The case for George Stubbs as an avatar of the sublime is partially belied by the exhibition "George Stubbs: A Celebration," currently on view at the Frick. Stubbs instead comes across as a supreme ironist anticipating the great comic artists of modernity from Winsor McKay to Matt Groening.
When Stubbs aims higher than depicting the sweet animal confections of a cruel God, his painting becomes inert, as in the "masterpieces" The Haymakers and The Reapers, lifeless pastorals that are no Millets. His backgrounds are often perfunctory, his dogs dull and his people often empty of animation and character, a bunch of Georgian Homer Simpsons. But then there are the strokes of ironic insight which are Stubbs’ metier and true genius.
In an oil at the Frick, The Duke of Richmond’s First Bull Moose, a shabbily noble creature flashes a goofy grin anticipating Bullwinkle. Spontaneous feelings of compassion and pity rushed from me as I turned back again and again to this small picture. Stubbs’ portrait of the filly Molly Longlegs, despite being as faithful a rendition of the creature as could be imagined absent photography, looks like a creature from outer space, thin of torso, legs splayed awkwardly yet regally, face crazy with irrational desire, a thing made by God after a bender and a subsequent nap.
Even Blake himself never captured the twisted nature of divinity as Stubbs does in this picture. Indeed, the key to Stubbs lies in his faces, not of the dull Brits lobotomized by the rigidities of class, but those of his animals, bathed in pleasured terror. Such terrorized eyes in a horses’ skull, his body in the jaws of a lion, are a metaphor for all, irony with a capital I, mortally slouching towards eternity.
My favorite picture in the show depicts the jockey John Larkin aboard the racehorse Otho. Here Stubbs finally captures human longing, linking Larkin’s face with the animal’s gaze in shared pathos. Stubbs stripped his racing scene of the crowds and action that one sees in Degas’ horsey pictures, for example, to showcase an animal unbound, stripping from the grip of man. He granted John Larkin an exceptional understanding, however, and thus probably painted himself.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).