Euan Uglow (1932 – 2000) was a British painter, and I ran across a few of his works the other day (shout out to Pinterest!). Honestly, it was the flatness that snagged my eye, a quality I do not usually prize in paintings. There are large areas that appear to be almost devoid of texture, but Uglow still manages to convey space, depth, and personality. I noticed interesting commonalities between some of his paintings of nude women that, at least for me, turned into a reeeeally intriguing philosophical dialog with a friend of mine. Not what I expected from such simple pieces!
But first thing’s first: record what I see.
Let’s take a step back: what’s in these scenes? The subjects are all quite similar. They appear to be caucasian women in the nude. Whether for the convenience of the subject sitting for him (no doubt for several hours) or because Uglow made the choice himself, the women are often in relaxed or resting positions: sitting, lying down, sprawled on a piece of furniture.
Also notably, the subjects’ faces are rarely shown, heads turned away from the viewer or hidden by limbs. Even those paintings that do show the face often maintain a kind of anonymity with smudged, seemingly unfinished visages, shadows that mask distinctive features, or Uglow chooses a vantage point that obscures such details.
As for Uglow’s composition, the women are often placed in the center of the painting, and only rarely does he allow their bodies to break the edge of the frame.
There is usually plenty of space surrounding the figures; even the lack of shadows on the walls behind the bodies indicates that there is a good quantity of air between the two.
Uglow’s color pallets are, at first glance, quite simple. The backgrounds are often dominated by one or two colors. Those that are not dark or gray are some kind of basic color, often a primary color, that is easily categorized as one hue or another. In other words, even if the color isn’t bright (which many of the background tones are), you won’t find yourself sitting there wondering “Wait, is that a blue or a green? Nope, these hues are easily identifiable as one of ROYGBIV. Even in paintings when the furthest points appears to be shadowed, there is often a colored rug or a wall that commands attention.
The brushstrokes composing the background are quite subtle, constructing a seemingly flat backdrop for the subject.
That’s not to say that the background is boring (heaven forbid!). I usually hate hate hate flat backgrounds, as it seems like a kind of cop-out, like the artist was more interested in the contents of the figure than creating a whole, seamless piece of artwork (which, of course, includes the background).
There are areas of that have slightly more varied strokes, and they are evenly dispersed throughout the composition, breaking up the monotony of the minimalist background without cracking its flat character. In addition, the vibrancy of those bright colors seem to resonate, generating a kind of engagement that will not allow the background to fall to the wayside.
Small details, such as thin lines that define architecture behind the subject or tone changes that indicate a corner of the wall, nudge the viewer into a more believable or recognizable environment. But, ultimately, the “flat” colors give the background an almost artificial or manufactured character. This, my friends, is probably not a scene from everyday life; it was orchestrated.
Oh, Uglow’s figures are definitely distinct from their surroundings, with the dark and/or bright colors bolstering the lightness of the subject’s skin. He often chooses more direct lighting in his works, which boosts the contrast of figure and background even more. The lightest areas of the subject take on an almost unreal kind of white, and Uglow strengthens that unreal character by using broad brushstrokes, flattening and extending those light patches.
I found Uglow’s interplay of flatness and painterly texture particularly interesting; the backgrounds, as I said, often appear flat, and this amplifies the brushstroke drama within the subject itself.
Some artists tangle distinct brushstrokes from the subject and the background to blur the lines between the two; the form is thus bound securely, inextricably to the space surrounding it. This is one way to forge a strong relationship between the foreground and background and to create a whole painting (see figure to right). Uglow does not entangle the strokes of the figure and the background so noticeably, but he still manages to define the subject as an entirely separate entity without completely extracting the figure from its environment. How does he do it?!
I think it’s because he echos various stylistic choices throughout the work:
1. Uglow uses the same kind of fine lines he employs in the background or floor to differentiate, say, the subject’s foot from the floor. At a glance, the subject appears to be connected to the background, but the line manages to maintain subtle separation (see figure above).
2. Sometimes there is a reflection of the bright background colors on the subject’s skin.
3. The kind of brushstrokes inside the figure are much more varying than in the surrounding background. However, despite the variety of size and shape, the strokes still maintain the same kind of flat character that radiates from the background.
4. On a very basic level, the shadows between the figure and the background show the physical presence and the relationship between both the subject its environment. The darkening tones complicate colors, allowing the skin tones and the surface colors to coalesce.
PIECES ASSEMBLING CONTENT
Soooooo what does this all mean? I just dumped a bunch of observationson you, and they are puzzle pieces, just waiting to be fitted together. Well, let’s do it! Whooo!
By all appearances, the name of Uglow’s game simplicity. As Walt Whitman one said, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.” The frame contains one subject, little furniture, no windows, often no evidence of the outside world. As I said before, the figures are not squashed into the frame; such a composition would cause a kind of tension between the frame and the figure. Instead, the space enveloping the subject builds a kind of padding, absorbing any tense energy between the subject and its environment, between the subject and the viewer. These figures are, quite simply, alone and far from any diversions or personal contact.
And this separation is key: the fine lines between the subject and background, the larger strokes that makeup each body, the skin’s stark contrast of tone AND hue, the hidden faces… their positions also make them seem tired, drained of energy. Uglow paints an anonymous figure that seems clipped its environment, from reality, from life, from revealing the personalities that make each soul unique.
These women remind me of dolls. Their skin is unusually flat in areas, sometimes gleaming white like porcelain, and figure is often limp, like a doll flung aside, forgotten in the corner. Sometimes even the larger brushstrokes on the body put me in mind of patchwork…In fact, the rest of the environment seems flat and manufactured, and its simplicity and bright, primary colors brings me to mind of preschool.
These women might appear on some levels as lifeless toys, but that is not all Uglow illustrates. After all, if his aim was to show women as dolls, he probably would have done it a different way. [In fact, it is probable that he didn’t consciously aim to paint them in such a way at all. Just saying…]
There is significance in the choice to paint them as he did. The innocence associated with doll-ness is obliterated a bit here, what with his choice of nude subjects. In addition, dolls are often mass-produced, all exactly the same, but he is careful to paint the unique curves and shaped of each women. And the subjects are usually in simple, realistic positions, but dolls usually don’t have as many joints as these ladies. Sometimes dolls can bend in weird ways (i.e. turning its head all the way around or bending back to its toes), but Uglow does not exaggerate the positions of these women, keeping them bound to the physical limitations of the human body. Furthermore (and perhaps this is particularly noteworthy on a philosophical level), the flatness and the whiteness of the subjects’ skin is transformed, given energy/life through color and definition, when the surface curves out of the direct light and into shadow.
So the conversations can develop as follows: how are women like dolls, and how are they not.? If these images are metaphorical, what is the symbolism of the light? Of the dark? Is the symbolism restricted to the role or nature or women, or can it extend to include men and all of humanity?
Thanks, Euan Uglow! Whether or not you meant to prompt such conversations, it’s been a pleasure sifting through your beautiful paintings.