Thursday, 22 March 2012

Rubens, Freud and other painters I find it impossible to respond to

"Just a coffee, thank you"
Among the presents I received on my 21st birthday were two art books. One friend gave me a book of Turner’s Venetian watercolours, and another a book of Cezanne’s paintings. Turner’s one of those artists I “got” instantly – Cezanne’s appeal continues to elude me. I can tell that Cezanne is doing something ground-breaking – looking at the world in a new way – but his work has always left me utterly cold: in particular, his pictures of fruit simply annoy me, because they bear no resemblance to fruit, and the shapes he creates with them aren’t that interesting.

Of course, I’m not arrogant enough to deny that Cezanne was a great artist – I don’t have sufficient knowledge or taste to sit Canute-like, bidding the century-long critical tide reverse. I know he wasn’t a fraud or a charlatan – I reckon I’m pretty good at spotting those (there’s enough of them around these days, let’s face it!) – but his paintings just don’t work for me.

Gaugin’s another one from that era I don’t respond to: I get more sense of the delights of the South Pacific from watching South Pacific, to be honest  - the fact that he was evidently a horrible human being is neither here nor there.

Channel swimmer
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings remain a mystery to me – and not in a good way: his women look weird and, as far I can see, he couldn’t paint for toffee (not that keen on his poetry, either).

When I was in Venice recently I made yet another effort to appreciate Tintoretto – but his vast, muddy, over-excited canvases mean far less to me than they should: give me Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian or Veronese any day.

I know I’m supposed to swoon with ecstasy in front of an El Greco – and, like Cezanne, he was certainly doing something different – but I find the eccentricity of his style gets in the way of whatever he’s trying to get across.

Fat pink bloke
I know Rubens isn’t just fat, pink birds, and he seems to have been a splendid chap, but when confronted by yet another enormous dimpled bum, my heart sinks.

Claude Lorraine: I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, but I find his paintings deeply boring. (This genuinely pains me, because some friends whose taste I admire simply adore him.) Perhaps it’s because I don’t find his idealised landscapes in the least bit alluring.

Impossible to deny that Goya was a tremendously original painter, of course, and his energy positively vibrates off the canvas – but I just don’t like what he does.

I’ve expressed my opinions about Munch elsewhere. I’m a Scots-Norwegian – I can supply my own gloom, thank you: I like my artists to bring meaning, hope and richness to the party.

When Lucian Freud died recently I trawled the obits for the usual nonsense about how his ugly, nasty portraits reveal character. His later work, in particular, did nothing of the sort: they simply revealed that Freud had a somewhat diseased view of humanity. 

And yet, who knows? – I might end up being able to appreciate all of them eventually. One’s taste can change dramatically over time. For instance, Munch, Freud and Goya were all painters I responded to as a young man, when Gericault, Delacroix, Zurbaran, Poussin and Georges de La Tour – all of whom I now love – didn’t mean that much to me.


  1. Good,honest piece.If you liked Gericault and Delacroix,I wonder what you make of Ingre.I think this period of French art(and lets face it,its a wonderful period )is a bit like The Rolling stones/Beatles issue in the 60's.people seemed to like/support the Classicists(Ingre being the shining exapmple) or the Romantics.Not many critics of the time liked both.
    If you like're almost 'there' with Claude.

  2. OK, my knowledge of art is limited, but even I know that "Tintoretto" is a mining company formerly owned by "Tiny" Rowland and "Carpaccio" is anti-pasto best served with frozen melon balls. Please re-visit your spellings.

    Rubens and being "confronted by yet another enormous dimpled bum". This brought back fond memories of the magazine "Bum Biters" and its pictures of large female bottoms with teeth-marks.

  3. Thank you, Anonymous. I like both Ingres (his austere portraits in particular, rather than his nudes) and David. I'm distinctly in the Romantic camp with most art, poetry and music - but I lean more towards the Classical as I grow older (this is probably as inevitable as growing more right-wing with age). I just don't know about Claude - one day it may all fall into place. What's suprised me in recent years is how much I enjoy French Rococo painting - I've always loved Watteau, but I used to sneer at the likes of Fragonard and Boucher. No longer!

  4. SDG, your seemingly intimate knowledge of Bum Biters' content does you little credit: and don't pretend you just happened to pick up a copy by accident in the Cranleigh branch of W.H. Smith's (although they did used to sell some rum stuff!) I wonder if Richard Desmond has thought of reviving it as "Asian Bum Biters" or "Bum Biters: Special Readers' Wives Edition"? Perhaps he could give it away as a free supplement with the Daily Express.