An Instagram review of AGNSW’s Nude and NGV’s Hockney shows

W.H. Chong has been experimenting on Instagram as a novel form of compressed art writing. He’s been to the Art Gallery of NSW’s big Nude show from the Tate and looked hard at half a dozen works. He says it’s a great summer show for those days you just want to get it off (but stay in air conditioning).

See these pieces in their original form on Instagram @w.h.chong

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To stand before Picasso’s Seated Nude (detail, below) made over a hundred years ago is to be reminded of analytic cubism’s unprecedented mindbogglingness. Looking still utterly radical, it blows away every contemporary work I have seen this year.

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Francis Bacon claimed his paintings were impulsive acts, unplanned. And here we have his sketches. If these crude scribbles were not by Bacon we would pass them by. But we look because we know the same hand also made the monumental triptych on the adjacent wall — the isolated squirming figures that memorialise his lover’s suicide. We are inspecting the fuse that lit the bomb.

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Lucian Freud wanted his paint to *be* flesh, analogy as alchemy. Rembrandt’s late self-portraits are conveyed by mysteriously, tremendously persuasive painting of flesh — his paint unselfconsciously embodied his soul, for Rembrandt surely believed he had one. Freud’s painting is about the painter’s struggle, the struggle for painting to again become compelling art — thus coercing paint into flesh. But the passages where Freud’s heroic painterly struggles devolve into tumorous smears of paint is also exactly when his painting admits the wracking doubts of modernity, when we can most recognise ourselves. (‘Standing by the rags’ detail)

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Alice Neel, oh Alice Neel! I loved her work before I knew why. Born in 1900 she was brave and strong enough to be original, unfashionably painting portraits as the art world cycled through ‘isms’ towards peak abstraction, while also being a single mother with two boys, few resources and personal problems which nearly destroyed her. Alice’s paintings are intense and awkward, emotionally direct and excellent likenesses. She was 73 when she painted her friend Kitty Pearson — bravura outlines and brushed-in volumes, bright as citrus. Unconventional to the end, Alice would later complete her only self-portrait — saggy and naked at age 80. People were shocked, maybe appalled. Alice Alice Alice!

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“Cockfest”: I’ve been hearing this expression among women artists. It asserts the idea that a disproportionate number of institutional shows is given over to male artists. In this anthology exhibition there are men-made penises by Stanley Spencer, Freud and Hockney — respectively dejected, exposed and eroticised. The great Louise Bourgeois has several contributions including this work on paper, the pulp-red “Couple” — read against the image the title is savage: as a noun the relationship is a tense standoff; as a verb things have gone over the edge. The grotesque cartoon of the beheaded female, the blackened, engorged penis aimed at the violent black gash in the pregnant abdomen — I’m still not sure what’s happening but here is Serious Damage. Bourgeois’ wall quote makes it clear that it shows how she *feels* about sexual politics rather than about the politics itself: ‘I live in a world of emotions and my only obligation is to express them. I will try any material, shape or form to get there’. Her unsettling diagram demonstrates that good art doesn’t settle for the obvious.

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‘An iPad extravaganza’ is how the current Hockney show at the NGV has been described to me. But he has the enviable knack of embracing new tech without being captured. Hockney is almost 80 now but when he was not quite 30 and the world was analogue, he was making world-class prints that set trends in both style and content. Ostensibly illustrations to C.P. Cavafy’s marvelous homoerotic poems this suite of etchings remain a highlight in Hockney’s six decade career. They combine elegance and subtlety with economy of means, and a prescient, contemporary frankness foreign to Cavafy’s alluring seediness (mmm, pun), a frankness illegal in the UK in 1966. And of course it displays in full that distilled Greek line transmitted by way of Ingres through Degas and Picasso, which is to say, draughtsmanship of the highest order.

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Nude: Art from the Tate Collection is at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney until February 5

David Hockey Current is at the NGV International, Melbourne until March 13

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