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July 05, 2009

Euan Uglow, Painstaking Painter

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of weeks ago I noticed this book at the local college book store. For the paltry $125 price I could glean the life's work of an English painter I'd never heard of.

Of course that made me curious.

Even his name -- Euan Uglow (1932-2000) -- promotes head-scratching. Okay, the first name seems to be an alternative spelling of "Ewan." But the last name? I'm not at all sure how it's pronounced, partly because it doesn't look British. Might it be Russian "Ooo-glov?" Or an anglicized "You-glow?" Perhaps one of our readers from the Ancestral Isles might chip in to help this befuddled Yank.*

Regardless, Uglow rates a Wikipedia biography that can be found here. It seems he was greatly influenced by his training to create spare paintings of meticulously measured subjects. This measurement was so important that tick marks are left on some of the completed works. One result of this taking of pains was a small lifetime production of paintings; he taught art to help earn a living.

According to the Wikipedia article, interest in Uglow has been increasing. Not all that interest is favorable, as this Guardian review indicates. It's from the 8 July 2003 issue, written by Adrian Searle. The page is slow to build and might disappear some day, so I excerpted some of the most pointed bits:

He was a figurative painter of what has been called the School of London, and his reputation was built on hard-won images, on relentless looking and describing. His art was founded on empirical measurements, on constant revisions, on a technique that was anything but flashy. His paintings bore the imprint of his repeated returns to the minutiae of observation. ...

Uglow was a student at the Slade of William Coldstream, whose own life paintings had about them a chilling air of self-denial, and Uglow went on to develop Coldstream's approach through his own years of teaching in the same art-college life room. To me, it always smelled like a death room; every year a new crop of belated Euston Road painters would emerge from it, their pallid painted figures nicked with little registration points and tiny painted crosses, like so many torture victims, done-over in shades of umber and grey.

A style like any other, this was and is a look masquerading as a moral quest. About it all hangs an air of futility, and a sense of something murdered....

Uglow's own paintings are, on the other hand, often colourful, but it feels like studio colour rather than the uncontrollable colour and light of the world. His blues are always the same blue, the reds and pinks invariably mixed from the same base hues, whether he is painting skin, the studio floor tiles or the decorated facade of a church in Cypress. Not that Uglow ever used much paint in any case. Like so much else in his art, touch is suppressed and pleasure is deferred. In the end, there is something fussy about Uglow's art. He lets you see all his difficulties, all those mechanical notations, the surveyor's plot-lines under the paint. This is an irritating affectation, and I find it hard to ignore his tiresome marginalia. It is as if he wanted us never to forget how much trouble he had. ...

Uglow liked a good shape, but always took the hardest route to achieve it. He either didn't trust pure imagination, or it was too volatile and dangerous for him. Clearly, the act of painting, and ordering his perceptions, meant more to Uglow than the painting itself.

Below are examples of his work found on the Web.


Antoinetta and Euan Uglow - n.d.
This seems to be a complex Uglow because slightly more than one subject is included.

The book used this painting on its cover. The color here seems off, so click on the book link above for a better version of that aspect.

Miss Benge - 1961

Watermelon in Morocco - n.d.
Apparently his still lifes also had limited subject matter.

Jenefer by a Door - 1971-74

Here is what might prove to be Uglow's fame-making work. It's a study for another painting. The model for this study is Cherie Blair, wife of the former Prime Minister, in her student days.

My take? I've never seen an Uglow in person, so this is provisional. My inclination is to side with the Guardian critic in that the paintings are static and not particularly remarkable. Though I do credit Uglow for avoiding modernism -- something difficult for an artist of his era.

I think all that measuring seems to be a misplaced obsession. My small experience, as well as what I've read here and there, is that at least a little exaggeration is needed to make an image come to life. The key word is "little" -- Marvel comic book cover exaggeration is, obviously, too exaggerated for a fine art painting. So while I see nothing really wrong about Uglow's work, it sparks no "Wow! I wish I'd done that!" reaction -- a reaction that's key to my own version of art appreciation.

And the book? I'll wait till it hits the remainder tables.



* UPDATE: Comments by "intellectual pariah" and "dearieme" indicate the name Uglow is Cornish -- out there towards Land's End. And a guess is that it's likely pronounced "you-glow."

posted by Donald at July 5, 2009


It's Cornish, according to this very cool British surname site. So it's presumably You-glow.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on July 5, 2009 2:59 PM

Yep, Cornish.

Posted by: dearieme on July 5, 2009 3:08 PM

That other guy, Baugh, painted hotter babes.

Posted by: Francis on July 6, 2009 5:00 PM

I always liked Uglow's work, although it is clearly rather astringent...perhaps an acquired taste. As for all the visual measuring going on in this style of work, there is just as much in any other form of highly accurate rendering (certainly in traditional academic figure drawing) although it is usually suppressed in the final work.

Uglow's work is therefore in the tradition of "truth to materials" or "preserving traces of how the art was actually made in the final work of art" which are, of course, essentially Modernist art-making principles. So despite being a representational painter, I think he has to be viewed as an essentially Modern artist.

I still maintain the biggest obstacle to a broad-based revival of traditional art is that mere skill in representation is not enough to get us there; this view ignores the very large amount of theoretical armature that traditional (i.e., Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic) art possessed that has been discarded or taken over by the Modern-Postmodern camp. For example, "representational" artists of the present have abandoned history painting, especially religious history painting displayed in churches (the very core from which all forms of traditional art grew), which has migrated largely into politicized conceptual art and installation art today. I suspect something like the full glories of Renaissance and Baroque painting are only possible if either (1) contemporary realists re-embrace religion or religious history as a serious subject for their paintings or (2) contemporary realists find some other source of serious content that will allow them to make serious statements that communicate to the broader population.

Since few representational artists seem to be taking either route #1 or route #2 seriously, the representational revival is all to likely to remain locked in its current ghetto. Fun, but not destined for greatness.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 7, 2009 8:45 AM

---Posted by Friedrich von Blowhard at July 7, 2009---

Like I said, he doesn't paint hot babes.

Posted by: Francis on July 7, 2009 9:23 AM

I'm a bit of an Uglow fan myself. I find the paintings loads of fun to snoop around visually and mentally. I enjoy the combo of perception/representation on the one hand and, as FvB puts it, "preserving traces of how the art was actually made in the final work of art" on the other. Nice! Representationalism freshened-up with some experimentation ... Or maybe modernism made grounded and humane ...

I suspect Uglow's paintings would be pretty easy and rewarding to live with too. Not a small consideration!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2009 10:18 AM

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