Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bézier curves

"Balzac c" from "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu" (2011) by Richard Hamilton
This work was the centerpiece of a memorial exhibition last year at London's National Gallery following Richard Hamilton's death at age 89. What follows below is a detailed account of the picture from the review of the exhibition that appeared in the TLS (also source of illustration).

"Hamilton's version of the "Unknown Masterpiece" is a montage of known, ready-made motifs. The nude is lifted unaltered from an 1855 sepia photograph by a French artist-photographer, faintly Orientalist, Louis-Camille d'Olivier, and relocated on bedding that was photographed, like the easel beyond, in Hamilton's studio. The three figures standing behind her, Poussin (who appears in the Balzac story), Courbet and Titian, are all scanned from reproductions of well-known self-portraits (unaltered, except the hands of Courbet and Titian have been changed, taken from photographs). The techniques by which these borrowed instant likenesses are assimilated into the picture are all digital. Nothing is painted. The "perfection" of the flesh in the final nude, "Balzac c", is achieved with the deadpan airbrush of Photoshop, and the regular arcs of her hips and thighs are redrawn using Photoshop's Bézier curves."

It is my own personal Spencer Alley suspicion that Poussin is impatiently waiting for his turn to talk to Titian. Who is Courbet? What does he know?  In reality, Poussin could never have met either one of them, since none of these three artistic lifetimes overlapped. But Poussin revered the memory of Titian, who had died in Italy only a couple of decades before Poussin's birth in France, and whose works were visible all over Rome in the 1620s when Poussin arrived as a young man in the city where he would spend the rest of his life. His earliest Roman works look very often like imitation-Titians, which really came home to me in the many small Roman art museums we visited a couple of years ago, each of which had a stray Poussin or two. Most of them were early homages to Titian. On the other hand, Courbet and Titian had in common their fascination with the traditional horizontal European female art-nude. Even though they worked three hundred years apart in time, their surviving pictures confirm that they agreed in finding non-resistant female flesh the ideal subject for (male) artistic contemplation  Poussin had no use for this viewpoint at all.  

However, we started out talking about Richard Hamilton. Well, to me it is pleasing to think that Richard Hamilton at the end of a long lucrative career (and life) would have the humility to create a work featuring three painters whose achievements absolutely crush his own into invisible insignificance.