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王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiawei's Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion)  

2013-07-16 23:32:24|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(5)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之五》 July 16, 2013

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
王嘉伟:《贝肯肖像系列》(2008)
Wang Jiawei Bacon Portrait I, Bacon Portrait II, and Bacon Portrait III, 2008. Oil paintings. 60 x 80 cm each



Wang Jiawei's Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion
王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质
Small notes on Chinese Art(5)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之五》  July 16, 2013

 

I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it only because I haven't got any other people to do.  It's true to say … One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was: ‘Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.’  That is what one does oneself.
(Francis Bacon in Conversations with Michel Archimbaud, Phaidon 1993, p.42.)

Around the time these three portraits of Francis Bacon appeared, Wang Jiawei (王嘉伟) was also exhibiting Warhol-inspired portrait-series depicting Mao Zedong and Marilyn Monroe (see below for one example of each) in his characteristic watery style.  The carefully translated ink-water to oil-painting technique which enables the watery style is apt to be made much of.  The technique and result seem to encapsulate, at a material level, mediation between Western and Chinese painting.  [Actually, evocations of water in contemporary Chinese art have instanced more complex critical responses: David Clarke's essay on the subject in Art History, 2006, found in watery allusions/uses both a preoccupation with the “absence of ink” and challenges to the Chinese state's ideologically—saturated “control” of water.]   Perhaps the watery style should be understood in that grand bridging-of-cultures way, but here it interests me in a narrower fashion — more for its particular effect in this specific series of Bacon portraits.  Here, the watery style acts as a distorting surface or vision, as if Bacon's face is reflected in a pool with ripples or is seen through tearful eyes.  It isn't the face itself that melts; that would involve a different direction and distribution of disfigurement.  The swimming Bacon faces here are more a matter of distorted reflexive surfaces or of the watery lens through which viewed.  This particular kind of distortion of this particular visage comes with various resonances which I try to unpack gradually.

That references to Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol collide in Wang Jiawei's portraiture is itself of some interest.  Portraiture in the art of both Bacon and Warhol pushed determinedly away from the official or public portrait (this push has distinct and long-drawn traditions) – away from the public image of the great statesman or captain or industry or leader of armies or popular heroes and so on.  Bacon's and Warhol's portraiture pushed away from that conventional denominator, but they also moved in directions contrary to each other.  On the one hand, Warhol's portraits (mainly icons of celebrity culture) became an ironic exploration of the mechanics of publicness itself: exploring the endless replication (in multiple frames) of particular faces/postures (already iconic) with variations in hue and texture (almost arbitrary, fitted to any occasion).  Warhol's portraiture was blandly derived and displaced from the media world, mocking it and cheering for it at the same time. Bacon's, on the other hand, delved an extremity of intimacy: placing his subjects against lonely monochromes, distorting and morphing faces as if delving beneath their skin, taking their facial features apart and putting them together loosely, shifting perspectives (often in triptychs).  Bacon's portraiture was redolent with the living encounter of artist and subject: he could see the death in life, but didn't want to paint dead people's portraits.  So Bacon says: “It seems a bit mad painting portraits of dead people.  After all, you know that, if they hadn't been – what's it called? – incinerated, they've rotted away; their flesh has rotted away, and once they're dead you have your memory of them but you haven't got them” (David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson 1987, pp.129-30).

Wang Jiawei's portraits of Bacon have a touch of Warhol – in the bright shifting colours of the backdrop – and yet that is undermined by the chromatic consistency of the features of Bacon himself.  That's unlike a Warhol portrait, and unlike Wang's more directly Warhol-like Monroes and Maos.  At the same time the Bacon portraits have a much stronger touch of Bacon – in the distortion and the triptych shift of perspectives – and yet the distortion is actually unlike Bacon's own portrait paintings.  The different qualities of distortion are important, and I come back to that soon.  These three Bacon portraits do not explore the mechanics of publicness or delve the regions of intimacy; they merely refer to those but ultimately do something different.

