Art and Inexhaustibility I


I have been reading an excellent book on painting, Man with a Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford.   It is a record of the time in which art critic Martin Gayford sat for a portrait and an etching of himself by Lucian Freud. Gayford chronicles the day-to-day progress of the works, discusses Freud’s work habits and opinions about painting, and his own reactions to the experience.  My favorite passage comes near the end, when Gayford, some time after the two images of himself had been completed. goes to see both of them again at an exhibition at the Correr Museum in Venice.  He is startled at the way in which the two works surprise him, even after months of having watched them take shape.

He observes, “It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them.  No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again (this point has been made to me by apparently very different artists, including Luc Tuymans and Richard Serra, as well as LF).  Also, a certain work of art may produce quite different feelings in different people; in fact, it evokes altered responses in the same person at differing times.  Indeed, its ability to carry on doing that is one of the qualities that makes a work of art good.  I thought I knew these images as well as anyone could, except their creator.  I had watched them grow, week by week, touch by touch.  And yet I found that somehow, when I saw them again, they looked new.”

Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (Thames and Hudson, 2010), pp. 234-35.

This testimony to a work’s inexhaustibility is particularly meaningful to me, as a long-time teacher of classic works of literature, which are similarly inexhaustible.  Perhaps this is one way that art points beyond itself.  Its own inexhaustibility may reflect something we have lost sight of in the world.  I will write about this idea more fully in a later post on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.