Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kokoschka: On Making Ugly Art

KokoschkaPrometheus Triptych (left hand panel) - Courtauld Institute of Art

One thing’s for sure – when you walk into a room with a painting by Oskar Kokoschka in it, you may love it or hate it but you definitely can’t ignore it!

I leafed through my Kokoschka book today in my studio. It isn’t one that I look at often, but I can rely on his work to ‘shake things up’ for me visually. He never fails in this regard.

Today, the question he kept asking me is “do you dare to paint ugly?”

I don’t mean that his work is ugly, but it definitely is unsettling and there is a brutality about it.

So, I buckled down to explore ugliness in painting. I found it quite challenging! In fact, my mind couldn’t even get a handle on what is ugly – what colors, what shapes, what brushstrokes would I use?

Nothing worked – as I used each one, I fell in love with it and it was transformed and no longer ugly … however, it always remained different and jarring.

Now that got me to thinking … if ugly = different, then does beauty = sameness?

And what is sameness?

Boring!! Yes! Now this I understand!! This is something I can paint!

But, Kokoschka took me aside and said “No! It’s been done before”.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting


Ellie Clemens said...

What is ugly, what is beautiful. Good question. I think that among other things, ugly is unapproachable, offputting, something that says 'don't some closer, I'm angry, annoyed...'

This painting, for instance, is beautiful in its composition but ogly and off putting in its surface texture and coloring. The colors are jarring, the texture is harsh and rough. But these qualities give the painting force and strength. When I imagine a 'prometheus' painting in the old classical style, it seems effete in comparison. The classical mythology paintings were after something different - mythological figures are reduced to symbols, their individuality not apparent or important. Here, Prometheus is symbolic, still, but we see a more fully realized character, a figure that is individual as well as iconic.

That said, I wouldn't want to look at this painting all day. ;-)

Gail Sauter said...

Hi Ellie,

It was a fun (?) day in the studio and the inquiry continues.

What I see is that there is an energy in 'ugliness'... it is NEVER bland and it is always opinionated! This has given me the courage to act out, to break out of comfortable patterns that are tried and true - yes, they work, but there is new territory out there!

I see that courage is required to dare to paint 'ugly'. It isn't the ugly that is important, it's the daring!