermeer the man, since he left no drawings or letters and no one recounted meeting him or seeing him paint. At the end of his life, he suffered some sort of loss of faith in his art, painted with less mastery and less often and suffered some kind of physical collapse and died the next day at the age of forty-three. We don’t even know where he was buried. Moreover, there are only thirty-five paintings attributed to him that have survived and only three were dated. Vermeer’s father had been an inn-keeper and picture dealer and many of the fine objects in Vermeer’s paintings may have come from his father’s collection. Vermeer also became a picture dealer to support himself because at a time when many of his peers were making fifty canvases a year - he struggled to finish two or three. We do not know who trained Vermeer but by the age of twenty he was already a member of the artist’s guild in Delft. Vermeer’s early paintings owed a debt to the recently deceased Carel Fabritius the painter of The Goldfinch who Vermeer may have known before his death and some have speculated was trained by him. Vermeer had one local collector who bought around two-thirds of his output. He only used the finest linen canvases and ground his own paints like all other artists of the day. He was particularly fond of lapis lazuli a pigment more valuable per ounce than gold. To put that into context, today artists, buy paint in tubes, and use the far more economical ultramarine blue which today costs around €11.25 for a 60ml tube whereas a tube of lapis lazuli from the same maker would cost €94.65 for a 60ml tube! Born a Protestant, Vermeer, married the Catholic Catharina Bolnes in April 1656 and I imagine he loved her dearly. His mature paintings combined a love of feminine charms with spiritual questioning. A mostly housebound painter, Vermeer lived for his wife, eleven children and his art. The most common female model in his paintings may have been his wife and often she may have been pregnant. Other models may have been his many daughters or maids. Though he must have spent long hours in his studio at home, he must also have travelled around Holland to familiarise himself with the art of his peers which the exhibition showed he learned greatly from.        

 

In Vermeer’s early canvases the attraction and titillation between the sexes was made explicit sometimes too explicit. One of his first canvases that survives, The Procuress from 1656 featured two leering men, the one on the left may have been Vermeer holding a glass of wine and laughing while looking out towards the viewer, while his friend cups his left hand around the harlot’s breast and presents her with a coin with the right hand - while in the background the sinister madam oversees the exchange. The Procuress was crude not only visually but also in terms of subject matter and character. But Vermeer was to learn from the overly dramatic failure of this work - that often it was better to leave things to the viewer’s imagination. So in Vermeer’s later paintings, things have either just happened or are about to happen and the viewer is left to wonder about the situation. In fact, Vermeer became a master of sophisticated voyeurism - where the viewer is allowed to secretly view a scene they are not supposed to. It is also notable that when men appeared in his later works they were often artists, men of science or learning – mirroring his own mature, cultured and thoughtful masculinity - rather than the rouges of his early work.                        

Everything that we now prize in Vermeer, the quiet, understated and detailed beauty of his work and its rarity - made it almost impossible for him to make a big impact with his work even in the Dutch Golden Age. Today, with the tsunami of artworks on the internet and in the countless galleries around the world - he would have found it ever more difficult. Vermeer was one of those introverted, neurotic geniuses that are not even noticed amongst the noisy empty-headed braggarts and social whores of the art world elbowing their way to money and fame. He did not paint the kind of click-bait images we are bombarded with today - that are dead as soon as you glance at them – but rather he created images that make you ceaselessly wonder. In fact, if alive today to see ignoramuses becoming famous for doodles on post-it notes and collections of junk - he may have given up art completely.                                                             

 

When you first start art, you think it’s all about stylish affirmations and technical tricks but by middle age you understand it is an endless series of questions. Vermeer was one of those few painters who leave you speechless and questioning. Forgotten for nearly three centuries, Vermeer was only rediscovered by the art critic Théophile Toré-Burger who brought his work to the attention of art lovers in the late nineteenth century. Since then Vermeer’s reputation has continued to grow to the point where he is now considered one of the greatest painters to have ever lived.                                                                                

 

Having painted all my life and in all kinds of styles, never mind, having read hundreds of books and magazines on art and visited countless museums and galleries around the world - I find that I can understand how most paintings are made - even if I could not do it myself. But there are some geniuses of painting that I not only could not copy satisfactorily – I still don’t fully understand how they did it. But at least I am honest, other more deluded painters like Dalí tried to ape Vermeer - but just look at Vermeer’s The Lace Maker and then at Dalí’s copy and laugh! Yet Dalí thanks to his own hype, was hailed by many (who should have known better) as the only painter in the Twentieth Century that had the skills of an Old Master. So maybe now, you can start to wonder - at the catastrophic fracture between the Old Masters and us!                                 


With virtually all other painters, I find that going from a distance to close to the painting to right up to its face - makes the painting completely explicable. Yet with the true geniuses of painting like; van Eyck, Rembrandt, Velazquez or Vermeer – coming up close to the painting only increases the mystery! Vermeer’s idiosyncratic and pain-staking approach to painting; his use of a camera obscura, his intricate laying in of perspective lines, his subtle and soft painting technique with few visible brush marks or impasto, his masterly blurring of forms and simultaneous lightning spots of detail and his patient painting and endless looking - made his work infinitely mysterious. Moreover, despite their immaculate, jewel like perfection and detail – Vermeer’s work looks effortless. Yet, knowing just how much craft, skill and patience even a square inch of his paintings required, I must imagine that he often teared his hair out with the mental effort!                

 

In 2001 in their famous book Secret Knowledge David Hockney and Charles Falco made the not very original point that many artists since van Eyck may have used a camera obscura or some form of optical device to plot their paintings. While I believe that there is merit in this claim - especially with Vermeer, because apart from the strange perspectives and collaged look of some of Vermeer’s paintings - what is also notable is the way he seems to be painting forms derived from images – resulting in forms that verge on the abstract. Yet it is not as pronounced as it might be with a lesser artist - because Vermeer had superfine, modelling skills and an intimate understanding of form. It is also notable how ethereal many of Vermeer’s figures seem in comparison to their surroundings - perhaps because while the room and settings stayed put throughout the painting process - his sitters may not have been present for long. It has been noted that after his death, when his wife had to sell most of their possessions because they were bankrupt - there was no mention of any optical devices in his possession. On the other hand, he was friends with the lens maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who was also his executor at his death. Leading to speculation that van Leeuwenhoek - omitted any reference to a camera obscura device. So Vermeer may well have gained many insights from looking at the world through a camera obscura - but I do not think it played as big a part in the final work as Hockney and others claim. And even if it did, it does not make Vermeer a copycat artist - it makes him an avant-garde innovator! Countless artists since the nineteenth century have used photographs of their own making or by others - but that does not make them lesser artists. Only ignorant philistines believe that today.  It is not what technology you use that matters – it is what you do with it that counts! I also think that contemporary artists like Hockney use the supposed widespread use of camera obscuras by Old Masters - as an excuse for why we draw and paint so badly today. When the truth is we simply do not have the teachers, training, discipline, work ethic or lack of media distractions needed to come close to even the minor painters of the past.                                                                        


As an artist, I have drawn from other artist’s paintings, my imagination, from life, from pre-drawn cartoons, traced and worked from photographs, video screen-grabs and recently from my computer screen and I have found that each method has its advantages and drawbacks. But even when I paint from mediated images – I am aware that I am looking at an image with the knowledge and skill of someone who has drawn from life in the round. On the other hand, having traced images from my TV screen, I am aware how strangely compelling a traced image can be – even though it fails most traditional measures of fidelity. One can fall in love with the abstractions of tracing - and I imagine that if Vermeer did use a camera obscura he also fell in love with the abstract lessons he learned. So I am sure Vermeer also tried different approaches to reality and it is that which makes his work so enigmatic and original. Personally, I imagine that he may have initially used a camera obscura to plot the perspective in his paintings then painted them from reality but with the knowledge of what optics had taught him. Because, even if some artists today choose to work from life all the time - they must on some subconscious level - be affected by a lifetime spent surrounded by photographs, TV, cinema and the internet.                             
                                                               

Vermeer was the most brilliant architect of forms on a domestic scale and even a square inch of one of his canvases - can delight a painter with its uncanny brilliance. I was a struck by how much of Vermeer’s paintings were in soft focus but how he made them come alive with sharp pin point highlights.  Vermeer’s paintings were predominantly made up of shades and colours that have no proper name. He was a master of muted silvery greys, creams, ochres, blues, reds, yellows and greens. Like a visual poet he knew all of the things he could leave out and exactly what had to be put in to a composition. Married to his masterful craft and technique was a personality that eschewed flashy pictorial declarations, expressive manipulations or intellectual bullying. His work had a warmth and humanity nurtured by a life protected by female love and domestic security. He may have struggled financially and died a pauper, but his life had been rich in all those aspects of family life money can never buy. Like us, Vermeer lived in a time of bloody wars, religious hatred, commercial decadence and moral decay but in his modest home - he built an enchanted realm - were masculine learning and artistry was glorified and female beauty and feminine caring was worshiped. That must be why - we need moments in front of his canvases - more than ever today.           

