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 werenít expecting that one), Wagner,
Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borgesí Library of
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
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 donít 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
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 canít 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 ĎsittersĒ 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
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
[CAPTION] Lucian Freud, the artist,
and his subject, Martin Gayford, ďthe man with the blue scarfĒ on the right and
on the canvas
We avoid disorder, chaos,
ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The
great art doesnít 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 artistís 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 theyíve created a
bridge between our everyday Ďusí and the objects that surround Ďus.í We are in
harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we
understand the nature and scope of our connection.
Hereís 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 couldnít 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. Itís so moving. Theyíve
finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each
Lautrec captured the most
human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is
commercial and people arenít thought of as liking each other. Itís 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 Ďwhoresí could have been at each
otherís 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
Ďlikeí button on Facebook.
Gayfordís 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 Ďrealí 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
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 Adamís The
Hitchhikerís 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? Thatís always
been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing
the human face.
I also recommend Alan
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. Heís been on both sides of CP Snowís Two
Where scientist and
non-science in the humanities seek to understand each otherís 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 itís
not provable. Itís a belief. So the debate will never end.
Meanwhile, Martin Gayford
has left us with a testament to Lucian Freudís 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 wasnít a man
given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things
didnít interest him that much. He lost himself in that observerís world where he
was in control.
At the end of the book,
Lucien Freudís words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate
The notion of the afterlife is much
he same, giving people the idea that this life Ė your actual life Ė is just hors
díoeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as Iím concerned, the whole
idea is utterly ghastly. Iím not frightened in the slightest of death; Iíve 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: ďHe had a lovely time.Ē
If you observe long
enough, closely enough, Lucien Freudís 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. Itís enough. For a lovely time.