Click image below for more "still life"

Click image below for more "still life"
Francis Cunningham "Three Baldwin Apples" (1964) Oil on linen 5'' x 16''

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Behind the Scenes with a Pair of Paintings
Reaching (Regina) and Reaching (Peter)





This week we will begin exploring a pair of paintings, Reaching (Regina) and Reaching (Peter).  As we have already explored the behind the scenes of Reaching (Regina), this week we will begin with Reaching (Peter). In following weeks we will take an in depth look at the role anatomy plays when painting figures.

They were not planned to be a pair of paintings.  Francis recalls being in his studio working on Reaching (Regina). When Peter saw the nearly finished painting, he laid down on the floor and took the pose you see in the painting. He took this pose as a natural response to the pose Regina was in.

Knowing the background on Peter may help to understand the acting out of his response to the painting as contrasted to a verbal description of what he was experiencing when he saw the painting.  In his younger years, Peter was an athlete. When he was in his early thirties he had a stroke that left him almost entirely paralyzed on his right side. If you look closely at his right arm and his right leg in the painting , you can see that they are not quite normal.  What you are seeing is not a mistake in the painting, it is capturing the truth of a particular model.

The stroke also affected Peter’s speech. He could no longer talk in words, he could only make guttural sounds to indicate yes, no or maybe.  These sounds are how Francis and Peter communicated. Peter is a very intelligent man and during his posing Francis conversed with him on a variety of subjects from philosophy to politics, literature and other subjects.  Francis continues to be amazed at the depth of the conversations they had with Peter’s limited means of conversation.  There was, in fact, much he could say with the expressions of his face and body and the inflections he would impose on the sounds he made to express his meaning.

One of the most important observations about Peter is that he is, like Regina, an anatomically functional nude.  Both figures appear able to get up and change pose. They are not locked into their position on the canvas. In general and in most paintings you will find that the figure is fixed in its position by gravity. For example, this may happen because the painting makes clear that the body is standing on the floor or seated in a chair or that an arm rests on a piece of furniture.

In Reaching (Regina), the figure is seen from above and is more directly lying flat on the floor than is Peter in his pose. He is in an unusual position. He is not positioned fully on his side - there are rotations. There is no definitive point where the disposition of his pose has been fixed. Taking this into consideration, you can turn the painting upside down or on   it’s edges and make an entirely different observation about what the subject is doing within the painting.

When John Walsh, former Director of the Getty Museum, first viewed Reaching (Peter), Francis turned the painting on it’s four  edges. Walsh was amazed at the impact he felt seeing the figure in a different position. 



When the painting was turned 90 degrees so  Peter's back faced up, Walsh remarked, "he’s just flying through the space!"  In this position you are no longer viewing a man lying on the ground, partially crippled, reaching out. Walsh remarked how his attention was drawn to the designs and shapes that occur at the back of Peter's right knee and on his left leg, to the shapes on the sole of the foot.

"How often do you stop to look at the sole of a foot?", Walsh asked. The anatomically functional nude is able to accomplish these different things but a painting or sculpture is of course static, so viewers will have to use their imagination empathetically to identify with the figure's immediate presence and with its ability to change positions.


With most of Francis’ paintings the figure is to some degree anchored by the nature of the pose. If a figure standing on the floor is turned upside down there still will be this figure standing on the floor, but seen upside down. With Peter, as you turn the painting, you will notice how completely he changes.  You see him first in his reaching pose and then as you turn him, so his back is facing up, he seems to be flying and what is a purple drapery on the floor becomes a cape. Turning the painting once again, he seems to be plunging with velocity downward.


The notion of asking the viewer to empathetically allow an anatomically functional figure to get up and move around was not a part of the requirements for a nude figure in classical art. The Greeks who could make the gods take human form were not concerned with this concept nor was it a concern in the Renaissance, where figures are designed to take their place on the canvas in an idealized form.

Francis regards these two paintings of Reaching (Regina) and Reaching (Peter) as expressions of what the anatomically functional bodies of a particular man and woman can accomplish today.  They bring an immediacy to the body and the human figure because of their potential for changing position and so Francis suggests they are not separated and apart from our space. They are in the room with you. While the viewer always seeks to bring a painted or sculpted figure to life, this particular kind of presence would not happen if these figures were not anatomically functional.

Next week, we will begin to delve into anatomy and the role it plays when painting figures. 

Come meet Francis in person at the Masters Exhibition Opening Reception, at the Century Association on October 2, from 5pm - 7pm. Just email fc@franciscunningham.com to receive a personal invitation from Francis.

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