These are then not attempts to draw upon or synthesise the techniques and visions of the Warhol and Bacon; these are actually artistic contemplations of the art of those two artists.  These are, to be pat, art about art.  Wang's Mao or Marilyn series are directly referred not to Warhol's technique and vision, but to Warhol's own artworks – his several Marilyn Monroe series and various Mao paintings (the latter were not shown in the travelling retrospective exhibition Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal in April 2013 in mainland China).  They deserve separate analysis as such, and are not my thing here.  Similarly, the three portraits of Bacon are not attempts at incorporating or drawing upon the Baconesque, but directly referred to Bacon's numerous self-portraits (especially the series of Three Studies, see below).  Wang's paintings are contemplations of Bacon's self-portraits.  That puts them in a peculiar line of artistic contemplations of the artisitic self (subject) and of being an artist – a line which is distinct from all the broad directions of portraiture mentioned above.  That this line is taken up by Wang by homing in on (contemplating artistically) Bacon's art featuring Bacon himself makes perfect sense, because Bacon is central to this line in contemporary art.

There is an undeniable piquancy about an artist's self-portrait.  It seems to involve a double exposure: of the artist revealing himself as a human subject, and relatedly of the artist revealing himself as artist at the same time – a double contemplation on the imbrications of self and art.  It is the artistic equivalent to the literary genre of the Künstlerroman.  It seems to spin out of an artist's encounter with himself, as in a mirror or a photograph – and the artist's self-portrait exposes by being more than a mirror image or a photograph, by being laden with the artist's gaze on himself.  The art (in the Greek philosophical sense of techne) and profession (in the sense of professing an area of knowledge, as a professor) of being an artist are seemingly revealed in the selfsame moment as the vulnerability of a human being in the world.  This particular piquancy was often denied by Bacon (in his interviews with Sylvester; in his conversation with Archimbaud); and yet he painted more portraits of himself than of any other subject.  It seems unlikely that he wouldn't have been aware of the particular thrust of self-portraiture as an artist if we look at his repeated development of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait between 1974 and 1980 below. There is a clear and steady line of development in self-imaging and self-understanding and artistic application that is traced thereby in this period – traced through gradual recuperation from agonised distortion and then into a different sort of caricatured distortion.  Three Studies thus become central to apprehending Bacon's late artistic achievement, and it seems reasonable to think that that's what Wang Jiawei's Bacon portraits contemplate.

There's another twist in this line of thinking.  Another artist contemplating an artist's self-portraits through art is also revealing at several levels: it is a homage to that artist; it is an ambitious claim to artistic primogeniture from that artist; it is identification with the human sensibility of that self-portrayed person; it is a deliberate departure from that artist's art; it is therefore a recognition of what the present demands in relation to what that self-portrayed artist's past called for.  Francis Bacon did this himself. Though he didn't like painting portraits of dead people, he did notably contemplate Van Gogh's portraits of himself through his own versions of those portraits (see below) – just as Wang does with his versions of Bacon's portraits.  Bacon's portraits based on Van Gogh's self-portraits did all that's mentioned above: homage and claiming primogeniture and identification, all in terms of simultaneously owning to and departing from what he saw as Van Gogh's artistic drive to “re-create reality” (conversation with Archimbaud, p.42).  The line at the end of which Wang Jiawei's Bacon portraits could be placed then is connected as follows: Van Gogh's self-portraits; Bacon's contemplative portraiture from Van Gogh's self-portraits; Bacon's self-portraits; Wang's contemplative portraiture from Bacon's self-portraits.  It would round off nicely if Wang came up with some self-portraits too some time.

In itself, this line may seem merely a quixotic and fortuitous circumstance.  Even if it is so (it may well be), it nevertheless encourages reflection on the changing ideologies of portraiture.  That line of connections can be thought about in terms of the qualities of distortion in portraiture – as demonstrating how different kinds of distortion reflect the pressures of consecutive socio-historical periods.  In Van Gogh's self-portraits distortion does not really trouble the integrity of forms and shapes.  But there is distortion nevertheless, and it suffuses the painting as a kind of heightened reality: colours seem more vivid than usual, lines more lucid, every figure and object (whether in the background or foreground, centred or at the margin) appears to be thrust forth with a life of its own, and even the carelessly rendered negative spaces and shadows appear as positively forthcoming as the rest.  In a way, the portrait of the artist – the depicted self – seems to be overwhelmed or flattened by the muchness of the artist's world: in Painter on the Road to Tarascon there is really no portrait of the painter, the face is a blur; in Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear the face of the artist seems hemmed in (squeezed) by the heavy lines of the bandage, the coat, the pipe and even the smoke and the strong colours of the backdrop.  This excessiveness of reality, a kind of hyper-reality, is almost painful; the too-much of reality flips into a state of mind – which is gestured towards as an all-too-real wound (the bandaged ear).  Bacon's contemplations on Van Gogh's portraits dim Van Gogh's hyper-reality (they appear to pull forms and shades out of darkness, and are relatively muted in colour and definition), and emphasise the excess by distorting the forms themselves. Bacon's Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh follows Van Gogh's Road to Tarascon by exaggeratedly distorting Van Gogh's face and body out of existence – it becomes part of the underlying darkness.  In Bacon's Homage to Van Gogh following Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, the too vivid background itself becomes an abstract painting, and the portrait a white blur which is physically distorted.  The distortion of Van Gogh-like hyper-reality is replaced by breaking down the integrity of shapes and forms themselves, so that distortion becomes a quality of the depicted portrait itself, as if battered and … interpellated.

