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July 24 2011

After Freud, the camera – fast and super-cruel – will rule supreme | Mark Lawson

With Lucian Freud's death, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen

Imagine you run the National Portrait Gallery of Britain, the US or Australia and, during an audit of the stores, panic at lacking an image that encapsulates the personality and life of Rupert Murdoch.

Supposing the News Corp jet could be parked in one place for long enough to facilitate sittings, you could commission a painter to lay the tycoon on a canvas to hang alongside the oils of Beaverbrook, Hearst and other media tycoons from the time when immortality in a gilt frame above the fireplace was as much a badge of power as a Rolls.

My preference, though, would be to screen-grab a section of Murdoch's evidence to the House of Commons select committee and display it either as a still or as a slowed-down silent loop of blinks, twitches and grimaces in the style of the video installations of the American artist Bill Viola. This decision is made easier because the contemporary painter most likely to have found something in Murdoch that he was able to withhold from the lens – Lucian Freud – is now unavailable.

This is not a declaration of the death of painting. Remarkable painters (including Jasper Johns, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Peter Doig) exist in many generations and places. But the death of Freud highlights a specific crisis in the art of the traditional portrait.

While the camera didn't quite do to the canvas what the mobile phone has done to the phone box, it put threatening writing on the walls of portrait galleries. Strong evidence of the crisis of portraiture comes from the dustjackets of biographies and the illustration of newspaper profiles. Whereas figures of the past are commonly preserved in oil, the signature image of most writers and politicians of the 20th and 21st centuries exists on either still or moving film.

There are occasional exceptions, such as Ruskin Spear's uncanny capture of the combination of cunning and avuncularity that was Sir Harold Wilson, or the presentation by Tai Shan Schierenberg (a fine traditional portraitist of the present day) of Sir John Mortimer's Falstaffian personality. But, in most cases, it is now an exposure that most exposes.

After a period in which Andy Warhol and others fascinatingly blurred photography and painting, many portraitists responded to this competition with so-called photorealism. This defensively mimetic approach is popular with the entrants to the annual BP Portrait Prize (currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery). Much more impressively, Sam Taylor-Wood – in her spooky and beautiful video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham – showed how apparently threatening technology could be harnessed to artistic advantage.

Freud's greatness, though, lay in understanding, either tactically or instinctively, that a new form of portrait was called for in the Kodak century. He rewrote the rules of life painting at every stage. Rejecting the tradition of the biographical artist as a brush for hire by the mighty, Freud in most cases commissioned his sitters – who frequently were not famous.

The key breakthrough, though, came in the relationship between his mind and their bodies. Obituary coverage has featured the ritual squeals that his picture of Queen Elizabeth II looked nothing like her but, first, it does and, second, absolute likeness should be left to the appropriately named snappers. A Freud painting, living up to the adjective the family surname spawned, was a psychological and physiological study.

Above all, Freud rescued portrait painting from its traditional sin of flattery. In this way, he continued an argument with the public that had begun with Graham Sutherland, whose picture of the ruined glory of Winston Churchill – subsequently destroyed by the scandalised family – became a symbol of the campaign by art's conservative forces to equate likeness with likability. With the Sutherland lost, the defining image of the war leader is, symbolically, a photo: the one in which Karsh of Ottawa caught a startlingly honest expression by confiscating the politician's cigar.

The camera has the edge on painters in both immediacy (able to seize a single moment the subject has not chosen) and brutal honesty: a stripping of flattery completed by the super-real, super-cruel digital images in which Murdoch's Westminster evidence was transmitted.

I would pay the $33m someone paid for Freud's Benefit Supervisor Sleeping to see Jenny Saville's naked representation of Rupert Murdoch but it is highly unlikely that either painter or subject would be interested in a sitting.

For decades, Freud succeeded in a fight that is now unwinnable. With his passing, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


July 18 2011

Der Wochenrückblick: Save.tv, EU-Konsultationen, Glücksspiel-Staatsvertrag

Der Online-Videorekorder Save.tv fällt nach einem Gerichtsurteil unter die Privatkopie-Regelung, die EU-Kommission startet Konsultationen zum Urheberrecht, di

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July 11 2011

Rupert Murdoch: a real-life Mr Burns?

As a portrait of power unfettered, The Simpsons' Monty Burns is as much cartoon villain as Rupert Murdoch, the show's owner

Rupert Murdoch has done one thing that enriches modern life – but it does not involve publishing a newspaper. Amid the boa constrictor of shame that has engulfed and engorged his British tabloid the News of the World, let's recognise the most wonderful – and totally incongruous – pearl of his global media empire: The Simpsons.

It makes no apparent sense that Murdoch ever allowed this left-of-centre cartoon to be made by Fox. The reason is presumably that it is popular and a good investment. The bottom line is that when the funniest American family's creator Matt Groening created his science-fiction parody Futurama for Fox, less astronomical ratings led Fox to cancel it, although cult status later won it a reprieve. So it is success and not charity that keeps The Simpsons as such an immortal fixture of Murdoch's TV stations.