 

Only a few decades ago it was popular for many talentless abstractionists to insist that all painting was abstract. It was a canard to justify their own pictorial inadequacy. It was also, almost completely untrue for most figurative painting at least up until the Impressionists and the emergence of photography. This cult for seeing all paintings even figurative ones as abstract, I suppose really got going with Cezanne in the late nineteenth century and his supposed obsession with cylinders and cubes, as well as the emergence of photography that created a mechanical form of reality that made artists aware how impersonal reality could be. But any figurative painter taking this approach will only end up with a world that looks like Lego. What such a cult of abstraction fails to realise is that conventional drawing and painting requires an intimate understanding of form in the round - in other words to not only know what feet look like seen head on but also knowing what feet look like from all other angles – until the artist can not only see what is in front of him or her - but also what is hidden. Then they must also bring to their all-round understanding of form - the ability to impart humanity and feeling to it. If they cannot do these three things their work will be nothing more than the equivalent of an autistic person who doesn’t speak a word of English trying to recite Shakespeare.                                                                                                                                        


Yet obsessing about the abstract nature of reality - was true for an idiosyncratic genius like Vermeer who had the ability to see the world both in a conventional manner and in an avant-garde way - influenced by the use of some kind of optical device like a camera obscura – so that he could play with reality like a photographer, blurring parts of the background, highlighting the centre ground and strangely abstractly blocking in areas of the foreground so that they loom forward.                                                             


The result was paintings that not only anticipated photograph they also supersede photography! To say that Vermeer’s paintings are photographic is an insult to Vermeer! What photograph have you ever seen with the kind of magic realism of Vermeer!                                  

                                               
Because there was something odd about Vermeer’s realism – it not only convinced completely at a distance – it also baffled and bewildered up close. Much the way reality itself does - if inspected closely! The only artist to match the fantastic realism of Vermeer was Jan van Eyck who came nearly two centuries before Vermeer and who was another artist that was suspected to have used optical devices.                               


How often do we look at our hands? All our life I suppose - but mostly absentmindedly. Yet whenever we really look at our hands closely we are shocked by their complexity and strangeness. A genius like Vermeer did something very similar with bourgeois domestic scenes we may have taken for granted. He showed us again and again, how strangely beautiful the world is – even our own habitual environments that we do not appreciate or only distractedly pay attention to. Vermeer a virtual studio hermit - albeit one with a large and vibrant family - spent his life looking and looking and looking into the world around him and discovered mystery and magic everywhere!        
                                                                                       

However, with all my misgivings about the curation of Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, I would barely have given this exhibition and its masturbatory-academic accompanying catalogue 4/10!                                                                                                                    

  • Listening to: Morrissey
  • Reading: Too many to list.
  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

I got up early on Thursday 27th July 2017, and Carol and I spontaneously decided to go into town and see the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland. For months, beforehand - I had looked forward to seeing again all those paintings - I had grown up looking at. But I had also ruminated upon the meaning the National Gallery had for me as an artist. For six years the vast majority of the gallery had been shut down for renovation work that cost €25 million. More than a mere restoration, much of the gallery had been gutted and completely rebuilt to include new gallery spaces and vital heating and air conditioning units. During the many years of renovation of the National Gallery, I had felt like a part of me had been amputated. During my youth, my first ideas about artistic quality were shaped by the National Gallery. In my early teens, I shifted from a love of the Impressionists to the Dutch masters of the Golden Age - to the French Neo-Classists and Romantic painters all represented in varying quality in the National Gallery of Ireland.                                                                                                                         

Then at fifteen, I underwent a radical transformation of my idea of art through books on Expressionism and in particular the taboo Egon Schiele - who for decades I only knew through reproductions. My discovery of Schiele came at a vital moment in my life. Throughout all the traumatic and horrific events that I had experienced as a child - because my mother had paranoid-schizophrenia – I had practiced a stone faced look and refusal to talk to people. It had been the same in my art - which said nothing about me as a person. But by fifteen my stoic defence had started to crack and I had desperately looked to art history - for artists who had shared a similarly wounded experience of life. Looking at Expressionist painters like van Gogh, Munch and Schiele - I suddenly realised that the world did not look the same when you felt inner anguish and despair and to pretend that it did - was to lie not only to the public - but to yourself.             

 

Through Schiele, I also became shockingly aware of just how much of human existence and failing like our sexuality and insanity was edited out of Classical Art. Long before Hollywood was the “dream factory” – painting was the dream factory - where the great and good were idealised and immortalised and all their flaws as human beings edited out. So much so, that the idealistic images in paintings were taken to be the truth by philosophers -  yet it was actually the greatest lie ever told! At the age of fifteen through Egon Schiele, I became aware that the light represented in Western art represented only about 5% of the real universe of existence – 95% of which was made up by the invisible dark matter of existence - deemed too ugly, immoral or politically incorrect to record. But stuck in pre-internet Dublin, all these revelations came to me through foreign art books and magazines and certainly not through the National Gallery or in fact any other gallery in the hyper-censored, repressed and hypocritical Irish capital.                   

 

Thus, although throughout my life, I continued to visit the National Gallery and marvel at the technical skill of its painters - and wish I had anything like their work ethic, technical skill and refinement – I became antagonistically obsessed with their rank servitude to the rich and powerful, their humanitarian lies, their moral hypocrisy and their social conservatism.  

             

Unlike so many arrogant and self-congratulatory public figures – I regretted almost everything in my life. Chief amongst my regrets was my failure to achieve my childhood dream of artistic greatness. Many of the reasons I failed were a result of things outside my control. I could not help that I never received the kind of Classical atelier training I wanted as a child - and at an age when I would have accepted and been thankful of such training. So I had to teach myself by making every mistake in the book and trying to develop my own kind of virtuosity. Nor could I help that my childhood had been such an insane horror show that it would break me inside and permanently alienate me from others - and make them avoid and reject me. But I was responsible for what I chose to learn from a childhood of madness, neglect, abuse and loneliness. What I learned was that life was full of pain and darkness and I simply could not believe in - never mind recreate - the illusions of faith, truth and beauty of the Old Masters. But I could not help, that when I produced my painfully honest works – people would call me a talentless, insane, perverted maniac. Still, I knew I could never paint what or how others wanted me to. No matter how much reverence I had for the Old Masters – I knew my world had little in common with theirs not only existentially but also historically after; photography, cinema, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, radio, feminism, world war, popular culture, democracy, mass pornography and reality television.                                                                                                  


