Great Painters also Suck

Some of my favorite painters are also some of the painters that have produced the ugliest paintings I have seen.

Oskar Kokoshka produced some very lovely and ugly paintings. Brett Whiteley produced some very nice and hideous paintings. Lucian Freud got it right and wrong. Richard Diebenkorn went from genius to Sunday painter and back again in a day.

All of my favorite painters also produced some of the ugliest paintings I have ever seen. The four painters above are not necessarily my favorites, but I do love them. I wonder if it’s because they were brave enough to experiment and not care what their admirers or collectors had liked of what they had produced.

Painters have off days and produce crap paintings, but they also lash out when they feel they are trapped, which often creates crap as they’re experimenting. It’s crazy to think a great painter will always produce great work, as a lot of painting is just playing around. Picasso produced some of the ugliest and most beautiful paintings I have seen because he kept shooting at the target. Sometimes he hit bull’s eye, sometimes he shot nowhere near it.

This post is inspired by copious amounts of Henschke red wine, Johann’s Garden, grown in South Australia.. plus another bottle earlier in the night that I can’t remember the name of ;-)

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. Domald Frazell says:

    Havent seen those labels here in LA, mostly cheap stuff that isnt too bad. Hear you are running out of water adn most vintners going out of business, hope that isnt true. Love my wine.

    Yes, all artist make crap, sometimes its jsut investigating some lesser issues, sometimes failures. Hemingway wrote one sily book as a response to a bad writer of the day, must have knocked it off in a weekend of rage and disgust, badly written and kinda silly itself.

    You are right about those artists, but Diebenkorn to have a retrospective of all his Ocean Park works in of all place Orange County. Bastion of right wing Reaganites. He did alot of boring stuff, but I perhaps love his drawings and prints even better than his good paintings, I feel the same about Sam Francis, sometimes they went too large in scale to make them work. Everything has its appropriate size to activate the work, too big waters it down. Many artists of the past destroyed their lesser works, Micheangelo did, wanting to leave only a certain level of greatness behind. Even Cezanne made some bad work, never could get into his carplayers, except a couple of individual ones. We all have our level of knowledge and understanding, and certain motifs bring them out, ones we thoroughly know and understand, and can feel, to bring out passion for life in the viewers,

    But we gotta experiment and look for more. Thats why living in small artists colonies is detrimental, no new experiences in real life, gotta get out there. Not being a voyeur like most do traveling the world, but right where you grew up and know intimately, so one can find the fundamental relationships necessary to communicate to others. But gotta feel deeply, and the good and bad, and sometimes from the bottom of a bottle.

    Cheer up, life is great, even with global warming. We will adapt, its what we do. Humans need challeneges, when we dont have them, we get soft and introverted. Like art in the last forty years. Have a good meal with that wine, creates ballance, and love of the fruits of the earth, and your woman.

  2. I think “ugly” is something that art must face. Two years ago I did post a text on OrbitTrap blog on the questions of beauty and non-beauty on art. I think it is interesting considering fractal as a medium where the dominance of beautuy is “absolute” :-)

    Te link is here:

  3. Anonymous says:

    Even ugly paintings, bad paintings are better than no painting at all. Yes we all make some ugly messes. But that is how you grow. If you are afraid to make a mistake to get it wrong then you are not really looking beyond where you are. Art without fear, the fear of ugly, that is the way to go. Be bold be honest and if honest is ugly then so be it. Yes life is good and we will continue on. So enjoy the day.

  4. Ah that wine will get your brain pondering every time lol! I enjoyed your post, and alas I have had my fair share of ugly and it continues to haunt me ;0 But it is the process of trying and creating that is my vice. The end result, well I will leave that up to the viewers.

  5. Good post. You know, I never really thought about it in those terms (post title). I have seen it, tho and have thought that maybe it is just something I didnt understand. Thank you.

  6. All artists produce work that sucks. Great art and masterpieces happen by accident when you don’t try to make it great.

  7. Donald Frazell says:

    Great art takes extremely hard work and lots of inspiration, either adrenaline, or south australian wine.

    Picasso took months of sketches to finalize Demoiselles. Guernica was produced in about a month because the Worlds Fair was soon, and he was creating the Spanish Pavilions focal point. He worked through endless corrections possessed. Cezanne took years to complete many of his works. Michelangelo took years to complete the Sistine ceiling, and as he was not truly a painter, yet, took most of that time to come up with the greatness over the last half, culminating in Jonah and God creating the sun and moon, and giving life to Adam. Even longer for the Resurection.

