Figurative Painting is Redefined by Culture of Stress

Richard Friswell
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Jenny Saville, Hyphen, 1999, o/c, Private Collection

“Paint Made Flesh” On view at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., until September 13, 2009 and at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY through January 3, 2010

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The Phillips Collection (new wing not shown), located in Washington, D.C.

For generations, artists have used a wide range of painterly effects to suggest the physical properties and metaphorical significance of human flesh. The Phillips Collection presents, Paint Made Flesh, a survey of figurative painting since the 1950s. Bringing together 42 provocative works from private collections and museums around the world, the exhibition features 34 internationally renowned contemporary artists rarely seen together, including Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel.

While in recent years figure painting has been pushed to the periphery of contemporary art, Paint Made Flesh uses some of the most celebrated examples to show how ideally suited the subject and the medium are to expressing what lies beneath the surface—the emotional, sensual, and tragic aspects of human experience. Featuring works created between 1952 and 2005 in Europe and the United States, the exhibition traces figurative painting’s powerful personal and social commentary—beginning with images that convey a feeling of existential despair following World War II and culminating with recent paintings that reflect how individual identity has been altered by the forces of globalism, science, and technology.

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Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1953-53, oil on paperboard, brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and mrs. Alistair B. Martin, The Guennol Collection

 “Paint Made Flesh generates a fresh and fascinating conversation about the powerful legacy of figure painting,” says Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection. “The exhibition, with its thoughtful juxtaposition of paintings, not only reveals the singular capacity of paint to capture the complexities of the human condition, but also broadens the scope of our collection’s conversation with contemporary artists.”

AMERICAN ART: 1952–1975

At the same time that well-known abstract painters such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler were abandoning the representation of tangible objects, many American artists remained preoccupied with the human figure. Artists such as Alice Neel, whose unflinching paintings are among the most powerful portraits of the 20th century, distorted the anatomy of their subjects and used an unusual color palette to express themes of poverty, despair, and turmoil. Other painters, such as Willem de Kooning, who once said “flesh is the reason oil painting was invented,” used vigorous brushstrokes and deliberate vulgarity to describe feelings of anguish and anxiety.


The widespread revival of figure painting in Germany and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s was often labeled neoexpressionism because it evoked the strong colors, primitive forms, and energetic brushstrokes of early-20th-century German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, and Edvard Munch. German artists, Georg Baselitz and A.R. Penck, who were children during the Nazi occupation, and American artists Susan Rothenberg and Julian Schnabel, combined bold colors and crudely painted figures with imagery culled from dreams, folk art, and personal obsessions to render psychological depth.

 Above: Georg Baselitz, Nude Elke 2 (Akt Elke 2), 1976, o/c, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, NY and Berlin

BRITISH PAINTING                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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Francis Bacon, Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963, o/c, Museum of Modern Art, NY, The William S, Paley Collection

Drawing on the English tradition of portraiture, artists such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon took full advantage of paint’s capacity to be thick or thin, opaque or transparent, to translate the surface of flesh into expressions of psychological strength and vulnerability. Bacon dramatically smeared and scraped oily color to extract every nuance of feeling and tension, while Freud focused on the various bumps, scabs, scars, and wrinkles of human skin to create powerful and riveting images of humanity.


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Eric Fishl, Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection, 1996, o/l, Courtesy the artist

The exhibition culminates with recent work by contemporary artists such as Tony Bevan, Wangeschi Mutu, Albert Oehlen, and Daniel Richter who show the body responding to a wave of social concerns, including new technology, disease, and threats of terrorism. They mix and adapt expressive styles to challenge perceptions of identity beyond nationality, ethnicity, religion, or politics—turning the human form into the embodiment of complex social values.

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John Currin, The Hobo, 1999, o/c, Collection of the Mueaum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Museum Purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund

This section also includes portraits from the late 1990s to 2006 by Michael Borremans, Francesco Clemente, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, and Lisa Yuskavage. In these works, skin is blemished, wrinkled, or otherwise made imperfect as if it is a topographical map that signifies the subject’s inner psychology. Fischl’s Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection (1996), created by the painter while mourning his father’s death, is a poignant consideration of human vulnerability. By depicting skin as if it is made of parchment, Fischl has stripped away any sense of decorum or artifice to reveal a painful truth about the eroding impact of time. In contrast, portraits by Borremans, Yuskavage, and Currin combine the likeness of their subjects with cultural stereotypes derived from art history, old movie posters, and girlie pinups. In each, skin seems to be made of plastic or covered with heavy makeup, reinforcing the artificiality of the social persona while reflecting the era of plastic surgery and digital beautification.  

Edited for ARTES by Richard Friswell                                                                                                                                           

Note: Paint Made Flesh was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tenn. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The curator is Mark W. Scala, chief curator of the Frist. The exhibition will next be on view at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y., from Oct. 25, 2009 to Jan. 3, 2010.

An 126-page exhibition catalogue and more information on the museum is available through the Phillips Collection at


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