The Impressionists like Manet and Degas were the last great painters to learn and extend the lessons of the Louvre. The last great painter to try to marry the lessons of the Louvre and nature was Cézanne who famously declared that he wanted to remake nature after Poussin. But frankly if Poussin had been able to come back from the dead and was forced to meet Cézanne - he would have though he was a madman who had taken his name in vain! By 1909, Futurists like Marinetti were declaring that they wanted to destroy the museums and that
“Admiring an old picture is about as much good as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn…” (F. T. Marinetti, Manifesto of Futurism, Le Figero, 20th February, 1909) By the late teens of the Twentieth Century the link between contemporary art and historical western art had been completely broken and all that was left was artists like Picasso making cynical pastiches of Ingres. With the notable exceptions of painters like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, since then virtually everything produced by artists about historical art has been just that – cynical pastiche, ironic sampling or even worse socio-political hijack.                                                                                  

 

Mere art aside, the most important cultural change in our lifetime - and in fact since Guttenberg’s printing press in the mid fifteenth century - has been the Pandora’s box of the internet. For millennia, kings, religious leaders and heads of state had held a stranglehold over culture and censored anything they did not approve of - or was a threat to their authority. Meanwhile they commissioned painters to glorify them in their luxurious homes, write sycophantic essays about them in the press - while simultaneously censoring, imprisoning or socially ruining anyone who critiqued their authority. The last century of culture in the West could thus be seen as a slow and painful tearing down of all the idealistic lies of the Victorians and those before them - and the fight for free speech. Yet even with all the artistic and intellectual battles for free expression – those in authority still held remarkable control over culture either through direct censorship, moral condemnation, political re-education, the control of editorial boards, the restriction of patronage or the manipulation of desire through advertising. Then almost overnight, the internet demolished all the traditional editorial boards and censorship committees - and attempts to control information and ‘protect’ the vulnerable. With the internet, everyone became their own publishers including all those undesirable people - elitist culture had so vociferously banished from their palaces of art. The internet also resulted in the de facto demolishing of the centuries old elitist copyright laws which became ransacked wholesale not only by the public but more importantly by media company’s exploiting the dissemination of content without payment. Thus YouTube and PornHub - were even more culturally radical than most of the artists, novelists and philosophers of the twentieth century combined!                                                                                                                                            


Yet how many of our freedoms on the net today will be around in even fifty years’ time is open to debate - since already countless laws are being passed by governments around the world to curb internet freedoms, we are all under mass surveillance from state agencies and commercial companies and total freedom of expression has also allowed the expression of fake news and black propaganda often by state actors. So it is only a matter of time when whole wings of prisons will be full of people who just have committed virtual crimes!
                                                                                         

 

So all things considered, in 2017, I believed even less in the Old Masters mature and static sense of style, ideals of authority, faith, reason, morality and sexual repression than I had at fifteen. In addition, I could not see the contemporary viability of the Old Master’s labour intensive machines - because why spend a year painting a huge naturalistic, historic canvas with multiple figures - when a photograph could be taken of real people in real life and blown up as glossy wall sized print - in less than a day. Or to put it another way why paint ‘history’ when CNN showed history in the making on your 50” high-definition flat-screen. That is why, I thought that if painting had any continuing viability - it was to paint what a camera couldn’t – human emotions, the psyche of the artist or visual ideas including those critical of photography, mass media and the internet. A good example of just such a contemporary painter was the Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie whose fantastically manipulated images made one question both figuration and abstraction, photography and truth and the historical and political motives of the artist.                                                                                               

 

Yet, even though the National Gallery had less and less importance to my own artistic development - I would often return to appreciate what our culture had lost - in the blizzard of images and information of the internet age. What we had lost as human beings was the ability to patiently meditate on the beauty of the world and understand its deeper meanings. What we had lost as artists, was belief in art as a selfless vocation that may never achieve anything in worldly terms and a reverence for craft, the development of skills and the willingness to work like a dog for art works - than may only be appreciated by a handful of people or maybe will never be appreciated at all.

              

Returning to the National Gallery to see its newly renovated sate, I was deeply impressed by the new galleries and delighted that so many people were there enjoying it too. Sixty-five percent of the people where Irish pensioners with the remaining twenty percent young people most of them tourists. If I had been younger, single and less painfully shy and socially anxious - it would have been a great place to meet young women - most of whom seemed to be from the United Nations of hot!                                                                                                                          

 

Even though I had been going to the National Gallery since my childhood - even I found it confusing and hard to navigate around the new galleries - which looked so different to the ones I had known! I was stunned by the beauty of Joseph Walsh’s modern ash sculpture Magnus Modus, 2017, in the new vestibule - which from a distance looked like a weightless cream ribbon, looped in the wind - but up close, revealed itself to be the most subtly twisted, ash wood with a wonderfully evocative grain. Walsh was able to do things technically with wood that had been unimaginable in the past - yet was also a supreme craftsman - which is why he deserved his place in the National Gallery and why both Carol and I were sure of his genius.

 

I was impressed by the restoration of Daniel Maclise’s massive canvas the Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife which was one of the most ambitious and complex, multi-figure, history paintings by an Irish artist in the nineteenth century. The painting from 1854, commemorated the first loss of Irish freedom to the Normans in 1066 who were led by Richard de Clare known as Strongbow, but it also spoke to contemporary Irish tragedies like the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 and the Irish Famine of 1845-50. Yet Maclise, who was one of the most successful artists of his day, also made large history paintings for the British Parliament.                                           

 

Personally, with the exception of the likes of Delacroix, I was temperamentally put off by most of these kinds of historical group scenes - because I personally hated crowds of people – and these academic machines too much the servants of propaganda, too impersonally grandiose and sinisterly elitist. Still, academic artists of the nineteenth century like Maclise had a dogged work ethic and technical command - beyond not only me - but virtually every other living painter in the debacle of Post-Art and social-media kitsch. Ironically the last painter who could have painted as ambitiously as Maclise was the East German painter Werner Tübke and his assistants, who had learned to travel back in time in their art - because their Communist culture prohibited - the freedom of the future of the capitalist West.                                                     

 

I was delighted to find that the National Gallery could now show many works that had previously been in storage or had not been up on the walls for years. I also enjoyed the new thematic hang of works - where for example portraits, nudes, still-life’s or landscapes - were presented together for instructive comparison. I was also heartened to see more female nudes on show than in previous years - when it seemed political correctness had banished many of them to the storeroom. Many of these nudes were like ancient versions of the cast of Love Island with stunningly beautiful bodies - but lacking any intellectual substance – doomed to be sneered at by the cognoscenti and dammed by no-fun feminists. But life would be almost unbearable without hotties. One nude in particular that I was delighted to see again was Matthew William Peters’ painting Sylvia a Courtesan. I had last seen it when I was about sixteen - when I was both turned on by it - and also astonished that it had been painted by a clergyman! Thanks to the new wall text beside it, I learned that the Georgian period, Belfast born painter Peters, had specialised in such ‘Fancy Pictures’ but later became an Anglican clergyman, concentrated on religious paintings and regretted his youthful saucy nudes!

              

Looking around at the 17th century still-lives I came across Still Life with Musical Instruments by the so called “Master of Carpets” a virtually unknown Italian painter whose still-lives featured richly patterned carpets. And the carpet upon which the musical instruments were laid - was indeed fantastically detailed and tactile! Pausing for a rest, we sat on a bench beside Matthias Stom’s large canvas The Arrest of Christ from around 1641. Stom was a relatively unknown Caravaggisti and his painting was a version of a similar painting by Caravaggio’s from 40 years before. Although Stom’s work lacked the stupendous realism of Caravaggio I still found it a compelling, warm toned painting, with its character’s spot lit by lanterns and burning torches - even though he had mostly copied his style from Caravaggio - Stom still possessed more talent and skill than virtually anyone painting today. Which made me think that pastiche was mostly a term one should use for technically simplistic works from the late nineteenth century onward and not about the kind of advanced homages made by the likes of Stom.

