George Dureau: Classical Variations
by Edward Lucie-Smith, N.O.A.R.
George Dureau began his career as a painter and draughtsman, and only later moved into photography. Today, however, it is probable that many more people know his photographs than are familiar with his paintings and drawings. The reason is largely practical: photography is a means of image-making which lends itself to reproduction, and Dureau’s striking work in the medium appears in an increasing number of magazines and books. This imbalance has in turn led to a probable misunderstanding of Dureau’s intentions and of his relationship to his various means of expression.
The photographs started as documentation for pictures, and only later became an independent way of making art. And as they became independent, it seems that something happened, not only to the photographs themselves, but to Dureau’s other work, despite a continuing close link where the actual subject-matter was concerned. Two things became obscured, and perhaps concealed themselves particularly from critics and photographers who concern themselves with the camera as an instrument for making art. Thanks to the present vogue for photography as art, we tend to forget the degree to which the photograph is concerned with what is real—what actually presents itself to the lens. This is true however much the resultant image is subsequently “cooked” in the course of processing.
In the second place, photography is essentially a prolific medium. I mean by this thatmany images are usually made in order to get one, the creative mechanism thus operates in distinct phases: first, the photographer chooses something to point the camera at, and then he selects from among the numerous alternatives which may come from a single photographic situation. These observations arc, of course, self-evidently true of the kind of images Dureau makes, which arc deliberately concocted in the studio,’ with the full awareness, co-operation and consent of his subjects. His photographs are immediately recogniseable, not for their trickiness or technical virtuosity, but for their apparent straight forwardness. Technically, they seem to hark back to the 19th century, to have some of the stillness and formality of daguerrotypes.
They also have a restricted range of subject-matter: heads, single figures and small groups. The figures are male or female nudes. New Orleans street people, and (very often) cripples—people deformed at birth, or maimed in some accident. These categories are not exclusive; they overlap to a considerable extent.
The unique quality of the photographs comes from a marriage of subject and method. There is the discipline and simplicity of Dureau’s compositions. There is also our sense that the photographer and his subjects have entered into a shared enterprise, whose purpose is to record not only outward appearances, but an inner sense of worth in the person being photographed—achieved sometimes against almost overwhelming odds. Because of these things, it can reasonably be said the Dureau the photographer is a “classical” artist, seeking the qualities which lie at the roots of all classicism—dignity, measure, balance, restraint. Some of the male nudes—dignity, measure, balance, restraint. Some of the male nudes—the long series of portraits of Troy Brown, for instance—are classical in a narrower sense as well, in that Dureau here takes a superb male body and uses the camera to describe it as a Greek or Roman sculptor might have used a chisel to describe the same forms in marble.
It takes a moment or two to realize, however, that there is no real line of demarcation between the images of Troy and other images which show deformed bodies. A black dwarf is shown reclining on a low plinth in an attitude taken from a pediment figure in a Greek temple. This kind of transposition is something the Greeks themselves would have understood—especially those Greeks who lived in the Hellenistic age—the three centuries that followed the death of Alexander. Dwarfs and people of the streets—porters, slaves, beggars—arc a distinctive and important part of the subject-matter of later Greek art.
Dureau’s paintings and drawings treat precisely the same range of subjects, but their difference of mood and approach is likely to come as a shock to those who (like myself) meet them only after becoming familiar with the photographs. Characteristically they are large, loosely handled, often with some parts deliberately left unfinished. There are, as with all artists, traces of influence from other artists—in this case Francis Bacon locked in struggle with Edward Hopper, with early Diebenkorn trying to hold the ring. Like all pictures worth looking at, they are far more than a sum of influences, trying to describe their qualities, I find myself reaching for adjectives which may not at first sight seem especially complimentary. Dureau’s paintings and drawings are, for me, prolix, turbulent and simultaneously indulgent and self-indulgent. One would use the same word to try and give the flavour of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. And this is not perhaps so surprising when one considers that Dureau comes from a similar cultural background.
There is something more as well. Like the two authors I’ve just cited, Dureau has an affection for inherited symbolisms which at first sight seem obvious and corny. His centaurs and winged figures are cases in point: things borrowed from the Greco-roman repertoire, but used with a consciousness of the way their meaning has become tattered and worn out.
What makes Dureau’s art work is a kind of over spilling abundance, a gift for rhetoric. The cultural flotsam is carried along by a torrent of visual energy. The same thing happens in Tennessee Williams’ long speeches, where the words coalesce in baroque clusters, till the subject becomes language itself. Dureau the painter, like Williams the playwright, is a celebrator of the medium which is being used—and this celebration is something which the photograph, by its very nature is reluctant to permit. Paintings start from what is imagined; photographs from observed facts.
But one can go further, and say something more, which is that the paintings and drawings on the one hand, and the photographs on the other, give one another permission to do certain things. Dureau, not being confined to a single method of image-making, can borrow things from photographs to use in paintings, and can in- fuse his photography with the old high-art tradition, but doesn’t have to violate the nature of one medium or the other, since both are available to him.
The energy and prolixity of the paintings suggests a comparison with certain sorts of Baroque art—the speed and dash of a painter like Luca Giordano. But I think another, less obvious and more useful comparison can also be made, which at the same time helps to knit together paintings, drawings and photographs. If Dureau’s photographs of street-people and dwarfs remind me irresistibly of Alexandria bronze statuettes of the 2nd century b.c., his paintings and drawings, with their barely controlled stormy energy, remind me of the vast frieze from Pergamon, showing a battle of gods and giants, which is perhaps the most important surviving masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture on a heroic scale. The great mutilated marble figures, the giants with their upturned eyes, swelling torsos and serpents instead of legs, find an uncanny echo in things like Dureau’s large triptych showing the legless B.J. balanced on one hand.
So perhaps the question at the head of this piece unexpectedly resolves itself. Dureau is always classical, but he plays variations on classical themes as bizarre and unexpected as they are historically justified.