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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

“Child with Doll” by Henri Rousseau, 1904-5

But sometimes — and increasingly —Giacometti seemed to be turning reality into a formal problem. Hyman never mentions Giacometti’s post-Surrealist work; but he makes clear, anyway, his objection to a tendency he calls “representation-as-such”. It is a tendency with which Hyman, as a London painter, is extremely and uncomfortably familiar, since it became dominant among those painters now known as “the London School”.

He writes nicely and at length, about Lucian Freud’s early Interior at Paddington. But then: “There was — perhaps especially prevalent in post-war England — a view of ‘truth’ as brutal and unfeeling; of naked ‘reality’ as aggressively dull and grey.” And he laments how, after the ’60s, “Freud’s art switches to a numb realism”. “Numb” is the perfect word for it (Hyman values “warmth” above all in art). Many critics share this preference for the earlier style. But Freud’s late work should not be dismissed: it is rich in tone and varied in touch, complex, precise, uncompromising. In the best of times that may amount to no more than the starting point for a good picture; but in our times it is a far from inconsiderable achievement.

Hyman fundamentally objects to later Freud because the realism is without any critical dimension. “Implicit in Freud’s art . . . was an unquestioning confirmation of the status quo.” In other words, it is “bourgeois” painting. Perhaps Hyman thinks painting more by eye than critical mind is a bourgeois activity; perhaps he even feels that the eye, when left unmoderated, is an inherently bourgeois instrument, a recorder of false consciousness. He singles out Alex Katz’s cut-outs for praise; still, he worries over the “blankness” of the painted faces. He goes on to describe Katz’s sitters as generic: “Ada [Katz’s wife] apart, they are nameless thirty-somethings, so blandly affluent and unblemished as to make any true bohemian bridle.” But must we all be bohemians? Surely middle-class leisure, as painted by Monet and Renoir as well as Katz, is as essential a modern subject as existential crisis. Middle-class leisure may well be modernity’s great achievement. That leisure might have provoked the angst of the painters in this book, but it also gave their art its room to grow.

Matisse’s The Dance “achieves a vernacular of utter directness: painting unburdened by aristocratic or bourgeois tradition, available to all”. But what about the burden of bohemian tradition, now? Some of us feel that, and may seek liberation from it.

Hyman’s taste is mostly for the “Dionysian”; and he has a strong stomach for the grotesque. In many instances the paint he points to is so wonderful that we are awestruck; but when it doesn’t hit that mark, the extravagant despair, the irrationality, the squalid and occasionally sadistic imaginings of some of his “utopian” painters can begin to grate. And then the sadism might remind you where utopian ideas led in 20th-century politics. Were these painters the most sensitive souls, haunted and horrified? Or were they themselves horrifying, with all their reckless passion and infinite concern with “self”? If the modern world were really so perverse, why were they not acting against it instead of wallowing in perversity?

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