             


Truly world class paintings are not just about feats of skill, they also embody new and profound ideas and ways of seeing the world. Yet, while the National Gallery of Ireland only had about a dozen world class paintings - it had dozens of paintings of real skill and sophistication that could instruct any student of the medium. In fact, so many of the ‘minor’ paintings in the National Gallery were technical marvels and totally beyond the skills or patience of painters today. Because I had recently spent so long on
The Rank Prophet series which had demanded such exacting realist technique – I intimately knew just how much time and back-breaking work went into even a few inches of realist painting – so I was struck by how unfair it was to such painters for viewers to only spend only a few minutes looking at works that might have taken them months to create. It was like ‘listening’ to Beethoven by fast forwarding his symphonies on iTunes or casting pearls before swine.                                                                                                                                       


On the other hand, looking at the worst of the Modern European and Irish paintings in the National Gallery collection – I was struck by the cheek of such painters to present such technically simplistic 
works to the public – and even enduring a few seconds glimpse of their work was dispiriting. And even the best of such works simply made no sense in a museum of pre-mid-nineteenth century works. Yet again, I longed for the National Gallery to copy the Louvre and have a cut-off point in the mid nineteenth century and the have works from Impressionism onward exhibited in the Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane where they would make more sense amongst its more substantial Modern holdings.

              

Still, at least European Modernists like Monet, Picasso, Gris and Soutine in the National Gallery compensated for the technical crudity of their works with the originality of their ideas and the way they changed the course of Art History. The same could not be said for the ragbag of provincial Irish mediocrities like Maine Jellett or Louis le Brocquy. The only virtue of such technically brutish Modern Irish painting, with its litany of pastiched Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Art Informal and Pop Art - was its supposed originality of ideas and authenticity of feeling – except their copycat ideas were stolen from abroad and their feelings were merely bad playacting. Frankly, I had more time for the backward Sean Keating’s social realism which seemed at least authentically rooted in Irish life and politics at the time. Keating may have been a conservative reactionary but the likes of Jellett and le Brocquy were frauds who had toured Europe and brought other men’s ideas back as their own.                                                                                                  

 

While wandering around the room of the Modern paintings, I also discovered that the National Gallery had acquired a Max Pechstein painting of fishermen from 1920. In the early years of Expressionism, Pechstein had been the most successful of the Die Brücke painters because of his slick skills but his authenticity had always been suspect and his reputation had massively declined since his heyday. The relatively late Pechstein painting in the National Gallery - was the kind of Expressionism as fashion statement - that gave Expressionism a bad name. It was worse than many paintings by the decades late to the party Irish Expressionist Michael Kane.                                                                        

              

Yet again I was incensed by the politically correct highlighting of the likes of Evie Hone whose ham-fisted, pseudo-Expressionist stain glass in the service of the Catholic Church (!) - was disgracefully placed alongside a real genius like Harry Clarke. It was just to keep feminist viragos happy - I suppose. The problem was, that by murdering for politically-correct reasons any understanding of talent, quality, originality or the Canon for the sake of identity politics and “representation”– they were not only presenting token talentless women with a prize they did not deserve. They were also decimating the credibility of the modern Canon and not just for nasty, white, male geniuses but for numerous female artists like Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois or Paula Rego or Tracey Emin who deserved to be thought of as great modern artists.

              


In the National Portrait Collection, I saw my first Colin Davidson painting in the flesh a portrait of the poet Michael Longley. I had watched Davidson’s career for a few years and thought he was one of the most interesting and talented painters working in Ireland. Davidson’s paintings were like Abstract-Expressionist versions of Lucian Freud - and seeing his painting in the flesh - I was even more impressed by his talent. On the other hand, I thought Davidson who seemed to produce countless portraits of the rich and famous - was in danger of becoming just another sycophantic, money-driven, Neo-Society portrait painter. I was also very impressed by
Geraldine O'Neill’s large portrait of John Rocha from 2015. O'Neill’s figurative talent and skill as well as her technical command was self-evident in this portrait of the Irish designer. But I also wondered at the point of such a traditional view of the world - that did not seem to think that much had happened since the Old Masters. So all in all, I thought it a doubly smug work that represented the self-indulgence of both designer and painter. Donald Trump would have loved to be painted by Geraldine O'Neill’s! Looking again at the likes of Louis le Brocquy, Robert Ballagh and James Hanley none of who had the talent or skill of Davidson or O’Neill - I was struck not by how mediocre and conformist their work was (which it was) but how successfully they had engineered successful provincial careers for themselves, through self-censoring super-egos, hard work, relentless operating, public relations, diplomacy and a complete lack of rebellion or whiff of madness.                                                  

 

The art world loved to project the idea of freedom art – it lubricated their decadence. The art world loved to project the idea of artists as rebels – it made them money. But Art History teaches the exact opposite. For every Caravaggio, Goya, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Scheile, Artaud or Basquiat there were literally thousands of conformists who merely parroted the clichés of artistic fashion and politics. Even in supposedly rebellious cities like Paris, New York or London where occasionally true artistic rebels succeeded –  success at least in the short term - was usually only granted to charming and neutered mediocrities who worked their way up the greasy pole. But in the tiny Irish art world (where there was a total lack of funny money, shopaholic collectors, media sensationalists or a bohemian culture of intellectual provocateurs that could birth rebellious prodigies) there wasn’t even the odd success of a true rebel. In the incestuous Irish art world, there really was only one kind of success, and that was only granted to conformists. In Ireland, there never had been - nor maybe ever would be - a creative youth movement like Romanticism, Expressionism, Punk or the yBas. Because our creative youth were constantly forced to emigrate – leaving our culture permanently mature even geriatric - in its intellectual conformism and socially conservative stagnation. The Irish middle-classes were appalled by the insanity and decadence of people in megacities like London and New York – but it was those kinds of crazy environments that also produced ground-breaking geniuses. Our true creative rebels were buried in foreign lands or in unmarked graves outside our lunatic asylums. Still, despite the conformist dross of most Irish Modern and contemporary art a few figures stood out as at least formally exceptional like Harry Clarke, William Orpen, Sir John Lavery, Jack B. Yeats, Michael Farrell, Brian Maguire, Patrick Graham, Dorothy Cross and more recently Aideen Barry, Joseph Walsh, Colin Davidson and Geraldine O'Neill who all promised greatness - though how their work would develop was still to be seen.

              

After spending three and a half-hours looking around the National Gallery and still having not having seen everything we decided to call it day. Despite the beauty of the new National Gallery and my good mood – I could not help feeling - when looking at so many excellently painted works by the Old Masters and even minor masters - that I might as well as go home and throw my paints and brushes and most of my lifework in a skip! These Old Masters and even journeymen had a such an extraordinary work ethic, technical proficiency, intellectual gravity and frankly sanity - that put to shame not only me but most artists since Impressionism.

  • Listening to: Morrissey
  • Reading: Too many to list.
  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

''What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.''

Lucian Freud.

On a freezing Saturday 11TH February, as it poured rain, my brother and sister brought us out in their car to IMMA to see the Freud Project 2016-2021, an exhibition of thirty oil paintings, nineteen etchings and one early drawing by the English master who had died in 2011. The Project had opened in October, but since I wasn’t getting up until 2pm every day, it gave me little time to go all the way over to IMMA and I felt too depressed and worn out to bother. So I was very thankful that my brother and sister had brought us over.                                             

In the mid 1950’s Freud was dubbed the “Ingres of Existentialism” by the excellent English art historian and writer Herbert Read. Later in 1993, he was hailed by the superb critic Robert Hughes as “the best realist painter alive”. Yet others who should have supported Freud (because he was trying to preserve realist painting) like Brian Sewell could only see Freud as a giant amongst the pigmies of contemporary painting and embarrassingly bad compared to the Old Masters. In 2008, Freud’s oil painting The Benefits Supervisor from 1995 of the voluptuous Sue Tilley sold for $33.6 million, the highest price for a work by a living artist at the time. Yet in the sixties and seventies he had been largely ignored by an art establishment enthralled by Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism. Having had such a long life, Freud also had a number of different stylistic periods - though each grew naturally and slowly out of the others and as his skills increased so did the ambitiousness of his paintings. With his hawkish good looks and wild sexuality, Freud was only married twice but he had around 500 other female lovers - many of them from the British upper classes. He also had over fourteen children (that we know of) with different women. He loathed the bourgeoisie (even though his own background was completely bourgeois), but mixed freely with both aristocrats, low lives and criminals. Later in life he had over three different studios and told only his models and lovers which one he was in. Few knew his phone number and the press had to try and make contact with him through his agent or solicitor. He hated filling out forms and never voted because he was so paranoid about being traceable. Yet although Freud disliked the media world, he was a skilled operator amongst rich patrons and collectors and older and conservative curators and critics. We would never have heard of him at all if he hadn’t been! He was friends with fellow painters like Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff who became known as The School of London. In the 1950’s he was a frequent visitor to Ireland and had many Irish friends and models, it is said that he liked the wildness of Dublin life.

