The legacy of artists depends on their enduring ability to make succeeding generations pay attention to nature, mankind, humanity, beauty, and the dark, dangerous shadows that surround life. They make us notice things about ourselves, frame them in a universal way. Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, Shakespeare, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Lucian Freud (you weren’t expecting that one), Wagner, Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borges’ Library of Babel long.
Lucien Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who along with Francis Bacon are two of the most important painters in England over the past 100 years. They specialized in portraits. They observed people and painted what they saw in others. Some say they painted images of themselves reflected in others. What of those who sat for these paintings? These patient sitters most of whom no one will remember spent many hours. What is their story of being observed? What of their observations of the painter observing them?
Think of these painters as emergency room doctors who took the pulse of their time. The blood, bone, flesh are inside these artistic works. They embody a range of health and disease. They create an illusion of immortality.
In his brilliant Man with a Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2014) Martin Gayford who sat for a period of one and a half years for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud, reminds us that in 1800 there were a billion people on the planet. Each and everyone one of them is now dead. Not a single survivor walks amongst us. Looking over some of the names on the list above to discover the ethics, morality, and temperament of those we will never meet. Our passions and emotions are no different. What moves us to tears and laughter may have changed (though As You Like It still makes us laugh), but the reality of tears and laughter is unaltered.
These artists have taught us how to look, what to look for, and what patterns bring understanding, joy, hope, terror, hate, anger and despair. Mostly we don’t consult this list. We dart in and out of their worlds like we clean our teeth, and shortly thereafter we are greedily on to our next meal.
They have thrown us a life preserver to someone in the middle of a sea with no horizon but the sky on all sides. We are that dot floating, waiting for rescue.
In the world of noir, that rescue never arrives. We are abandoned inside our lives to struggling to keep our heads above water. We seek not truth, but allies. Others who experience life as we do and share with them a common emotional reaction to life, experience, others, and meaning.
Our looking is an experience of bias management. Like a thirsty wander in an undrinkable sea we search for drinking water. We reject any idea that such a search is futile or that we are going about it the wrong way. Our group feels its way toward the shared goal. Nothing can persuade us that we are deluded or looking in the wrong place.
We are prisoners of these biases. No one escapes from them. They are our black hole. The pull of their gravity is far stronger than reason, which acts as the weak force. What we see is all there is. What we want is confirmation of what we believe and feel. Contrary evidence is misinterpreted so we can maintain our illusions. We all claim to be truth seekers. What we seek is the truth that makes us comfortable with what we believe to be true. We can’t accept there might be a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance makes us angry and dangerous. Our cure is to back into our corner with our community and turn up the sound and sights of what we know in our hearts to be right, truthful, honorable, and fair.
Our tragedy is we fail to train ourselves to pay attention to the fine details around us. We gain our identity, our selves, our information from instruments and machines. Not from nature or each other. That separates us from our ancestors, their lives, burdens, and social life.
It takes endurance to pay attention, and to seek clarity and definition in what we are attending to. If there is a single reason why I continue to write books and essays, it is to continue on a journey of exploration of what is in front of me, and the expression in words, pictures, and music of what is found along the way as we stopped to take in life. Those who lived before our birth continue to dwell in our time through art. The presence of these ‘sitters” share our space along the river of time. We look over our shoulder and let them inside our minds. We try to see through their eyes. We seek a glimpse of ourselves in their faces. Mostly, though, I fear we suffer an illusion that we navigate on our own, that we captain our own boat, without much thought for those who lived before us.
It takes a large amount of psychological resources to pay attention. Basically we are lazy. Putting on filters and recharging our biases is our lazy way of idling through life. Imagination fires on distant shores hold no interest. We crave excitement but fear adventure. We take no risk. When our adrenaline rush is over we lose interest quickly. We move on like junkies looking for a new fix. What all great artists teach is the discipline to keep paying attention at those small details we no longer see, and to keep up that concentration for weeks, months, and years. Great art results when the artist channels his or her attention over time and emerges with an artifact that makes us feel larger than ourselves, expansive and connected.
Lucian Freud, the artist, and his subject, Martin Gayford, “the man with the blue scarf” on the right and on the canvas
We avoid disorder, chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The great art doesn’t pander to this fear. Instead such art animates and discloses how our current of charged feelings passes through this invisible, unstable field. We need an artist’s angle to view our own passage through life. Paintings, music and words are a psychic map to master new landscapes of the world inside and outside us. If we allow them in, we find that they’ve created a bridge between our everyday ‘us’ and the objects that surround ‘us.’ We are in harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we understand the nature and scope of our connection.
