Letter from the Editor: Painting now

Art Quarterly's Editor introduces the Winter 2013 issue of the magazine, and explores the history and purpose of painting, from Van Dyck to Dana Schutz.

What does it mean to paint? What does it mean to confront a blank canvas on a daily basis, as Luc Tuymans or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye do, or spend months or even years working on the surface of a single work like the late Lucian Freud or Hurvin Anderson?

Freud, who died in 2011, described painting as a selfish pursuit. ‘All I ever really want to do is to paint,’ he said towards the end of his life. ‘I am very selfish about it. I say it not as a boast but as a fact.’ A biography of Freud by Geordie Greig was published this autumn, and while it is predominantly concerned with Freud’s rapacious love life, incessant gambling and coterie of titled admirers and underworld associates, it also includes conversations that offer a keyhole view of Freud’s notoriously secretive life as a painter. In one such exchange, Freud talks about the paint taking control: ‘If a painting’s going well you work on it all over,’ he says. ‘You don’t say, “Oh I won’t touch that bit again”. You suddenly find something you do changes another bit. That is the art element. That is what you feel or you wouldn’t do it. The picture sort of paints itself out in the end.’

In this issue of Art Quarterly four contemporary painters – Luc Tuymans, Tomma Abts, Dana Schutz and Hurvin Anderson – share their thoughts on how they paint and why. (The article ‘Where is Painting Now?’ is available as a free download.) Schutz says, ‘The paint will do its own thing. It is a physical dance, you respond to it and if it is going well you forget that you are painting, it just feels like you are responding to it.’ Her paintings can provoke strong reactions in the viewer. Greig describes Freud’s ability to get to the nub of a subject no matter how awkward in a similar way: ‘So often he makes the viewer feel discomfort,’ he says. This ability to physically awaken sensations in the observer, to heighten emotion, is at the heart of much figurative painting, as this issue attests: past masters include Anthony van Dyck, Stanley Spencer and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Henri Cartier-Bresson famously described striving to capture the essence of a scene in photography as a search for the ‘decisive moment’. David Bailey has made a successful career out of just such a pursuit, and now over 250 of his images – from Jean Shrimpton to Kate Moss; the East End of London to Papua New Guinea – get set to take over the National Portrait Gallery. Bailey uses his camera to capture moods and fleeting moments. And although this issue in large part celebrates the ability of painters and photographers to tell stories without words, there has still been room to ask Georgian architecture to reveal its secrets and to set Matthew Sweet on the trail of Sherlock Holmes. One of Holmes’s greatest put-downs was: ‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.’ He would have liked this issue’s observations on painting; his great-uncle was Horace Vernet, allegedly…

This column appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

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