    Matisse painted a life sized first version, really a sketch, of Dance, now at MoMA. Repainted Red Dessert, and Nasturtiums and Dance, his most beautiful. The final Bathers in Chicago so exhausted him, years of experimentation and living on the edge, he fell to painting insipid harem girls til he found his strength of will and desire again.

    Art is not “fun”. Goyas Third of May was not from nights of partying. Gauguin did not go to the Marquesas for a tan. Klee did not toil for decades in his kitchen for enjoyment. Artist know fairly early when something is going to come together, but takes huge amounts of time and energy to realize it, not some dream, but years of hard work and experimenting. In the old days you couldnt go to the local art store with a credit card and buy what you needed, it took planning, investing, and being sure a major project was going to work, as life was not so easy as now.

    None of my best work came easy, much took total redoing in a different style to produce the range of emotions I wanted. The motif can come suddenly, but the work does not. Quick visions are usualy that, delusions, dreams, ephemeral, we are talking hard core reality here. Years of self training lead to greatness. And great works generate the energy as the artist toils, and feels it coming together. Nothing is accidental, preaparing for the time skills are needed takes purpose, and mental preparation.

    Of course sometimes you do lay an egg, but usually because of sloppy thinking, feeling, and taking life for granted.
    ie. Contemporary art.

  8. Donald, I think we mostly export cheap wine that is picked up off the floor and keep the good stuff for Big Californian reds and Australian reds seem to have a lot of similarities. The drought has hit here, just as we got over a big wine glut, so we have gone from one extreme to the next.

    I liked Cezanne’s cardplayers, but I hate his bathers series! If I owned one I would have to cut it up in small pieces just so I could admire his brush work and couldnt see his bathers.

    Ugly paintings can be good paintings too though. Some painters make a career of painting ugly paintings, but theyre good paintings. There’s an old Australian painter called John Olsen that only ever paints ugly paintings, but he’s still a great painter. So I guess I didn’t mean to equate ugliness with bad paintings.

    Corrine, it’s red wine in particular that get’s me thinking about art and life. No other kind of alcohol ever does it, just red wine.

    And youre right Donald, art is hard work. That’s probably why there’s thousands of students graduating as artists every year, but very of them still practising art a few years down the track. Sure it’s hard financially, but it’s also very hard turning up to the studio and being creative day after day.

  9. Donald Frazell says:

    REALLY?! Guess we have some differences. When I left photography and started painting, I wanted to cover the gamut, line, color, and structure. So painted Michelangelos God creating the sun and moon, his best over his Adam, matisse Nasturtiums and Dance, the most intense color I have ever seen, and Cezannes Mt St Victoire from Bibemus quarry, which I still have in my dining room. I think Cezannes Mt St Victoires and Bathers are among the most beautiful, and certainly are the most important paintings, ever done. His still lives aint bad either.

    I saw an article of yours from a few months back about Picassos Demoiselles d’Avignon, some fool doing a horrible “copy” photographically. It was created when Picasso saw Cezannes retrospective that year, and the bodies and composition are directly taken from his bathers. One small one is square and almost the exact composition, with a few figures from a larger one put in, But of course treated in a completely different way. With a completely different layering of emotions. But as some fool who asked at the Guardian whether it was artists or critics who proclaimed Cezanne the originator of modern art, it was a joint statement, followed up by many other top painters, by Matisse and Picasso that “Cezanne is the father of us all”.

    Go back to it now, after your sabatical from painting. Especially his great bathers, the biggest still on an easel in his studio at death. His last works were far more advanced than anyone ever, and modern art fed off it for decades. But more and more artists went after just one aspect, not the many layered interacting forces he brought out. And so died.

    But i am heavily influenced. after studying real nature for years in photography, I understood what he finally did. The rhythms and patterns in nature belye a power beyond us. The lack of study of him is a major reason of the wimpiness of contemporary. None of what came could have happened without him, he gave the confidence to others to study and go on experimenting, as Gauguin said. Funny thing was, when looking at a van gogh with him standing there, he said “Honestly sir, you paint like a madman”. thing is, Cezanne was more screwed up than van Gogh was. And so worked every second of his life trying to find sanity and purpose in art. But his life wasnt as easily romantized as poor van Goghs was, and so lessened VGs true achievements. And Cezanne ignored because he did not have adolescent appeal, but a deep fissure in his soul he tried to heal. And did for others, if not himself. But at the end he knew he was a forerunner of a new way. after years of being belittled, from his childhood friend Emile Zolas slightly veiled attack upon him in a novel, to critics claiming he didnt know how to paint. He found what is real in solitude. As all artists must.

