Magazine article The Spectator

Painting Still Counts

Magazine article The Spectator

Painting Still Counts

Article excerpt

Well, who says painting is dead? Just before Christmas - you can, I hope, still cast your mind back over the festive watershed - there was a great deal of fuss over the portrait Lucian Freud has recently completed of Her Majesty the Queen. There were several points about that brouhaha which are worth noting - not least of which is that this little picture, nine inches by six, received more publicity than any single new work in the history of art.

No Picasso, no Pollock, no Matisse has thus dominated the front pages of virtually every single national newspaper in the way that this Freud did - and it continued to generate columns, editorials, cartoons and letters for several days after its initial appearance. Not Martin Creed's empty room, not Damien's shark, not even Tracey Emin's slept-in bed aroused nearly as much interest and controversy as this image, considerably smaller than a sheet of A4. It is a startling confirmation of the cultural importance we continue to assign to painting.

Admittedly, it also suggests the

fascination we still feel for monarchy. The compelling conjunction was the combination of Freud by general acknowledgement the greatest living portrait painter and the Queen. These are both individuals who exercise considerable fascination. Her Majesty, of course, does so more widely; but there are probably quite a few people in the arts and media world who feel, as someone put it to me at a Christmas party, that `Lucian Freud is really much grander than the Queen'. Almost any painted image of the monarch is automatically controversial, usually for the reasons that are as old as court portraiture someone feels it is insufficiently flattering. A portrait of the sovereign by Freud - whose work is famous for its power apparently to remove the veil of convention from our view of any individual, revealing the truths, uncomfortable and profound, beneath - was destined to excite ten times more controversy than previous portrayals.

But this media hubbub - of which the Sun's headline 'A Travesty, Your Majesty' was the most succinct, if perhaps also the most wrong-headed manifestation - was still evidence that, deep down, we think painting matters. Or at least, that a portrait by a great painter of a person of historic significance is an important affair. It may fix his or her appearance for all time. (When people complained that Gertrude Stein did not resemble his portrait of her, Picasso replied, `She will'; and she certainly does now, as one seldom sees any other image of her. …

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