             

Freud had been one of my heroes since the early 1990s.  Still, I had mixed feelings about the Freud Project 2016-2021 at IMMA which was being housed in a specially adapted building outside the main museum courtyard. I found it highly ironic that a painter who had been marginalised since the 1960’s by curators more interested in Pop art and Conceptualism was being used to help the flagging fortunes of IMMA whose Post-Art, progressive, pointless academic Conceptualism was not making Dublin people trek out in their masses to Kilmainham. Incredibly in 1989, Freud was shortlisted for the Turner Prize – but the prize went to the completely talentless Richard Long with his pathetic and pretentious, Neo-Stone-Age collections of sticks and stones and walking interventions in the landscape! Just another incident - to add to my endless list of how contemporary art - is a laughable and ultimately tragic joke.                                                                                            


To the kind of faddish hipsters who like to strike the pose of artist, and try to compensate for their complete lack of talent, by a liberal use of art jabberwocky and clickbait ideas – an exhibition like the
Freud Project - must have been like a slap in the face of their pretentious posing. But to any student of art history over the long-term and interested in the skills and craft of painting it was a Godsend and I was delighted to see young female students drawing from the paintings and etchings. To come up with some faddish novelty - has never impressed me - even if it is the kind of thing philistines love - because it is as dumb and direct as an infomercial on TV. No, to me the greatest achievement in art, is to take what history and tradition has given you and reinventing it! That is what Freud did brilliantly with the ancient genres of the portrait, nude and nature study. For me at least, it was the most inspiring exhibition I had seen in Dublin since the last Freud exhibition in IMMA in 2007. Unlike Francis Bacon - whose art was utterly inimitable - because you ended up looking like a stupid, adolescent, student preforming an act of ventriloquism - Freud offered real inspiration one could use (in part) in your own work. It was like the way Pollock was a greater artist than de Kooning, but if you copied Pollock you only ended up looking like a fraud - whereas there were parts of de Kooning’s art you could develop with less risk of being called out on it - so de Kooning had far more acolytes.                                                                                                                                   

             

Freud’s life and work was a total rebuke to all the progressive crap foisted upon us since the 1960s. However, his work was also - a total rebuke to the swarms of professional, charmingly mediocre, figurative painters like Tai Shan Schierenberg and Jonathan Yeo - who each year created an avalanche of dumb, kitsch, slap-dash work. What all their work lacked was the years of sheer graft of Freud and his incredible integrity and intensity of vision. Intensity is something you cannot fake and only the greatest painters have it. It requires more than mere talent, personality or posturing – it requires constant hard work over decades and if you are lucky you will have a few key moments of extreme vision - brought on by events in your life or through a specially blessed creative period or obsession with a particular subject. Freud’s most intense works included some of his self-portraits, his paintings of his mother, lovers, daughters naked, some of his male and female nudes, his naked portraits of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, a painting of waste ground and houses seen from his studio window and a couple of his paintings of plants and foliage. Sadly, only some of these works were included in this exhibition.  

               

One of the reason I had stopped going to exhibitions in Dublin, was I was sick to death of going to see facile, eager to please, politically-correct exhibitions (especially of artists even younger than me) in galleries and museums - that had rejected my work repeatedly with brusque distain and contempt - while they fawned over charming mediocrity. By my middle forties, it had finally dawned on me that I had been destroyed not by conservatives or religious zealots but by effete aesthetic idealists, feminist viragos and so called liberals who refused to give my art a platform or the oxygen of publicity.                                                                                                                                                              

More broadly, I had become sick to death of the art world which had turned rebellious liberalism into a new form of censorious moralism, politically-correct re-education and virtue signalling – as dogmatic as the old right-wing orthodoxy - the avant-garde had rebelled against. So since most of my heroes like Lucian Freud, were anti-heroes and even rather unpleasant people by most people’s standards, I preferred the language of failure to the assertions of positive-thinking, my work denied the possibility of changing the human condition, I saw many virtues in tradition, I was honest about my own and male desire, and refused to conform to the limited world view of people of this particular era – so I was doomed to speak a visual language no one understood - never mind liked. I also realised that success in the art world today - had nothing to do with talent, hard work, dedication, sacrifice or originality – it had to do with what would sell and what would confirm the fads, prejudices, socio-politics and morals of art world insiders. To succeed in the art world - you had to slowly work your way up the greasy pole - but they had dragged me off before I could barely begin – and now I realised I didn’t even want any part in such a phoney world. Moreover, art itself, which I had foolishly thought could embrace even the darkest aspects of human existence - and make them comprehensible and even beautiful - was mostly just escapist nonsense or obscure, progressive, academic pretension. However, I did not mind Freud, or anyone else of his quality, having a museum to himself - or blocking my path. After you Mr Freud!                                             

           
The Freud Projects version of Freud, was U rated with few of the contentious female nudes and none of the male nudes that had such an impact on me as a youth. Instead, it concentrated on his portraits, though since my interest in Freud wasn’t prurient (and found his nudes totally asexual) and I was more interested in his craft - it did not bother me. I found the Freud exhibition a curate’s egg of an exhibition, of the highest order in parts, impressive in others but dreadfully botched and overworked in others. Freud had been a constant source of inspiration to me since 1990, and he was one of the few artists I went back to time and time again. I adored Freud’s selfish devotion to his art, his refusal to bow to anyone, his solitary nature, his reclusiveness and unwillingness to participate in the modern worlds media circus - but he was also a sociable man - who simply insisted on secrecy from his friends and models.  I am sure that a regular surreptitious museum goer like Freud knew, that in the end the paintings would have to live and die by their power on the wall - rather than any theatrics on television or in newspaper gossip columns.  It was as wisdom sadly lacking in the likes of the yBa’s.                                  

              

I found it interesting the way Freud developed. He was no child prodigy but he made a virtue of his artistic naivety and forceful vision in his early paintings. As a youth, I think it was his personality and potential that impressed art world insiders - more than his actual work. Though the fact that he was a wild, attractive boy - helped amongst the gay mafia of the London art world. His early paintings were coagulated, exaggerated and caricatured paintings of people often in strange landscapes. This morphed into a more Surrealist inspired laconic style and then a more finely painted and highly finished style that owed something to both Surrealism and German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) painting - though Freud never gave German art any credit in interviews - which was not surprising given the destruction and slaughter the Germans had inflicted upon Europe and their industrial annihilation of the Jews. Speaking later of his brief surreal period, Freud declared that: “I think Lautréamont’s umbrella and sewing machine on an operating table was an unnecessarily elaborate encounter. What could be more surreal than a nose between two eyes!” After befriending Francis Bacon with whom he shared a love of Soho nightlife and gambling, Freud changed his style again, developing a broader more expressive painting and famously switching from fine sable brushes to rougher hogs hair brushes, and in 1975 took to using Cremnitz white a very heavy, lead white paint – that suited impasto and whose granular quality he thought brought flesh to life. Although his work lost the superfine detail and polish of his previous work, he still retained an acute eye for detail in his work so that almost the best thing about a painting like Two Irishmen in W11, from 1984-85, was the window in the background through which we could see an incredibly detailed - yet painterly - transcription of the street outside Freud’s studio. Bacon also influenced Freud to distort the shapes and planes of his sitters faces in new and unexpected ways which he then translated into his figures too.                  