There has never been any attempt by the makers to disguise their political views. In a compilation of early highlights, actor Troy McClure revealed that Groening plants hidden rightwing messages in the show. The joke, of course, was that he does the opposite and that its sceptical view of capitalist life is not hidden at all. Springfield, the town where the Simpsons live, is dominated by tycoon Monty Burns, owner of the local nuclear power station. Rapacious, heartless Mr Burns is a caricature tycoon right off a 1930s Monopoly board, yet his wealth constantly interferes with the well-being of Springfield. In his darkest hour he even blots out the town's sunlight.

Is Burns a portrait of Murdoch? Not as such. Rather he is a portrait of the power of money unfettered, which may amount to the same thing. Murdoch himself has appeared on the programme, introducing himself as follows: "I'm Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant." Groening said he performed the line enthusiastically. But does the fact that The Simpsons is part of his business undermine its radical spirit?

Some would say the radicalism really only belonged to the show's classic early years. In the 1990s, nothing in contemporary pop culture was so brilliant and hilarious. And it was – it is – a Murdoch property. We owe the most widely criticised business empire of the age this much gratitude: it gave us the finest and funniest piece of modern televisual pop art. Murdoch's current travails resemble one of the periodic disasters that hit Mr Burns, such as the time the nuclear power station owner ran for political office and was forced to eat Blinky, the three-eyed fish, live on television. "The old man's finished," say his spin doctors after he spits out the nuclear-mutated fish. "It was over when the fish hit the floor." And they leave as he cries out: "You can't do this to me – I'm Charles Montgomery Murdoch!" Sorry, that should read Burns.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


November 03 2009

'Luvvies' urged to defend BBC from Tories

Culture secretary warns of threat to arts sector's independence and encroaching influence of Rupert Murdoch

Britain's cultural leaders are sleepwalking into a Conservative election victory that will threaten the BBC's independence and the funding of controversial political plays such as Enron, the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, has warned.

In a speech to a Labour audience, he said Tory culture policy was totally aligned with the commercial interests of Rupert Murdoch's News International and predicted the central tenet of British cultural policy – the arm's length relationship between the arts and government – is about to be swept away.

Bradshaw said: "We need a few more luvvies to be jumping up and down about it because that is not happening at the moment. I am trying to provoke them into doing it."

He warned of the impact of David Cameron's media policy, especially on the BBC, and the extent to which the Tory leader had followed the commercial interests of Murdoch's empire.

"There are far too many people sleepwalking towards the next election, too many people thinking lazily it might have to be time for a change without realising you cannot have change to the Conservatives without negative consequences," Bradshaw said.

He used his address to Labour pressure group Progress to claim that the Conservative pledge "to tear up the multi-annual charter and licence fee represented an unprecedented assault on the BBC's independence that no previous government, not even Margaret Thatcher, had contemplated".

He added: "We should be hearing far more noise from the BBC's supporters about these brazen threats to its independence."

He pointed out Cameron had called for communications regulator Ofcom to be dismembered at the very moment it was looking at a complaint from a number of companies about Sky's dominance of sport and film on pay television. Similarly, he said, Cameron had backed Murdoch's call for an end to impartiality in broadcast news as current affairs progresses to new platforms.

Bradshaw said lifting the duty to impartiality "would pave the way for a UK version of Fox News". The Sun's recent decision to back Cameron was, in this light, a purely commercial decision, designed by Murdoch to protect himself from a strong Ofcom, he argued.

He also claimed the independence of Arts Council England was threatened by shadow ministers and Boris Johnson, the London mayor. Johnson is determined to appoint former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley as chair of the London Arts Council in preference to the three shortlisted candidates.

Bradshaw said he was "amazed there has not been more uproar about this in the artistic and cultural world. The arm's length principle goes back decades. It would appear they are showing absolutely no regard for it whatsoever, which would be devastating for the credibility of the quality of the arts.

"I saw Enron last week and the idea that a Tory patsy running the London Arts Council would find money to fund a play like Enron – forget it."

Bradshaw said Johnson was under a legal duty to fill the post of Arts Council England's chair for London, but seemed intent on delaying an appointment until after the general election. He claimed the Conservatives' shadow ministers "have said some pretty unacceptable things about Liz Forgan [the current Arts Council chairwoman] amounting to threats about her position if there is a Tory government".

Bradshaw's remarks appeared to represent a softening of his recent anti-BBC rhetoric. He has been sharply critical of the BBC's governance structure and its expansionist tendencies, but said that in recent weeks "senior management at the top level have become more reflective and more self-critical about what they do".

He said the current BBC review of its journalism was likely to end with "a rededication to some of its traditional commitment to high-quality journalism, and an end to the pack mentality that has marked much of its output".

Bradshaw also predicted "an almighty row" when Ofcom completes its review, due shortly, of the sporting events that should be broadcast free to air.

In other remarks, Bradshaw ruled out statutory regulation of the press, but said the new Press Complaints Commission chairwoman Baroness Buscombe could hardly be less active in the role than her predecessor Christopher Meyer.

He said new digital phenomena such as Twitter could represent "a massive democratisation of the ability to affect public commentary", pointing out that the PCC received a record number of complaints about a Daily Mail article by Jan Muir on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.

"It shows that if people feel they are being lied to, you do have more comeback," he said.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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