The Baconesque distortion is examined in multiple variations and perspectives in the series of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (see below).  The effect of this distortion is difficult to describe.  It seems to me that philosopher Gilles Deleuze has captured it in words most suggestively:

[The] extraordinary agitation of these heads is derived not from a movement that the series would supposedly reconstitute, but rather from the force of pressure, dilation, contraction, flattening, and elongation that are exerted on the immobile head. They are like the forces of the cosmos confronting an intergalactic traveller immobile in his capsule. It is as if invisible forces were striking the head from different angles. The wiped and swept parts of the face here take on a new meaning, because they mark the zone where the force is in the process of striking. This is why the problems Bacon faces are indeed those of deformation, and not transformation. These are two very different categories. The transformation of form can be abstract or dynamic. But deformation is always bodily, and it is static, it happens at one place; it subordinates movement to force, but it also subordinates the abstract to the Figure.
(Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Continuum 2003, pp.58-9)

It is, in brief, the substance of the artist and his presence itself which are distorted in the self-portraits.

Wang Jiawei's contemplation in paint of Bacon's self-portraits changes the quality of distortion again.  It is not the material of reality which is at stake here: there's neither a Van Gogh-like overwhelming of the artistic self by hyper-reality, nor a Baconesque distortion of the substance of the artistic self.  As I observed at the beginning, Wang's watery style acts as a distorting surface or vision, as if Bacon's face is reflected in a pool with ripples or is seen through tearful eyes.  It isn't the face itself that melts; the swimming Bacon faces here are moulded by distorted reflexive surfaces or by the watery lens through which viewed.

The socio-historical pressures that contextualize Van Gogh's and Bacon's art and its characteristics – distortions — have been so prodigiously examined that it is unnecessary to dwell on them here.  The particular qualities of Wang's watery style and its distortions are open to studied contextualization.  The current critical orthodoxy is likely to look to conditions in China for that end.  There may be some mileage in that.   Bacon's art has been regularly referred by contemporary Chinese artists.  Yue Minjun's (岳敏君) Pope (1997) referred to Francis Bacon's Pope paintings following Velasquez's Pope Innocent X.  Many of Zeng Fanzhi's (曾梵志) and Yang Shaobin's (杨少斌) paintings echo Baconesque motifs.  Zeng Fanzhi has also painted several portraits of Bacon (see below for two), as has, recently, Ren Zhenyu (任震宇) (see below).  The particular effects of Wang Jiawei's Bacon portraits may be clarified by placing them amidst the references made by these Chinese artists, and thereby offer a specifically Chinese take that coheres with circumstances in China.  However, it seems to me a questionable presumption that the work of a Chinese artist must necessarily be understood as symptomatizing something about the nation-state of China as a whole.  Wang's Bacon portraits may just as well be approached in terms that are drawn from anywhere between the subjectivity of the artist and the contemporary world at large.




王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
王嘉伟(Wang Jiawei):  Mao 1  (2008)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
王嘉伟(Wang Jiawei)Marilyn Monroe (2008)


王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯), Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1974)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯), Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1975)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯), Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1976)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯), Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979~1980)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯), Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1980)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Vincent Van Gogh (梵高) 
Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888)
王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯)
Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV (1957)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Vincent Van Gogh (梵高) 
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)
王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon (弗朗西斯·贝肯)
Homage to Van Gogh, Arles (1960)


王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
曾梵志 (Zeng Fanzhi): Francis Bacon (2005)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
任震宇 (Ren Zhenyu): Portrait of Francis Bacon (2012)

王嘉伟的《贝肯》肖像系列与畸变的性质(Wang Jiaweis Bacon Portraits and the Qualities of Distortion) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
曾梵志 (Zeng Fanzhi): Francis Bacon (2010)



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