            

For me the greatest period of Freud’s work was from the early 1960s until the late 1990s. It is in these paintings that Freud’s full arsenal of skills - which he had been developing slowly for decades - came into play in increasingly meaty works of oil paint. From the 1980s onward his work became more and more expressionist in colour and handling at least when seen close up. Freud understood what Eugène Delacroix had noted and written about in his journals many times, namely, that seen from a distance in a gallery - even the largest paintings can take on a grey appearance. Which is why painters like Tintoretto, Rubens and Delacroix had developed a more open brushwork and vivid use of colour than earlier painters - so that when seen from a distance their canvases still had impact.                                                                                      

             

From the 1990s Freud’s figure paintings became more theatrical and complex featuring multiple figures, sometimes it worked - but sadly in others it could look ludicrous. When Freud attempted to construct a narrative or use symbolism it usually looked absurd and unbelievable, perhaps the only exception being his multiple portraits of extended family in Large Interior (After Watteau) from 1981-83. By the noughties paintings of a naked pregnant Kate Moss, naked pregnant Jerry Hall and the Queen were so mediocre you could have found better paintings by a third year student in any local art college. But by now, Freud was so rich, famous and revered - that anything he painted was thought a work of genius. Sadly, most of Freud’s last work in the noughties apart from a few notable exceptions, did not end on a high like late Titian, Rembrant or Goya. Freud’s work became wonky, hesitant, fumbling and overworked - until some of the canvases looked like they had broken out in into field of coloured pimples. These late pimply paintings that unintentionally verged on the pointillist - reminded me of the painting of the beautiful Gillette that Frenhofer showed to Poussin and Porbus in Honoré de Balzac’s story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu and which was just a mess of colours save for a foot. It was clear to me that by the end, Freud’s vision, touch, stamina and decision making was impaired.                                            

           

Throughout his career, it appeared that there was a battle of heart and soul going on within Freud’s paintings between his German background and adopted English homeland or between German proto-Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit realism and English Romanticism and Realism. Freud disliked talking about influences and those he mentioned like Hals, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Chardin, Watteau, Courbet, Constable and Degas were perhaps less important that those he did not mention like beastly Germans like Dürer. And it can be no accident that his work looks so similar to German painters that were famous when he lived in Berlin as a little boy - like Lovis Corinth and Christian Schad. As the Jesuits say, "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man". And Freud only left Berlin at the age of eleven. Freud despised the English painter Stanley Spencer - but Spencer’s naked portrait of himself and his wife Preece in Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife from 1937 - foreshadowed Freud’s mature nudes.                                                  

           

When conservative critics like Andrew Graham-Dixon and Brian Sewell found fundamental faults in Freud’s drawing and painting of the figure and their surroundings and found him wanting compared with the Old Masters - I think they were being totally unfair. As a realist painter, Freud was almost totally self-taught. In fact, his early training by the likes of Cedric Morris who encouraged his students to exaggerate reality and distort features was actually counter-productive to a solid realist foundation. Lucian Freud fully illustrated - the plight of so many realist painters at the end of the twentieth century in the West - who wanted to compete with the Old Masters in figurative art - but have never had the rigorous, ten years of old academic training necessary to achieve it because such training had been dismantled by a Modernist wreaking-ball in the name of novelty, personal expression and democratic incompetence. So, self-taught as a realist painter, Freud acquired bad habits of drawing and painting - that he struggled for years to transcend - and some of them he never did.                                     

             

Besides the age of Freud, after photography, cinema, mass media, the death of God, the holocaust, Existentialism and the constant pollution of war, atrocity, crime and exhibitionistic drama that bombarded people daily through the media – had destroyed peoples ancient sense of time and purpose, idealism and faith in humanity. In his studio, Freud fought an existential battle to maintain some of the old meanings - against the circus of much of Modern art, the bankruptcy of painting, the rise of impersonal mass media and our increasingly atomised lives. Most perversely of all, for such a solitary rebel – Freud fought to maintain intimate contact with his subjects in an age when most figurative painters like Warhol, Richter or Tuymans were painting from second images of people, events and things they had never personally known or experienced. As a rebel and contrarian, Freud revelled in painting in a way that had been deemed outdated, bankrupt and reactionary by Modernism and the anti-painting school of Duchamp. Freud also clearly became addicted to the challenges of figurative painting - finding constant inspiration in a reality others could no longer see never mind understand. So dramatic was Freud’s reinvention of figurative painting - that he almost singlehandedly - made us recall the sheer magic and intoxication of painting - that tries to conjure up the world around us in coloured pigments and oil on cloth.

              

Some may have found Freud’s treatment of his sitters unflattering, embarrassing and anxiety inducing but they missed the point. To render people in some air-brushed photographic manner was pointless when the camera could do it better. Freud brought something unique to the portrait through endless attention, the accumulation of time and the intensity of his scrutiny. There were many reasons why Freud was such a dispassionate observer of the world, his poor early relationship with his domineering mother who he tried to escape, the influence of his Grandfather Sigmund which may have taught him not to reveal that much about himself - and the power of being the one asking the questions, his early childhood in a Germanic culture and the stoicism that was necessary during the horrors of the Second World War.                   

 

Some people seem to think it is very important who the sitters were in Freud’s paintings. I think it is almost irrelevant. So what if they were of himself, or his lovers, or they there was his daughters clothed and nude, a boxer, a doctor, an art critic, a drag performer and so on. So what if they were straight or gay, male or female. I think that was Freud’s attitude too. He was interested in painting flesh not identity. His work was a compendium of the human animal at the end of the twentieth century - no more important than his whippets that often lay near his models or his paintings of horses, bats, rats, foliage, flowers, sinks or buildings, or a rubbish tip outside his studio. Going around the exhibition looking for human interest stories is completely beyond the point and confuses art with sentimental gossip. So I completely understood Freud’s preference for titles like Head of a Man or Naked Portrait. Thus in many ways Freud’s paintings were a refutation of his grandfather who wanted his clients to unburden all the drama of their life on to him. Lucian on the other hand - seemed to believe that the face and the body told their own story in much the way physiognomists used to just before Lucian’s birth. Of course it was also a perfectly natural approach for a painter - though seemingly impossible for those who do not live through their eyes - to understand.                                                                        

 

I have read a lot of rubbish about Freud and listened to a lot of blather and bitching from effete, middle-class, television commentators who wouldn’t even know how to mix a skin tone on a pallet. Typically, since they know virtually nothing about art - except what they like and don’t like - they take it as their role to pontificate on character, psychology, morality and socio-politics. They should get off the bog! Socialists with their politics of envy - loathed Freud’s conservativism, his interactions with the aristocracy and his elitist talent for painting - the ultimate capitalist commodity. But just look back to history to see the miserable crap we would have to live with under socialists! Feminists like Linda Nochlin and Germaine Greer perversely took a real dislike to Freud which I have always found illuminating. Feminists from the 1970s onward had carped about the objectification of women, the unrealistic images - women had to aspire to in magazines and on television, and men’s cruel sexualisation of women. But then Freud came along and painted women like pagan idols of flesh and made even ordinary or overweight women look strangely fantastic - but not in the obvious ways of fashion photography or soft-core porn. Yet Feminists carped about Freud’s unflattering, unpleasant and meaty representations of women! Make up your fucking mind Feminists! Then perversely, years later Jenny Saville came along and female critics wet themselves praising the brilliance of Saville’s early paintings which were a weak, overblown pastiche of Freud - done with house-painters brushes – and with some feminist, fat pride, aggro thrown in! And you wonder why I am sick to death of the art world!                                                                                                                                                                            

Which reminded me of the way, I too, had been demonised by art world insiders and Feminists for producing pornographic images, yet when years later, cynical imposters like Marlena Dumas, Cecile Brown, Tracey Emin, Chantal Joffe and Rita Ackermann amongst many others produced ventriloquist porn paintings without desire (sometimes from the very images I had used years before), they were snapped up by the very galleries that had dismissed me as an insane pervert. They then, went on to exhibit in museums that had been just as contemptuous towards me. Then I had to read critics praise these female artists as so original, courageous, sexy and brilliant! True their versions of porn were pathetic, scrambled, feminised, prettified and impersonal - compared to my more anguished, honest and hardcore versions! So maybe you can understand why - I had gone way past being defiant or bitter towards the art world - to being completely revolted by it!

