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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Euan Uglow

The Diagonal, 1971-77, Euan Uglow
One of the strangest, and most thoughtless reactions we all tend to have in looking at figural paintings is to concentrate our attention first upon the painting, then move from there to the mind and times of the artist. Very often the interaction stops there; or we retreat into ourselves and contemplate our visceral or perhaps sexual reaction to the figure depicted. If the figure is nude, this may be especially the case. In art, it's often quite difficult to separate the nude from the erotic. The point is, we often don't for a moment considered the third person involved--the model. Unless the work is primarily a portrait, the model, except for his or her physical appearance, often seems to be of no importance. In effect, the artist has turned his or her live model into an inanimate object usually having little or no personality or emotional connection to the viewer. And, while it does pay reasonably well, the work is boring, uncomfortable, and often dehumanizing. (How would you like to hold the pose above for hours on end and several days at a time.) Artists report it takes a special type of person to be a good model, either one of very modest mental capacity, or quite the opposite, one having a great deal of intelligence. The first type simply foregoes mental consciousness (just short of dozing off), the second retreats into a world of their own making for hours at a time.

Striding Nude, Blue Dress, 1976-81 incomplete version (left) final work (right).
British Prime Minister and Mrs. Tony Blair
Around the year 1976, an attractive, 22-year-old, law student named Cherie Booth agreed to pose for the well-established, but relatively unknown British artist, Euan Uglow. He offered her the princely sum of £3 per hour. She was somewhat dismayed when she arrived at his studio to find that he expected her to pose nude except for a blue nylon jacket. Dismayed or not, she needed the money; doffed her clothes; and donned the jacket; assuming a striding pose in profile to the artist. Euan Uglow was a perfectionist. The painting pro-gressed slowly (above, left). In fact, Miss Booth never saw the finished work (above, right) until about five years later, having long before been replaced by another model. That was about the same time Miss Cherie Booth became Mrs. Tony Blair who, seventeen years later, became Prime Minister of Great Britain. She was no longer a nude model; but also, she was no longer of no importance.

Uglow's style does not lend itself to portraiture.
A rather androgynous portrait by Uglow
which appears to be a fairly early work.
Little information on it exists, but I have
the feeling it may be a self-portrait from
the 1950s.
During the 1960s and 70s, Euan Uglow was not your typical brash, outgoing, highly opinionated (to the point of being mouthy) upstart British artist. He's often described as having been shy and retiring. London born in 1932, Uglow studied at the Chamberwell School of Art for two years before moving on to the Slade School of Art where he studied until 1954. He refused compulsory service in Britain's army, choosing instead to serve two years as a conscientious objector doing com-munity service. He assisted in the restor-ation of a war-damaged church by Chris-topher Wren in the City of London, as well as redecorating the house of the artist, Patrick George. Success for Uglow was slow in coming. Although he landed a job teaching at Slade in 1961, it wasn't until a year later (eight years after finishing his schooling), that Uglow sold his first painting.

The German Girl, 1961-62. Euan Uglow
As "shy and retiring" as Uglow may have been, his nude figure paintings were anything but. The artist soon found himself lodged right in the middle of a well-stirred controversy when, in 1962, his nude painting, The German Girl (above) was removed from an Arts Council exhibition at the municipal art gallery in Bradford, Yorkshire. A local official objected, claiming the painting "offended decency." That was then, this is now. The Brits have learned to accepted nude figures in their artwork, perhaps to a degree that is still beyond the tastes of most Americans (outside the arty crowd, at least). Yet a sizable number of Uglow's paintings are not nude, either because he chooses not to paint his models that way, or because they are in fact, portraits (the British aren't quite that broadminded yet). Uglow's Georgia (below) is a prime example, a female figure, half reclining, her nudity obscured by a short, clinging, white dress. One has the feeling the figure was originally painted nude with the white dress added as an afterthought.

Georgia, Euan Uglow
Uglow's paintings, were created in a methodical manner. He used many measurements and corrections to create images that, while not hyperreal, were still fairly true to life. Very often his figures have a carved, sculptural quality as seen in the legs of his Georgia (above). His work was so time consuming that he once joked about beginning a painting of one model when she was engaged; was still painting when she got married; and didn't finish until she was divorced. His paintings were mostly of the human figures, but he also painted landscapes and still-life works. I haven't included any here for the simple reason they all were quite unexceptional. His clothed figures or portraits, such as Miss Benge (below) and Powerful and Personal (bottom) far exceed either his landscapes of his stark, single-item still-lifes of fruit.

Miss Benge, 1961, Euan Uglow
As for Mrs. Blair's one and only nude painting, Uglow often kept his work away from public gaze. When his young barrister became the Prime Minister's wife, he was especially protective of Striding Nude, Blue Dress. Eventually it did appear. The complete catalogue, published after the artist's death in 2000, comments on its 'stark contrasts of color and absence of a narrative explanation, concluding that it is " of Uglow's most uncompromising paintings." The painting of a young Cherie Booth emerged in 2006 after two decades locked in an art gallery storeroom, for a show at the Browse & Darby gallery in Mayfair. The price tag next to it read, £600,000. Rumor has it that the Blair's paid £4,000 for a preliminary sketch exhibited alongside the painting. One has to wonder if they bought it because they were proud of the image, or perhaps because they were ashamed? In any case, the Blair's named their first son Euan, after the painter, Euan Uglow.

Powerful and Personal, Euan Uglow


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