How a traveller defines the art of people watching

Take a seat. Wherever you are – a bar, cafe, restaurant – the show is about to begin. Here they are, piling in. The tall woman in the fur coat and black fedora. The rotund man in the double breasted suit, topped off with a monocle and a small dog. The group of label-clad twenty-somethings ordering cocktails on daddy’s credit card. Not next to you in the front row, but stars of the catwalk of life – cue the art of people watching.

If we hone our people watching abilities, we can become the flaneur that the French poet Baudelaire says artists should be – “a passionate spectator of modern life, that finds inspiration amid the ebb and flow of people moving within the city”.

Who, then, are the ultimate people watchers, the flaneurs whose intense observations fed works of art? How about Charles Dickens, who would have celebrated his 200th birthday last year, and is known to have roamed the streets of London observing people, bringing realistic, uncanny colour to his characters.

Or Lucian Freud, whose work continues to attract both controversy and multimillion pound price tags. “I paint people not because of what they are like, not in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be,” was his rationale for the voracious workmanship he imposed on each painting.

Dickens the street walker

In the age of social media, reaching out to the public is a simple task for the PR machines of modern authors. Spare a thought though for when this was achieved the ‘old fashioned’ way – forging genuine connections through story telling based on real life, as was the technique Charles Dickens employed.

“Ordinary people saw he was on their side, and they loved him,” writes biographer Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens – A Life, published by Penguin in 2012. The film The Invisible Woman, based on Tomalin’s book about Dicken’s affair with Nelly Ternan, was released last year. “He made his readers feel he was a personal friend. This personal link to his public became the most essential element in his development as a writer.”

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Walking the streets of London, Dickens would collect ammunition for his mental archive of material, taking stock of the condition of life in the capital and the juxtaposition of rich against poor. If he could not experience his regular wandering ritual, he would become uneasy, writing of how he wanted the streets “beyond description, and how he could only lose his “spectres” in crowds.

His observations of workers walking three miles each morning became the foundations of that mental archive. Early works describe thousands of North London men, “whose salaries have by no means increased in the same proportion as their families”, walking to work. In her book, Tomalin links this to A Christmas Carol, where Bob Cratchit would walk from Camden Town to the City every day.

Why was Dickens so taken by what he saw? Most writers are inspired by personal experience, yet Dickens, wrote largely from the comfort of his study. Perhaps it was the bitter taste of poverty as a child, when family debts forced him to work in a boot warehouse for a year, that propelled his writing.

One of his most ardent critics, Walter Bagehot, conceded that Dickens described London “like a special correspondent for posterity”. He also had an admirer in Leo Tolstoy, who said: “All his characters are my personal friends”.

Yet Virginia Woolf in 1947 attacked Dickens’ in what she felt was an over-indulgence in people watching: “His eye brings in almost too rich a harvest for him to deal with, and gives him an aloofness and a hardness which freeze his sentimentalism… With such a power at his command Dickens made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people on the fire.”

But it’s those people, and Dickens’ absorption of the world around him, that gives us our window to 19th century London. If reading Dickens now is like opening a portal to another time, then reading it in his day must have been the equivalent of watching a BBC drama.

Soul searching with Freud

If Dickens’ writing held a mirror up to the people of his time, then what of the work of Lucian Freud, who died in 2012?  Photographer Bruce Bernard applauds him in his book Lucian Freud: “Freud has given us a deepened sense – far beyond the scope of a photograph or any other medium – of how certain humans looked and felt in the 20th century”.

And what a picture it is, from the rippling folds and crumpled face of “Big Sue” the benefits supervisor, to the comfortable yet disturbing nakedness of Freud’s own daughter. Whether the subject was plucked from obscurity or was a public face, like the Queen or Kate Moss, Freud’s paintings became legendary. It wasn’t just his signature choppy brush strokes and layers of fleshy colours, but his ability to make images that come to life with emotion and story. They are even a visual documentation of Freud’s own personal relationships – wives, lovers, friends, colleagues.

111 Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefit’s Supervisor Sleeping’. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

The most resounding element, however, is his “unending interest in people”, as art critic Martin Gayford comments in Lucian Freud: Painting People.

Freud’s take on the art of people watching? “I’m not trying to make a copy of the person. I’m trying to relay something of who they are as a physical and emotional presence. If you don’t over direct your models and you focus on their physical presence… you capture something about them that neither of you knew.”

Diane Arbus as a people watcher

Like Freud, the photographer Diane Arbus’ contempt for the idyllic and a drive to bring to the surface the raw brutality of life is what earned her a place as one of the world’s most unforgettable photographers.

Both engaged their subjects with a surreal intensity, yet one key difference is Arbus’ work with strangers. According to An Emergency in Slow Motion – the Inner Life of Diane Arbus, she would ask people on the street if she could photograph them, saying she was just practicing. As she broadened the identities she canvassed – developing her famous portfolio of “freaks” – she consumed herself with a string of sub cultures from nudists to cross dressers to circus performers, often forming lasting relationships with people.

Like Freud, Arbus’ work continues to attract both controversy and crowds. Some of her most revered photographs include: Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ 1967, Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, Woman With A Veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC 1968 and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC 1966. In signature Arbus style, all peer deeply, unashamedly, into the eyes of the subject, suspended in the weight of their moods.

Identical twins Roselle NJ 1967 C The Estate of Diane Arbus
Identical twins Roselle NJ 1967 C The Estate of Diane Arbus
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street NYC  1966 C The Estate of Diane Arbus
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street NYC 1966 C The Estate of Diane Arbus

Arbus claimed her work offered a two way emotional exchange and a platform to showcase the otherwise invisible – this is true especially of photographs that are simultaneously shocking and amusing, like Jewish Giant, Taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970, or A Naked Man Being a Woman, NYC 1968. But those of ordinary people, like Woman With A Veil on Fifth Avenue, or Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark, NYC, 1965 still feed our inner voyeur that thrives on sharing such an ordinary yet intimate moment of trespass for the viewer, who either condemns, questions or understands.

Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue NYC 1968 C The Estate of Diane Arbus
Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue NYC 1968 C The Estate of Diane Arbus

The show must go on

Dickens, Freud and Arbus are held together by the threads of life they wove, and cast apart by what drove them. Nevertheless, they remain as composed by Baudelaire: “The flaneur is both an idler and a passionate observer…(that) finds immense enjoyment from dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite.”

As a people watcher, when the show comes to a close, you can take heart in that it is never for long – the next is always about to begin.

Lucian Freud’s works are on show at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from February 6 to May 18, and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Del Prado  from January 27 to April 14.

You can visit the Charles Dickens Museum in central London.

Diane Arbus’ works are on show at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC from February 7 to September 7.

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