Sunday, 20 September 2009
A MASTER OF AMBIGUITY
Michael Leonard is the most fascinatingly ambiguous artist I know. His work is apparently conservative, but constantly wrong-foots the spectator. I can perhaps explain this best by looking at the basic categories into which what he does can be divided. As will be seen here, he makes both paintings and drawings. The paintings shown in this exhibition consist very largely of nudes, with a few portraits and figure compositions thrown in. In the drawings, which form a very important part of his production, we find more nudes, but also the series of portraits Leonard describes as ‘Transpositions’. Though these portraits are perhaps the least known part of his work, they offer important clues to the nature of his sensibility.
The portraits are, first of all, startlingly vivid likenesses of the people they portray. Yet this portrayal takes place at several removes from contemporary reality. The subjects appear in fashions that range from the fifteenth to the early 20th century – the information is drawn from the art of the appropriate period. It is immediately apparent that the sitters are not just people in fancy dress. Their appearance is modeled on the way that the artist thinks they would have been seen by certain great portrait painters in the past. Though it is usually impossible to detect an absolutely specific source for a given image, it is clear that Leonard has looked at J.L. David, Jean-Dominique Ingres and John Singer Sargent with special affection. However, he does not despise much humbler models. One or two of the portrait drawings use 19th century photographs as their source material.
It is important, however, to note that the portrait drawings involve two stages of removal, not just one. Leonard presents them, not as direct imitations, but as if they were pages ripped, sometimes rather roughly, from an old-fashioned art book with black-and-white reproductions. That is, as well as being portraits, they are also trompe l’oeils in the tradition of American 19th century practitioners such as William Michael Harnett [1848-1892]. In technical terms there is a close kinship between these drawings and Harnett’s teasingly ragged Five Dollar Bill , now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This elaborate process of removal offers the artist several benefits. By showing his transformed contemporary subjects, not directly, but as if their likenesses were reproduced in an art book or catalogue, he can more readily persuade the spectator that they existed in a former time. He suggests parallels between past ages and our own – parallels often so well hidden that they have escaped detection by the rest of us, even if we think we possess a wide historical knowledge. Going further, he almost seems to suggest the existence of a parallel universe, where these images, preserved for us as fictional illustrations, might really have existed. In addition, by adding an extra distance between himself and the presumed original, he can assume the style of an admired artist without resorting to obvious pastiche. Finally, he can legitimately employ trompe l’oeil, which has been often dismissed by intellectual critics as the most trivial sort of trickery (though, on the contrary, it has always been enjoyed by the wider public) because the element of illusion is clearly necessary to what he wants to say about his sitters, which is that, in many cases, they seem to fit just as comfortably into epochs other than our own.
In a more general sense, Leonard’s portrait drawings conjure up ideas about masking and masquerading, a theme of increasing interest to those who try to analyze the politics of class and the politics of gender. What we are is not always either what we think we are, or how we wish to be seen by the external world. To push this further, the portrait drawings lead one into a kind of Borgesian labyrinth – a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’. Seeing a group of them together, we are encouraged to think both about the mutability of human personality and the mutable nature of our own reactions to the people we meet,
These drawings are characterized by their extreme care and precision. Exactly the same thing can be said about the other drawings on view here – the nudes. What has to be understood about them is that they are independent works of art, not preparatory sketches, though they very often lead on to paintings using the same compositions. Both their subject matter and to some extent their attitude to it, are firmly traditional. Their ancestry includes drawings by Ingres, Seurat and Degas. Though they use definite outlines in a way that is foreign to Seurat, they owe a good deal to him both in their feeling for the monumental and in their manipulation of tone. They also have another, very obvious source, which is photography.
