from the cerebral...


I think artists grow from the cerebral to the sensual. 

In our youth we find our way into art through a desire for fame harnessing intellectual thought processes and ideology. So the early work of an artist is primarily concerned with theory and a desire to bring new concepts into the realm of art. Later in life, with maturity, this passes and is replaced by a richly felt love of the sheer sensuality of a life in nature.

I think it’s reasonable to consider an artist’s late work as embodying some of their final conclusions of creative thought and therefore fascinating to compare with their earlier work to reveal the distance from where they began.

Cy Twombly

For example, in the early work of Cy Twombly I’m struck by the many references to the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, a dry, distant and academic source of inspiration.

To attempt to grapple with real human experience by looking back into the story-telling of the ancient past seems a very intellectual route to subject matter. He seems to be seeking back to the primal roots of experience, an erudite and cerebral exercise, rather than immersing himself in the rich and vivid experience of his present moment.

This circumspect, scholarly subject matter seems reflected in the formal means by which it is conveyed with tentative, delicate and ethereal scribble that seems cautious and uncertain.

Yet there is a late blossoming into the final massive and deeply sensual, floral paintings where reference to myth is replaced with a pure and wonderfully indulgent sensuality. In these late works paint seems the very embodiment of the physical and erotic carnality of the subject.

This is where I understand and admire Twombly. It seems a dramatic and deeply profound move away from the earlier work and a completely satisfying contradiction of it.

Van Gogh

Ideologically, the young Vincent was a natural socialist and his political principles lay at the heart of his initial artistic inspiration. His early masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters” is a demonstrative manifesto for his concern for the poor, the struggling, the weaver and the labourer in the field.

Then follows a dramatically steep learning curve. Paris, Montmatre, the boulevards, cafes and the Impressionist concern to capture the present moment overtake his ideological ambitions. Then Arles and the giddy hedonism of spring apple blossom, vast, heat baked, golden wheat fields and vineyards and so to the ecstatic culmination of the sunflowers and the swirling, starry, starry nights.

So we witness a journey from the intellectual to the entirely sensual. The political ideology of youth supplanted by a profoundly passionate surrender to the lush, eroticism of life.

de Kooning

The young de Kooning painted “Woman 1” in 1950. He was thinking of Picasso with a bit of hip, contemporary, post-war angst thrown in and some tactical stealing directly from “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”.

He wants to make a statement. This is an all-knowing, calculated deliberation and manifesto.

As so often in a young artist’s work it’s the shocking, sensationalist impact that forms its primary intent. The conceptual, attention-grabbing ambition is what matters most.

Later the older de Kooning began journeying out to Long Island to escape from the metropolis. This becomes a way out to nature and inevitably begins to inform his work.

His apprehensions of the countryside begin to emerge in a voluptuousness of painterliness and a softer light. Nature breaks in. A painting unsurprisingly called a “Door to a River” marks the opening of a stream of sensual impressions of the natural world that flooded his sensibility.

His vicious, fearsome, angular, metropolitan Woman melted into a fleshy sensuality and erotic carnality.

His new woman can be seen in  Clam Diggers, 1963” and is all erotic beachy creams and fleshy pinks that quiver tantalisingly and seductively.

Later, having moved to Long Island and built his studio there, the rich sensuality of the natural world was overwhelming. Now nature was all fleshy carnality and no longer needing the armature of a figure. The feminine was all in the paint, the movement of the brush and folds of wet colour melting into more wet colour.

Finally, all is painterly, carnal licentiousness.

De Kooning’s artistic ambition moves emphatically from the self conscious deliberations of youth to the carnal sensuality of maturity.


Apart from Conceptual art, what more cerebral artistic movement than Cubism? An entirely intellectual reconsideration of perception and representation on the pictorial plane. Certainly one of the dullest; all those broken, fragmentary, murky greys and a pipe!

Then, along came Marie Therese Walter.

Now we see some of the most voluptuous and lascivious erotic dreams ever made in paint. As Jerry Saltz describes it, Picasso, bursting forth into a wanton carnality rarely see in Western art”.

Most profoundly from the cerebral to the sensual in a life.

Howard Hodgkin

Looking at an early work of Howard Hodgkin, “Grantchester Road 1975” we see a work of careful planning, geometry and design.

Thoughtfulness and deliberation govern the subject.

By the time of Red Bermudas 1978-1980there is a far deeper and defiantly playful involvement with the sensual pictorial possibilities of oil painting to reproduce experience that alludes directly to the realm of the erotic.

Finally, in a painting from his late, mature phase, “Now 2015-2016” we can see a work that seems to have rejected all thought, all planning, all design. All that remains are swathes of paint bleeding into each other, a brilliant yellow into a brilliant red, physical gestures of the body. Here, less has become more, with the melting together of one colour into another and the rich sensuality of life is fully conveyed. The subject of “Now 2015-2016 is all we have; the carnal, the momenthere…Now…

For Howard Hodgkin, sensuality overwhelmed the cerebral.

There is clearly a phenomenon of many great artists breaking free from the thoughtfulness and conceptualisations of their youth.

In the end, for great artists there is a surrendering to the sensuality of life. Perhaps when were young we want to change the world, but as we grow older theres a hunger to simply convey the rich, sensual beauty and the deliciously carnal sensuality of our experience of being here and as the clock of our lives ticks away, the love and hunger of the sensual in life grows more urgent.