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The measure of the man

Euan Uglow: The Complete Paintings
Catalogue raisonné by Catherine Lampert; Essays by Richard Kendall and Catherine Lampert

5 September 2007

12:46 PM

5 September 2007

12:46 PM

Euan Uglow: The Complete Paintings Catalogue raisonné by Catherine Lampert; Essays by Richard Kendall and Catherine Lampert

Yale, pp.pp. 244, £65

Euan Uglow: The Complete Paintings
Catalogue raisonné by Catherine Lampert; Essays by Richard Kendall and Catherine Lampert

Whether we know it or not ‘we crave the inexpressive in art’, Bernard Berenson wrote, as an antidote to the sensationalism of ‘the representational arts most alive, the cinema and the illustrated press’. He was writing about Euan Uglow’s great hero Piero della Francesca in an essay called The Ineloquent in Art, which came out in 1954, the year Uglow left the Slade, and made a deep impression on him: ‘There’s something about the title — the fact that there’s more force in controlled passion than in exuberant passion. That’s the idea I like. I like it slowly to creep out on you.’

Many people find it hard to connect Uglow’s painting with passion of any kind. He is famous for a particularly laborious method of painting which involved mathematical calculations, meticulous, even obsessive measuring, and complicated constructions of sighting wires and plumb-lines. The painting of a single figure could take up to seven years. The female nude was his great subject (together with portraits and still life), but the detached objectivity of his approach strikes some as being cold, unsensuous, even degrading.


His nudes certainly have more in common with 17th-century Spanish still life than they do with Titian — particularly the vegetables on strings of Juan Sanchez Cotán, who similarly based his compositions on mathematics and geometry. Uglow was said by his detractors to be unfeeling towards his models (‘when I’m painting I’m not interested in the model’s problems… I’m not trying to paint crucifixes’); he made them cut their hair, was furious if they got sunburnt, and enforced excruciating poses of such ‘brazen unnaturalness’ that some fell by the wayside, leaving paintings unfinished.

This fascinating and illuminating account of Euan Uglow’s work has many insights to offer on the curious relationship or psychological contract between artist and model: ‘a sustained working relationship between two adults that is tense, reciprocal, confrontational as much as carnal’, as Richard Kendall puts it in his always interesting and admirably lucid introductory essay. In Uglow’s case many were, or became, lovers and friends, though he claimed he ‘used to have a law about having nothing to do with the girl till I finished the picture, all the sex went into the painting. I’m serious about that.’ Most models were proud of their partnership in the creation of a work of art — and their accounts, quoted here in the notes attached to the illustrations of every traceable work (apart from drawings, juvenilia and Christmas cards, of which a selection only is included), show they took a serious and observant interest in the process.

The paradoxical thing about Uglow’s work is that all that scrupulous correctness, that punctilious recording of appearances, what William Coldstream (from whom he inherited the measuring method) called the search for ‘irrefutable data’, should have led to some sort of photographic, illusionistic realism, but it didn’t. Gradations of tone, for instance, following the curve of a thigh, meticulously registered, are set down as a delicately faceted surface, not run together to give an illusion of smooth flesh. Uglow is fundamentally a conceptual painter, an idea behind every painting, though we tend perhaps to expect too great a separation between intellect and emotion. (Kenneth Clark rather surprisingly wrote, ‘I cannot distinguish between thought and feeling.’) As Uglow said, ‘the idea of kissing a girl could be the starting point of a painting’, or just the marvel of a particular colour. He also said that painting a pineapple would be ‘to paint a natural logarithm’. Catherine Lampert writes that he ‘was all the time correcting reality when, if left alone, it threatened to produce an ugly or disturbing form on a flat surface’. He created ‘set-ups’ like miniature stage-sets or shrines for still lifes and nudes alike, made hats and necklaces, modified clothes as necessary in ‘imperious acts of seeing and arranging’.

A catalogue raisonné may sound daunting, but this is anything but a dry book. It displays the variety of Uglow’s output: holiday landscapes, holiday nudes, small rough pictures, a handful of ‘autobiographical’ ones, which reveal unexpected sides to the tortured perfectionist we are more familiar with. There being no previous monographs it draws on a variety of primary sources (including the artist’s own words ‘extracted under protest and often blunt in delivery’) and the two essays cover every aspect of Uglow’s artistic development and practice.

John Berger described an early work of Uglow’s as ‘a fine painting but 50 years out of date’. Uglow’s great achievement is to have triumphed over such judgments using traditional techniques and subject matter; ‘a true descendant of Chardin’ in David Sylvester’s words, ‘but madder in conception and more violent in execution’. Although it does not aspire to be an autobiography, this book allows us to piece together scraps of information, as we do in real life, to form the impression of a man of great warmth and integrity that is a great deal more vivid and intimate than that achieved by most biographies. As for cold, Sylvester also wrote that in Uglow’s paintings ‘the play of light becomes an objective correlative of desire’.

The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication.


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