Here’s what Lucian Freud had to say about a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi:
It is was very interesting, very exciting. That marvelous subject of the whores sitting round a circular pouf, when you look at it you realize that the one thing he couldn’t do was people together. To me, the most touching Lautrec in the museum is the one of the two girls, both whores, in a bed; you just see their heads. It’s so moving. They’ve finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each other.
Lautrec captured the most human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is commercial and people aren’t thought of as liking each other. It’s a fleeting moment. And it reminds us that liking, love, pain, hate and anger are constantly shifting in and out of our lives. None of this is stable; just the opposite, it is in constant flux. Five minutes later the two ‘whores’ could have been at each other’s throat. But that is not the moment in the painting. We choose our moments like an artist. What to record, what to remember and what to ignore. The two women in the Lautrec painting showed their liking. Now they would click the ‘like’ button on Facebook.
Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.
Underneath the face is changing moment to moment. We look at paintings, listen to music and read books to find out what lies beneath the mask, to embrace it, to recoil from it, to recognize it inside us. It is the part of our psychology hidden from our own view. Gayford showed how Lucian Freud, like his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud, was in the business of reading the person hidden behind the mask. He waited, like his grandfather, until the sitter patient involuntarily revealed himself or herself. It might take hundreds of hours. Lucian Freud was a psychologist who diagnosed using paint. Every patient mood recorded deep inside the face as surely as daily notes by an analyst of the mental condition.
Artists pretty much do the same thing, treating their subject as a palimpsest to be decoded. They blend observation, memory, emotion, and imagination, and then find the right colors and shades and tones of paint to recreated these layers onto a flat surface. A writer or composer does something very similar with words or musical notes. Artists see a wide range of possibilities that most of us overlook in the hurry of the day.
Gayford reminds us that we have 22 muscles on either side of our mouth. The muscles are tattered to our skin and not to bone. They can move like a 44-instrument-orchestra and the number of piece of music that can be played in huge. Adams was off by two digits away. 44 was the actual number that the supercomputer called Deep Thought in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. There is a near infinity of possibilities in the human face, body, attitude, mood, disposition and none of it stable for very long like clouds passing through. How to express the depth of that range? That’s always been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing the human face.
I also recommend Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe. Lightman is an interesting author as he holds a dual position at MIT in humanities and the physics department, as well as a physics and novelist. He’s been on both sides of CP Snow’s Two Cultures.
Where scientist and non-science in the humanities seek to understand each other’s language and premises and to establish a line of communication. This has been a divide as large as any political divide. Near the end of the book Lightman talks about electromagnetic fields crosses a broad spectrum and how we perceive light is a very narrow range inside that spectrum. We know these other ranges not from our sensory system but through our instruments. Unplug the instruments, study them a thousand hours and you will see nothing. They could never painted as various positions of the 22 muscles around the right or left side of the mouth. The physicist in him notes that in the electromagnetic field at the upper range there are more than 10 trillion frequencies and in the lower ranges an excess of a 100 trillion frequencies. Those are number beyond our imagining.
Art is carried inside our sensory range. It is what we share as we pass through time and the electromagnetic fields pass through us. Lightman leaves open the possibility of mortality as a state of perception experienced along a narrow band nestled in a vast of infinity of possibilities that preceded and succeeds our brief experience inside the human band range. It is a comforting speculation. But it’s not provable. It’s a belief. So the debate will never end.
Meanwhile, Martin Gayford has left us with a testament to Lucian Freud’s artistic temperament and way of being that created portraits of the many layers within each of us and they be studied for expression of the many emotions and moods and vulnerabilities a face can hold so as long as there are people to care.
Lucien Freud had a burning need to closely observe, to understand what he observed, to find paints to explore the range of observations. Though as Gayford concludes, he wasn’t a man given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things didn’t interest him that much. He lost himself in that observer’s world where he was in control.
At the end of the book, Lucien Freud’s words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate largely irrelevant.
The notion of the afterlife is much he same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just hors d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had a lovely time.
This may be the most lasting of legacies. The final obit when wishing to remember a departed loved one or dear friend: “He had a lovely time.”
If you observe long enough, closely enough, Lucien Freud’s life suggests you will find your own key to Number 44. Time passes on this search but it is let go of without regret knowing the full of richness of life comes from observing the fine detail. There lies enduring satisfaction. It’s enough. For a lovely time.