I was attracted to Painting People by Charlotte Mullins as I have been working on the figure in Assignment 5. The book covers a number of contemporary painters including some I have studied as part of the Drawing 1 course such as Elizabeth Peyton, Jenny Saville and Peter Doig. In the book, Mullins clarifies the difference between a portrait and a figure painting saying ‘this book focuses on artists who use the figure – whether specific examples or anonymous bodies – to engage with wider themes……the portrait, by its very nature, reflects the emotions and actions of its specific subject, and its subject alone. It does not engage with universality, and the focus remains squarely on the named individuals who are represented.’ (Mullins, 2006:8)
I hadn’t considered this distinction before and was very struck by it in the context with which I was working. I was drawing my son but I don’t think I was trying to produce a portrait of him. Instead I was trying to capture something more general about childhood.
The book also tackles the issue of using photographs as a basis for painting. ‘Photographs are a vital tool for twenty-first-century artists. Photography is no longer seen as the assassin of painting, as Delaroche and others initially feared it would be, but as an accomplice to painting’s continued existence.’ (Mullins, 2006:16) For many of the artists featured, photographs are an essential part of the process of making their art including Chuck Close, Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Gerhart Richter, Rui Matsunaga and others. Many select generic images from magazines, newspapers and other mass media as a basis for creating a whole new world or of commenting on our world as it is now.
Covering established contemporary artists, the book introduced me to many artists I hadn’t seen before and whose work I was drawn to including Henning Kles whose rich and mysterious paintings Mullins describes as ‘Whistleresque’ and I find have echoes of Peter Doig. Also, Hernan Bas whose paintings resonate with Elizabeth Peyton and according to Mullins are largely autobiographical while again being richly coloured and beautiful to look at. Anna Bjerger produces expressionistic paintings based on her own and found photographs while Mika Kato produces meticulous paintings of doll-like figures, each with a tiny flaw. Beautiful and deeply creepy.
Once again, I find the artists I am drawn to produce work that is beautiful, richly-coloured and sometimes very detailed, but also unsettling and strange.
I’d definitely recommend this book which looks at a wide range of contemporary artists who use the figure. Mullin’s introduction is an excellent overview of artistic approaches to the figure.
Mullins, C. (2006) Painting People. London: Thames and Hudson