    Give him another shot, the interaction of the bodies with each other and the nature around them, for they are not separate, but all one, the emodiment of reality, we all being made of the same stuff, and the air around us material also. There are no holes as in previous paintings, and that contemporary art has gone back to from lack of will. Centered bodies with weak backgrounds that focus on the individual, a lie, as we are part of more, and reflecting our self involvment and emotional problems. Not the true focus of great art. Wimpy, suck it up soldiers and do your duty. Thats what men do. not whine. But wine, yes.Whimpy.

    Give him another shot, you may be ready now, it sounds like you are from what and how you write. Its like Hemingway, you cant get it when a child, so things you like in college are not adult things, but grow into later when you are experienced and ready to understand the ballance and true importance of life.

    So few artistes having the strength and creativity for raising kids. I have had mine, and adopted one, and mentored others, that has been my creativity over the last 12 years. Now its time to get back to painting. And it is the right time, things are changing, slowly, at least in how they will be perceived. This is ther greatest shift since WW2, and the civil rights movement, which started during that war, not the sixties, taht was the end of it when white people finally seemed to get it.
    and why jazz was such a potent art form.

    So give Cezanne another shot, especially his bathers, love the small one of five men from the 1880s too, and his watercolors. Oh,my God. Literally.

  10. It’s true, you have to make mistakes to make artwork that you consider a success.

    Occassionally people will prefer the artwork you don’t like to the art you think is a success.

    No art critic is as harsh on artwork as the artist is on their own work, but that’s one of the things that can make you strive for something better.

  11. I do love Cezanne Donald.. and I know a lot of people love his bathers series, but the guy should have never touched the female nude. I like them as paintings and if I look at them as abstract paintings, rather than as studies of the figure, I like them more.

    For me, his bathers figures are clumsy and awkward. Give me a grouping of Cezanne apples or trees anyday!

    I have given them plenty of chances too Donald but I just can’t warm to them. I now quickly flick past them when I’m looking through his books. I like the paint in them and how it has been applied and built up, but I just can’t get past his figures. I forgive him though as he is a painting god. He’s easily one of the top 5 artists I have been influenced by, so I’m not dissing him as a painter, just his nudes in his bathers series.

    I love his watercolors too.. they seem to show how he worked more than his oils do. With his oils his groundwork was mostly (not always)covered up, but you can’t hide as much with watercolors.

    But yeah, don’t worry, I don’t need converting.. I worship the god of Cezanne.. I just think his bathers sucked ;-)

  12. Donald Frazell says:

    Fair enough. But his bathers show the difference between modern and contemporary art more than any other artist. For he basically created modern art, taking what the impressionists started and filling it out, layering, enriching, maturing.

    Though I do consider Michelangelos ceiling the first modern art, for its about energy, and creating that power through line,color, and forms, arrainging them in ways that enrich one another, the so called background has form itself, and bursting life out from the entire surface, even when just white plaster. Though his moon is white and has both presence and power by how it fits in the composition. Italian art started going downhill with oils, where they started emphasizing the individual over the activating of the surface. Though Raphael and Titian did paint great portraits.

    Contemporary art is all about the individual, how he feels, drawing all the attention to the subject matter, the backgrounds only there to ephasize a sense of loneliness, or isolation. Focusing completely on whatever the artist wants through the subject matter alone, and only somewhat by how the paint is handled. Which is why it has left painting behind for the most part, and gone on to other forms of comunication. This has summed up the last forty years, reflecting our society, but not asking much of the viewer except cold academic analysis(usually sophomoric thinking patterns).

    For life is not all in the brain, or individual, it is mind, body, and soul, the passions. Of others and the universe, not ones own desires and wants, and how we dont get them, in other words, whining.

    Cezanne brought the idea of oneness into the plastic world. All is made of the same stuff, air, grass, water, flesh. We are a part of the whole, and his paint strokes slowly built up the composition, their layering of colors bringing a structure, a rhythm, that it had never had before. The lines and curves of the bodies are tied to the trees, the stone, the flesh of the sky, for air is gases, having body, matter, substance as much as flesh. We are a part of the chaos, which is only in our limited mental capability. There are patterns he sought and found, and so revealed purpose and order, where none had been seen before. This comes form visualizing the abtracts of science, of Darwin, of atomic and molecular chemistry and knowledge. The atomic chart revealing its basic patterns and building blocks. These he brought into art, reality.

