The many masks of modern art
Is it possible to be truly objective in art? Or is art by its very nature subjective and emotive, even mysterious? An act of intuition and feeling as much as of clear-eyed observation?
It's a question that has haunted man at least as far back as the days of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle said that art is imitation. And yet Greek art, ''true to life'' as it may appear in many respects, was as much an expression of cultural ideals as the result of careful observation.
Roman marble portraits, a few years later, depicted senators, generals, and wealthy citizens with every wrinkle, wart, and facial peculiarity intact. And yet, for all their apparent objectivity, these heads seem oddly close to caricatures. No wonder, considering how exclusively the sculptors who made them focused on their sitter's physicalm appearance at the expense of their subtle, multifaceted inner realities. They didn't depict real human beings, but extraordinarily lifelike masks depicting human physicality. Each ''portrait'' is an exhaustively detailed catalog of the sitter's nose, eyes, hair, ear lobes, wrinkles, and of how they all fit together. It describes his facial ''landscape'' perfectly, but gives us not the slightest hint of the living, breathing human being inside - nor any clues as to how he thought, or what he felt.
Now that, to me, is not objectivity, but a form of creative and philosophical editing that denies the full implications of the sitter's humanity. And that presents us with almost as lopsided a portrayal of a human being as do cartoons of political figures, or Picasso's double-faced women.
From our modern viewpoint, Rembrandt came closer to full human truth. And yet , what would the ancient Greeks or Romans have made of his deeply reflective and psychologically acute portraits? Or of El Greco's metaphysical studies of humanity? Or Munch's and Kokoschka's anxious perceptions of human nature? Not much, I suspect, lacking as they did our modern, deeply introspective notions of self, and our vision of man as capable very soon of moving easily among the stars.
Man is so much more than can be portrayed merely through an accurate rendering of his physical appearance - no matter how extraordinarily ''lifelike'' it may be. After all, man is more than a static object to be recorded like a potato or a tree stump on canvas or in clay. And yet, in what manner should art approach this extremely complex and difficult assignment?
How, for instance, does one portray wisdom or spiritual depth? Or love? How does one convey human warmth and character, a sense of discipline, or profound compassion? And how does one communicate that an individual is highly intuitive, or particularly intelligent?
It's not easy, in fact, it's very difficult, especially if the portrait or study is also to be a ''speaking'' likeness, with the sitter's visage and demeanor clearly and accurately defined.
Most of the paintings of people in our museums are at least as much style as substance, as much a matter of painterly and cultural ideals, fashions, and mannerism, as of human individuality and character. Only in the works of some of our greatest artists do we see real human beings peering out at us from behind ruffles and lace, beautifully polished armor, or Victorian topcoat and hat. Even so, we seldom get more than a glimpse or a hint of who these people really were. Portraits, after all, were generally intended to impress, and to indicate rank or achievement, not to reveal human vulnerabilities.
There were exceptions, of course, but a large number of these were self-portraits produced for the artist's own edification. These often were startlingly direct - witness those by Durer, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, and Picasso. But they were also, at times, a bit too probing and harsh, as though the artists were mainly concerned not to see themselves through rose-colored glasses.
The closer we get to the twentieth century, the more problematical becomes the issue of man in art. Cezanne's monumental studies - one can hardly call them portraits - of his wife, a few friends, and himself, partake of the same architectonic vision he applied to mountains, forests, and apples. And yet they ended up remarkably human - possibly because of his grand and holistic vision.
After Cezanne, things changed dramatically, and man, as man, lost importance for a while in art. When he did appear, as in some Cubist and Expressionist paintings, he did so to serve a particular formalist purpose, or to find himself all twisted out of shape. He did, of course, retain his humanity in the works of Schiele, Rouault, Kollwitz, Barlach, Dix, and a few others, but by and large he was shunted aside for more abstract or purely coloristic painterly realities.
As the century progressed, it was increasingly left to the individual artists to stand up for man, and a significant number did. Giacometti, for all his formal preoccupations, always perceived man as central to his art. And the same applies, although there are those who doubt it, to Francis Bacon. Others who centered their art upon human as well as formal values were Epstein, Hopper, Sutherland, and Wyeth, to say nothing of lesser artists whose work, while perhaps not as distinguished, nevertheless spoke clearly of human values and realities.
During the last two decades we have seen a gradual increase in representational art, with the depiction of man competing quite successfully with landscapes, still lifes, and city views. But it's generally been a cold and precise sort of depiction, with the Photo-Realists, in particular, caring less for the humanity of their subjects than for certain technical or illusionistic tricks they could perform with them.
In the midst of all this, England's Lucian Freud has gone his own quiet way with portraits and figure studies that maintain a delicate balance between optical ''objectivity'' and a cool form of compassion. This ''coolness'' is almost clinical, and was most apparent in his earlier works, in which a very precise linearism helped emphasize the subtle psychological overtones of his art.
His more recent work, however, is more loosely and broadly executed, and reflects a slightly less intense attitude toward his sitters. Even so, there is a starkness about his paintings of people that does not evoke empathy or invite sympathy. We may recognize his subjects as real people but are not interested in getting involved with them. And that is true even of some extraordinarily frank and revealing studies of his mother.
I've admired Freud's paintings for a long time, but I've never really liked them. Possibly because they are, or attempt to be, so very ''objective.'' Or possibly because Freud lacks any interest in communicating hism compassion (''cool'' as it may be) to us. But whatever the reason, we are cut off from human contact with the people he depicts - and that's odd, since he goes to such trouble to reveal the humanity in each of them for us.
His work is truly exceptional, however, for one rather rare and dramatic reason: They represent reasonably whole individuals, not caricatures, not the embodiment of one or another human typem. These are real people, real twentieth-century citizens of our world. They belong to our time as much as the people depicted in Greek or Roman portrait busts belonged to theirs. All may be universally human, but each also represents and reflects unique and special qualities and attitudes of his particular age.