Today I am going to be starting work on the flesh in this painting. I have significantly changed how I go about painting flesh over the last few years, and now have a far less formulaic approach than I had in the past. I feel like I now have a far great array of options at my disposal in terms of how I can render flesh than I had a few years ago, as such it means you can approach each image with an open mind, trying to work out what type of painting will best suit what that image seems to be trying to do. Do you want the flesh expressive, naturalistic, meaty, full of light, painterly, fleshy, loose, tight etc etc.
An image of a crucifixion throws up some interesting propositions. If you scan through a history of Crucifixion images two things immediately come to mind in terms of paint handling. Firstly, the array of images gives a wonderful brief history of the developments in style and painterly approaches across Western art from the last two thousand years. The second is that it reveals that it is an image and a subject which can accommodate a broad range of approaches to painting.
Consider Grunewald’s 151 Crucifixion, the Isenheim Altarpiece. For Grunwald the crucifixion is a story of pain, of the body of Christ experience humiliation and suffering. It is a viscerally fleshy image, with the surface of the body covered in a variety of scars and the figure contorted into extreme anguish. The story is firmly located in the corporeal world, of human flesh being damaged and the body broken. The handling of paint has a torturous attention to detail.
Consider Francis Bacon and his Crucifixion images. Bacon takes the baton from Grunewald and pushes it further, the body as a meaty carcass being ripped apart by unseen forces. The crucifixion is, for Bacon, a stage upon which the theatre of violence can be performed. It is the subject which allows him the greatest freedom in terms of his expressive handling of paint, allowing him to push and pull the figure through a series of energetic interruptions and abstractions. It is a site in which scraps, chucks and drags of paint can be harnessed to express movement, pain and angst.
Then Rubens. Ruben’s is one of the greatest painters of flesh, so much so we have coined a term after him, ‘Rubenesque’. I think of Rubens as one of the great figures in a history of painters who manage to capture flesh in its most tangible form, with Freud and Saville being two of his descendants. But in this painting, below, Rubens has held back from his normally luscious depiction of flesh. This is a figure who appears caught between flesh and light, as if glowing from within. For Rubens realised that the crucifixion is a story which has, at its centre, the space between flesh and light, the space between the corporeal body and the ethereal spirit.
It is something Rembrandt also realised. Rembrandt is, for me, the greatest painter of light. He laid down thick impasto whites and then layered translucent glazes of a variety of colours over the top. Light then penetrates these thin layers and then reflects of the white beneath, refracts and breaking within the network of translucent glazes. As such his paintings often seem to glow from within. This inner light is also something he captures in his etchings, using tone to create figures suffused with light, as with this Crucifixion etching below.
In short, an image of a crucifixion gives a painter such a broad range of options about how to approach the handling of paint. Paint as an expressive tool, paint as meaty flesh and paint as light. Within each of these is an encyclopaedia of options revealed to us by the history of crucifixion images. For within the crucifixion is an entire history of paint as a tool to explore the broadest spectrum of self reflexive, human and spiritual questions.