    Braque and Picasso took it from there and brought the later understandings of Einstein, of matters energy, relativity according to the relationships of the forces involved. Of Universal oneness. Of God. Cezanne and all his disciples, for all Modern artist are, brought man into nature, rather than apart, and so the early impressionists adn moderns saw more soulmates in Japanese arts, Zen and their native religion, and so called primitive, tribal, arts, African masks sought to bring the body into the spiritual world, to be one. Their plastic concerns were all about producing this feeling, and so Picasso used it for that effect, not to steal and show off some new style, but to communicate the differences AND oneness of life. The entire surface matters, there are no holes, the activation of the borders and corners and spaces between body parts brought the painting forward, into the room, alive, rather than receding to leave the subject matter on the canvas plane.

    This is far more difficult and exhausting than simple renaisance individuality, one leaves out the details one starts with, to unify the whole. Details distract, and the forms must reenforce one another over perceived reality. They must build energy, which is life. Not by attempting to show energy, which is what lesser wannabes do, or by the action of the painting, which is irrelevant, but the building up of the layers, relationships of bone, sinew, tendons, organs, blood, and breathe of life in a complex being, the painting, not the subject. Which matters only to the artists ability to understand it and use it to fulfill creative energy. And so not reproduce life, capture it, or pictue it, but reflect it, show an equivalent that is far more powerful than a secondary reinactment of being.

    Cezanne did this in all his works, but his bathers are the most difficult,and perhaps successful, though not all do work. Do love his watercolors, many of trees and Mt St Victoire. But his interaction of the lines and forms and colors with the setting makes them among the most difficult ever attempted. And in the final great bathers, a huge success. But like I said, there are several small ones from the 1880s that are great, and one of five male bathers is absolutely incredibly beautiful. Very small, he did a larger less succesful one later. Hell, even my crazy son loves Cezannes watercolors, doesnt like much else, and he is sadly mentally imballanced much as Cezanne was.

    But this is why modernism needs to make a comeback. The days of spoiled excess and worshipped individualtiy are over. With resources quickly shrinking, it is about us as a people, that is what art must once again attain. We are one with nature, not separate to exploit and ravage, but ballance and live with. This wil take great work, and strong individual brilliance to attain through many diffent avenues, layers, relationships to be built and constantly refined. Modernism.

  13. Donald Frazell says:

    Think of Cezannes bathes as cave art then. Simplified, meant to blend into adn support teh tree architecture adn color air about them, all is one. Pehrpas as rock formations, not humans. They were all teh same to Cezanne. He may have been teh greatest adn most important painter ever, but he was crazy.

  14. Yeah, it’s the only way I can really appreciate his bathers series. I dont think of them as figures, but as abstract paintings.

    I only know the basics of his life.. and know he was a difficult man, but I dont know much about the details of him as a person. I should read more about the man behind the art and grab a bio or two on him.

  15. Donald Frazell says:

    He made van gogh seem sane. He was terrified of women, and never drew from the nude except as an art student in the rogue schools that popped up against teh academy. Drew from photos often. I actully like that, both actually. The painting I am working on of my wife drying herself off after a bath is jsut hot as hell, can tilt the floor up, build relationships as the camera distorts, being a photgrapher is see this easily. Plus gives time to change things to make a painting, not draw reality, which isn not creative arts aim, thasts illustration.

    But cezanne ws very difficult adn withdrawn, ony a few friends, and after being betrayed by Zola, really went into a shell. only Pissar ano Monet his friends, got along with dealers as they kissed his ass. Wish we had dealers like that ow, ones who simply loved art adn looked fror talent, rather than system boys looking for social status.

    Biographys usually dont really mater, and it ws is aim, as wiht all artist, to leave himself out of his work. They should stand on their own. His do. But interesting as a drama, though finaly appreciated by all future great artists at the end.

    Screwing with teh brits over this very subject over at the Guardian, they really dont get it. The art he let and all great art is musical, not literary, but thats not teh Brit way. Their genius is in theatre adn inner turmoil, many of the artist you like are that way. And many are good. But going all the way back to the greeks adn tribal arts, music is always the aim. They created in poetry adn hyms, primitive languages that liked symbols, not fluidity to their language, except in music. Greek friezes are very fluid aden musical, especialy as they must have been painted back in the day. Individual statue swere all bronze .

    Romans werent, but they were builder, architects, engineers, not arists. So think of erly modern work as music, humn to it, and some like Klees as music adn poetry, he came from a musicla family. Its not narative like the art before him. All those academic types like Mesionier, adn Gericault. Though Ingres and Delicroix wre. Funny considering how terrible french music is. All cultures have their strengths adn weaknesses, certain things where the soul of a people is revealed. Color is the French way, theatre the brits, music us. Germans were good at music in the 1800s, not sure what happened to them. Techno, yuch.

  16. Brilliant!! I had a good chuckle. Yes, I also that estate and you give me hope with some of my rubbish painting. Just don’t get on the texting after a couple of glasses.

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