                                                                                      

Feminists aside, it has always struck me how perversely and contradictory people talk about the body especially when most of our bodies are so inadequate for Olympus. Women in particular seem to be the worst body fascists when it comes to looking at other women in particular - which they have a ruthless skill in denigrating - and do it so often it is hardly even noticed. Though it is a sign of the decadence of our culture that today, that there are also plenty of vain gym himbos who also judge people by their bodies and think their useless fake-tanned muscles - which they have devoted all their spare time developing, have any meaning in a war free, technological, post-modern world - yet there are plenty of reactionary bimbos who go weak at the knees for them.

            

But in general, there really seems to be some serious body blindness and delusional thinking in even normal people - to think that they look nothing like a Freud nude male or female under electric light - but probably look more like a glamorously lit, movie star in the nip in front of a camera with a soft-focus filter! It was that kind of egotistical and fanciful thinking that Freud’s work ruthlessly exposed and which any visit to a hospital and brief look at the random, tragic bodies of the people there under strip lights confirms. Freud’s naked portraits are not only nude - but also stripped of their false social selves and left stranded in the existential no-mans-land of his studio. Freud’s nudes may not be the ultimate truth of the body in painting – since every great painter reinvents it -  but they are certainly one the most original versions of the body in art.                                                                                                                                                                                


People liked to say that Freud’s work had little emotional warmth or humanity – in other words it was not a cliché, progressive, sentimental, kitsch, or glossy idealisation of the world. Well, that is why I adored his work! Freud’s work dealt in far more complex, ambiguous and subtle emotions than mere admiration, desire, fantasy, lust, love or hate.                                                                                                                                                                    

It is true that Freud’s relationships with people could be selfish, demanding, manipulative, combative, cold and even sinister but his love of animals was serious and deeply respectful - but again not in the kind of kitsch, cute ways people love seeing in their Facebook timeline. Freud gave animals a gravity and dignity far above most of that kind of manipulative stuff.                                                                                                                                                     


What was rare in Freud’s work was bravura shorthand or flourishes with the paintbrush like virtuosos like Velázquez, Hals, Sargent or de Kooning. That kind of extrovert theatrics - did not suit his guarded and meticulous temperament. Instead, every inch of his canvases were worked and reworked until they had a titanic heft. And in Freud’s work there was none of the stupid, slavish, karaoke copying of photographs that has become such a plague in painting since the 60s. No, every inch of Freud’s paintings - no matter how realistic - always retained the weight of painting, personal touch and conviction.                              

 

For people who have never drawn or painted from life, the subject of the life-room is a cause for puerile comedy and smutty jokes. As both a painter of hardcore porn and painter from nude models now and then - I can attest, that I have never painted with a hard-on or rarely even aroused – there is too much work to be done and it is so difficult and all consuming. Moreover, the elation one feels when a painting is going well - is better than sex. Likewise, Freud thought you could not do two different things at the same time. For Freud, nakedness was not a subject to be ashamed of – never mind sexual - which is why neither he nor his daughters had any problem with him painting them naked.                                                              

            
For many of us, our first encounter with skin tone was through a Crayola crayon and I am still shocked that today, reputable artist quality, paint brands, produce skin tone paint! Skin tone in these various forms are just a warm peach. They are utterly ludicrous, because even if you tone them down with blue paint - you still end up with a blow-up doll of a figure. That’s fine if you are a Pop artist making an ironic comment on commercial, vacuous, fantasy culture - but laughable for a serious artist. Freud graphically showed - just how many colours one could see in flesh - if you looked hard enough! Freud’s flesh colours up-close, included muted, dirty or strident; yellows, oranges, reds, crimsons, greens, olives, purples, lilacs and blues as well as ochres, browns and greys. Freud’s paintings told the story of flesh in all its peculiarities of wrinkles, fat, bone, hairs, veins, pimples, freckles, moles, scars, stretch-marks, sunburn and dirt – but in a subtle and fantastically beautiful way - unlike a dreadfully kitsch, horror painter like Ivan Albright.   

              

To many who had never painted in their life, and knew nothing about painting, Freud’s paintings were monochromatic or just a series of ochres, greys, browns and dirty greens. They obviously had never looked closely at his work in the flesh, or just passed them in a drunk, gossipy miasma at an opening, or just couldn’t see or worse still had become so brainwashed by the kind of avant-garde colour clichés promulgated from Fauvism to Pop - that if your painting wasn’t a billboard of just two or three primary or contrasting colours - then you had no sense of colour!

             

Personally, I adored the way Freud really went for it in his paintings, putting colours you would never expect to work in the flesh tones, clothes and backgrounds. And his rendering of whites, was masterful because the painting of anything white like walls, sheets or cloth was one of the greatest tests of a painter’s ability. Freud’s whites had a kaleidoscope of very pale yellows, blues, red, greens, purples and greys inflected in them and only the highlights were pure white. There was never anything slack or lazy in Freud’s greatest canvases. Every feature, form of clothing, chair or wall had its own weight and texture. He could even make even a man’s suit - take on epic in import. Largely self-taught as a figurative painter, Freud developed his own idiosyncratic way for hatching and knitting the paint through his brushstrokes. Freud usually started his paintings by sketching in the figures in charcoal and then concentrated on the face and worked outwards - and some of his late unfinished canvases confirmed this. They also showed that in his late paintings he started off from the start - putting down unnaturalistic colours and perhaps only toned them down later.                                                                         

              

Unlike many painters today, Freud did not paint big canvases just for the sake of it and some of his best work was no bigger than an iPad or even an iPhone. There were some tiny canvases in the exhibition that were miniature masterpieces - yet still very painterly and impastoed. I had not been a fan of Freud’s etchings before but this selection of etchings completely won me over to their brilliance. Even in his etchings, Freud was obsessive and incredibly hardworking.                                         

              

After the exhibition, my brother went to bring us to dinner in The Independent Pizza Company but they were all booked up because of a GAA match in Croke Park. So eventually after trying a few other restaurants which were also fully booked up - we went to McDonalds - which I loved. Carol observed that I was always happy in McDonalds with my Big Mac meal! I may have been a snob about art but not about food!

  • Listening to: Morrissey
  • Reading: Too many to list.
  • Watching: BT Sport
  • Eating: Fry Up
  • Drinking: Coffee

deviantID

cypherthepanicartist
David Murphy
Artist | Professional | Traditional Art
Ireland
Hello, I am David Murphy, previously known as Cypher or The Panic Artist. I am a forty-eight-year-old (b. 1971), Irish Expressionist/ Realist painter and writer living and working in Dublin, Ireland.

I have painted since before I can remember, but I have been painting seriously for thirty-eight years - and my surviving oeuvre contains thirty-two years’ worth of paintings and drawings. The greatest artistic influences on my work have been; Baroque, Realism, Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism and Outsider Art.

My work is an anti-social, solipsistic, explosion of uncensored desire, and unregulated emotion. My art is about me and for me alone. My early life was fractured by, death, madness, perversion, unhappy love affairs, and virulent rejections from the art world – so my work inclines towards pessimistic nihilism. As a teenager, I suffered badly from an Oedipus complex (an inability to break my dependency on my mother) well in to my mid-twenties.

Since my father died when I was six and a half and I was brought up by my mentally ill mother (who was devoted and caring when well - but psychotically sadistic and domineering when mentally ill) and virtually all my teachers were women - I grew up with virtually no male role models. Thus my artistic rebellion was not against patriarchy – but rather controlling matriarchy! My work was also a rebellion against the provincial, Nationalistic, Catholic and bourgeois censorship and conformity I grew up under - and which resulted in Ireland being one of the most socially conservative and repressive nations in the West - with the strictest censorship laws in Western Europe.