Though photography was used as visual reference by artists from its very beginnings – Delacroix employed a series of photographs of nudes specially prepared for him by Eugène Durieu – its role remains a controversial one. Francis Bacon, for example, made extensive use of photographs, some of them taken from Eadweard Muybridge’s famous series on The Human Figure in Motion, but to some extent remained in denial about his use of photographs as templates right up to his death. It is this denial that lies at the heart of the recent controversy about Bacon’s drawings. It now seems clear that, while he emphatically denied that he drew, he left behind him a large number of preparatory drawings, the majority made on top of photographs and photographic magazine illustrations. Yet a number of well known contemporary painters, among them Lucian Freud and Philip Pearlstein, have been fierce in their rejection of the photographic image as a source. Pearlstein, for instance, once said: ‘Only the mature artist who works from a model is capable of seeing the body for itself, only he has the opportunity for prolonged viewing.’
It is obvious that Leonard would not agree with this. For one thing, his subjects are often shown in contorted or off-balance poses that no model could sustain for more than a few seconds. One reason for using photographs as a source – and in this case the artist makes them himself – is that the body in motion produces forms and relationships of form that it is impossible to imagine in advance. What Leonard does is to involve the model in some form of everyday activity that will produce an interesting series of gestures. Where male models are concerned he often has them drying themselves with towels, or putting on or taking off simple garments such as t-shirts. With women, he sometimes photographs them combing their hair.
The photograph is only the beginning of a complex process of compositional refinement. Leonard changes the physical appearance of the model, usually in the direction of idealization. Some alterations, however, are made to achieve a kind of anatomical coherence that is not always present in the photographic source material. The bodies you see in the finished image are more perfectly realized, more logical in their structure, than those that appear in the photographic source. Though Leonard has sometimes been carelessly described as a ‘photorealist’, this is exactly what he is not. An artist who idealizes, at a point in cultural history when the great mythological structures have fallen apart puts himself in a difficult situation. The idealized body cannot reach for one of the great myths in order to justify itself. Yet this is not an entirely new problem. It was certainly familiar to Degas, whom I have already mentioned as being one of Leonard’s sources. In his youth, Degas experimented with conventionally classical themes. His early painting Les Jeunes Spartes [1860-2], now in the National Gallery, London, is an example. Later, when me moved to the series of women washing themselves, he tried to combine classical values with an intimately domestic theme. To some extent Leonard does this too.
The misogynistic Degas maintained a strict emotional detachment from his models, whom he once described as being ‘like cats licking themselves’. This detachment also exists in Leonard’s work, though it is less brutal. One perhaps sees it even more clearly in the paintings than one does in the drawings. One symptom is the way in which the compositions are cropped. In both his paintings and his drawings Leonard is always concerned with the precise relationship between the shapes that go to make up the composition, and the containing edge. The forms push against the edge, and are sometimes abruptly cut off by it. This is one of the ways in which he most obviously differs from Freud, who never seems overly concerned with formal relationships of this kind.
This concern with the edge has encouraged Leonard to make paintings where the body is radically cropped – for instance, there are paintings where all you see is a pair of legs. Cropping of this sort is associated with the rise of photography. It was photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand who understood that the audience could be made to construe the whole when shown only a part of some object, most notably a human body. Leonard has found a place for that in painting. One of the things he recalls, through his use of this way of seeing, is the link between the classical impulse, as revived by Renaissance artists, and the quasi-worship of the fragmentary, as exemplified by Michelangelo’s reaction to the Belvedere Torso.
This compositional meticulousness of the paintings is matched by extreme refinement in the handling of tone. Very few living painters, if indeed any, have such a sophisticated feeling for the interaction of different hues that are very close to one another in value. In other words, if you reduced them all to black and white, there would be very little difference in visual weight. Leonard says that he was originally drawn to this use of close tones by the desire to make something that marked a definite break with his work as an illustrator. One consequence is that his paintings are extremely difficult, indeed almost impossible, to reproduce accurately in printed form. You have to see the real thing.
This may be hard luck for the artist, in a world where be depends so much on print for the dissemination of images, but it is ultimately a gain for the spectator, who is offered a genuinely unique visual experience, which can be enjoyed in no other way. As Michelangelo said, ‘Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.’ And, as he also said, ‘A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as does failing to hear and see it.’
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