My work is also a rejection of every current art world orthodoxy from; Marxism to Feminism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, the dictatorship of linguistics, academic contemporary art, Conceptualism, factory and foundry made art, political correctness, social activism and progressive political art.

Thus, my mediums are defiantly traditional; pencil, brush and ink, pastels, watercolours, alkyds, acrylics and oils and I use them in a manner the Expressionists over a hundred years ago would have recognised. What matters to me are traditional qualities of a craftsmanship and personal vision, authenticity and necessity.

I have no formal qualifications and I am largely self-taught as an artist. My art education - such as it is - consisted of a series of night classes taken intermittently over the course of twenty years, from the age of thirteen to thirty-three (mostly with private tutors or in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin). As well as one ill-disciplined year in Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design from 1989-90 - where I was accepted on the basis of exceptional talent. But I got into trouble after a fight with a fellow pupil and then found my depression and social anxiety prevent me from preforming to the level I had hoped. So I spent more time painting my "real art" at home (including self-loathing, nude self-portraits and erotic scenes) and thus failed my first year and was expelled.

My artistic heroes are; Pablo Picasso, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vincent van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Richard Gerstl, Egon Schiele, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

A list of my subjects would include; self-portrait busts, nude self-portraits, female nudes, kissing couples, erotic scenes, landscapes, gestural abstractions, abstract word paintings, text paintings and most controversially pornographic scenes including: fellatio, cunnilingus, intercourse and sodomy. My themes would include; madness, isolation, loneliness, voyeurism and mediated desire.

In 2000 and 2002, I had two major shows in the Oisín Gallery in Dublin - but before and since I have had mostly rejections - many of them extremely disgusted and dismissive. Since May 2000, I have sold over €61,266 worth of art. The highest price paid for one of my paintings was €10,792 (The Dialectic of Emotions 1995 - sold in the Oisín Gallery in November 2000.) The average price for one of my works has been around €550 - 1,500. My art is in corporate and private collections in America, Ireland, England and Australia.

Because I grew up alone with my mentally ill mother - I withdrew into myself - and concentrated on my art to the exclusion of everything else. As a result of my childhood trauma, I have suffered from a borderline personality disorder, depression, social anxiety and chronically low self-esteem most of my life. I am narcissistic, introverted, reclusive, voyeuristic and desperately shy. It was only in my mid-twenties that I began socialising and trying to get my work shown in art galleries. I managed to get a number of exhibitions, but collected many more rejections. After my mother’s death in 2009, and my subsequent grief and mental breakdown - I withdrew again from the world in order to preserve my sanity. I also gave up trying to achieve art world recognition. Having received over 99 rejections from art galleries and curators around the world - I stopped giving them the satisfaction of turning me down. But I continued to paint more than ever - if only as a form of privileged therapy. As I aged, I became increasingly misanthropic, anti-social, nihilistic and disgusted by the sham of the art world and contemporary art.

To date my oeuvre contains over 4,098 paintings (acrylics, watercolours, oils, alkyds, mixed-media, collages, pastels or gouaches – mostly on watercolour paper) and over 2,753 drawings (pencil, ink, coloured pencils, chalks, or charcoal – mostly on watercolour paper.) I have also produced 4 sculptures, 27 mono-prints, 12 scrapbooks with examples of art I admire and 70 notebooks with over 3,350 sketches. Moreover, my surviving oeuvre represents only those works that have survived my own self-critical destruction. On average, I have destroyed about 20% of my initial artwork production. All my works including my mono-prints are handmade, unique, one-off pieces - made entirely by myself without assistants and with the best artist quality materials. However, of 4,098 paintings only around 259 or about 6.5% of them are on canvas, board or found objects - the rest were painted on watercolour paper. My lack of a studio and storage space, poverty, marginalization and my excessive creativity has forced me to work mostly on paper.

At heart, I am an Expressionist artist; my art is the very opposite of 'arts for art’s sake', in fact I see no separation between my art and my life, both feed from each other to form a highly autobiographical art.

My approach to art is distinctly Expressionist in character - my work tells stories about the human condition – which most can recognise and read – even if they cannot identify with it. Technically, I believe that the honesty of my art depends upon an approach that is as direct and spontaneous as possible. When I draw - I hardly ever use an eraser. If I make a mistake in my drawings - I either over draw the corrections or rip up the sheet. In my paintings, I mostly paint in an 'alla-prima' manner rarely using glazes and limiting the number of layers I apply.

Because I am fearful of criticism and ambivalent towards praise, chronically shy and loath most interactions with real people, about 80% of my work has been based upon photographs - of which about 60% were found in the media. I am so introverted that I have preferred to work indoors, under artificial light, at night, from; newspaper clippings, fashion-spreads, glamour and pornographic photos and sports action shots. I use these sources as a way of reacting to and commenting on the world without participating in it.

In my figure paintings (which form the core of my art), I break up the planes of faces and bodies into patches of broken colour, in a manner that owes something to my N.C.A.D. life-painting training and something to Lucian Freud.

My drawings have a strong, confident graphic outline - I know what I want, and what I want to leave out. My drawing and painting style is direct and summary, I do not attempt to hide my brush-marks, and their raw exposure gives my work its emotional depth. I pile up cryptic words, scratchy drawing, wild gestures and lunges of vivid colour. The words come from, philosophy, feminist, media and art books, Indie music and my own wild thoughts.

If you want consistency in an artist, you will never find it in my work. Most artists only ever do one thing. My art is not dependent upon a single style or manner. It has many strands. Taking my art as a totality - does not mean that it is all of equal value. There are major works but there are also many minor works of lesser value. However, the cumulative effect gets more powerful the more I produce and the more I complicate things. I work in conceptually based series, in which I adopt a particular style, medium and subject that I then pursue through dozens of paintings and drawings.
Interests

Journal History

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:iconkzaer:
kzaer Featured By Owner Oct 22, 2016  Student Traditional Artist
Look at artists like Auerbach ,soutine, Sam dollemansrit, kokoshka
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:iconphotoartmedia:
PhotoArtMedia Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2016
Regarding the thanks for the favs. Your work is very good ... Curly Haired Woman No. 1 is something to aspire to. My wife has naturally curly hair ... so trying to represent it is always something to learn more about..  Regarding "Between Reason and Feeling" to me ... it allows one to tell their own story.   I don't know what inspired it ... but, maybe you should go there again:)    Regards LghtSchlr
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:iconcypherthepanicartist:
cypherthepanicartist Featured By Owner Mar 31, 2016  Professional Traditional Artist
Thank you!
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:iconbear48:
bear48 Featured By Owner Dec 15, 2015  Professional
Thank you for adding "Lets go find Tahiti" to your favorites. Since our corgi Raymond has come into our lives he has been a great muse.

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:iconcipher-0x:
cipher-0x Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Gratitude & Appreciation for the :+fav: You are such a sweetie DavidHug  So, what's happening in your world, your work & ideas seem to have totally changed since I last peeked in here:}
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:iconcypherthepanicartist:
cypherthepanicartist Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
You're welcome! Not much new just keeping on keeping on. Lol.
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:iconcypherthepanicartist:
cypherthepanicartist Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Thank you!
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:iconcipher-0x:
cipher-0x Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2014  Professional General Artist
 Black Rose Thanks ever much for your interest & the favs:} You know-I love your work as wellHeart 
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:iconcypherthepanicartist:
cypherthepanicartist Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks! I love your new work! great to see you posting again!
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:iconcipher-0x:
cipher-0x Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Hug 
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:iconpfeight:
pfeight Featured By Owner May 28, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thanks again for all the favs David.
Paul
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:iconcypherthepanicartist:
cypherthepanicartist Featured By Owner May 29, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
You're welcome! I like the new work you're making! Glad to see you back at it!
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