Looking at Lucien Freud’s work

[A feature I wrote for Cara magazine many years ago. This one is about a retrospective Lucian Freud exhibition in the Tate. *Freud since died, on 22 July 2011.]

Lucian Freud is not dead.* He has reached fourscore years, but is alive, well and still painting inLondon. The point being, he has the reputation of a dead artist – he is often described as a great artist, and sometimes even as one of the greatest realist painters of all times: judgements rarely made of living artists. Freud is also, of course, famous, not at all for being the grandson of one of the central figures of Modernity, but for his own achievements as a painter.

His career has spanned some of the most radical decades in the history of art. He met Picasso after the war. He was linked with surrealism for a time. Among his friends, while still a very young man in London in the 1940s were Stephen Spender and Cryil Connolly. He was very close to the painters Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, and to John Deakin, the photographer. And he is even associated with 1990s performance artist, the late, flamboyant Leigh Bowery.

But through it all Freud has worked well away from the trends. Few modern visual artists of his ambition and talent have stayed so faithful to paint and painting, not to mention portraiture and classical concerns with the human form. This is no wonder when critics like Germaine Greer say things like: “I think portraiture is a minor branch of painting,” adding that a particular artist who painted her portrait was “too good an artist to work in portraits”, and “In the case of most artists, I would say, ‘Take a photograph.’” Perhaps the point is worth making more reasonably: if modern figurative painting isn’t at least as good as the masters what’s the point?

Freud’s stubborn attachment to portraiture has set him apart from the pack in some ways, but in other ways it has hindered our full appreciation of his efforts. He is too often cast restrictively as Freud the case study for how we can, despite our ‘post-modern’ condition, stand by the cause of good old fashioned painting, without turning to conceptual art, installation art, video art or any other off-shoots for challenge.

And sure enough, we tend to ask ad infinitum, on looking at Freud’s work, can painting and portraiture still speak to us, and find new expression, new ways for us to see the world and each other in a technology-dominated age? But this is an inadequate response to Freud’s work, because it is immediately clear from that work that the answer is and always was ‘yes’. To move beyond that tired debate we have to look, look and look some more at what Freud is showing us about our condition.

First, a warning. In order to be able to make up your own mind about Freud’s painting, you have to ditch certain prejudices: all kinds of bashfulness and squeamishness at the sight of full nudity and exposed parts must go. As John Russell wrote in the New York Times in 1983: “Freud carries the [realist] experience so far that we sometimes wonder if we have any right to be there.” But, according to Philip Lindey, one of Ireland’s most talented figurative painters, in Lucian Freud’s detached gaze genitals seem to mean, on one level, neither more nor less than toes. (Freud himself admired Picasso for being “a master in being able to make a face feel like a foot.”) Lindey suggests you get the impression from the paintings that after some time working in the studio Freud has probably forgotten that he’s looking at a person, never mind a naked person – the subject matter has been turned into pure surface, as it were.

However you put it, in order to be able to give Freud’s paintings the consideration they deserve, you do have to leave your prudishness in the cloakroom.

However, this retrospective at the Tate Britain is not all nudity. Above all else it’s portraiture – room after room of portraits. Girl with a kitten, Evacuee boyFrancis Bacon, Woman smiling, Pregnant girlThe painter’s motherMan in a chair, and so on. He has painted his wives, his friends, his neighbours, famously his daughters and mother, other artists, animals, plants … and even they have an air of portrait about them.

What we have in this retrospective, curated by his biographer William Feaver, is a Freud-guided tour through humanity as reflected in the people he has looked upon and how he saw them. Image after image of subjects Freud ‘saw’ in his various studios, some of them even laying on his many sofas. (You can’t help but think of his grandfather’s ‘studio’ and all the patients he saw. Portraits, after all, converge just as intensively on the subjectivity of their sitters as psychoanalysis, and similar to the scientific truths Sigmund sought in his exploration of people, Lucian Freud strives for an objectivity of sorts – trying to reflect the reality of a subject’s appearance.)

One thing we don’t see a lot of in a Freud retrospective is colour. Chromatically, he is concerned mostly with the pallor of flesh, and when his models are clothed it is in muted tones to make the skin stand out. His studio backdrops and props, significant though they may be, are usually dun or drab. When he does focus on a flash of colour it is amidst a sea of grey. He is not interested in colour as a theme in itself as many modernist painters were. He wants the colours to be the colour of life not of tubes of paint or an artist’s palette. He doesn’t want them to distract us from the reality, the life in the painting.

So instead of colour it is light that carries all the weight of meaning to and from Freud’s paintings. And that light is set up to reveal the sitter to a maximum, to expose them as thoroughly as possible to the gaze of the painter. In the eyes of his sitters you can see the tiny reflections of the light; against their faces you see its effects on their complexion; and on their skin you can see what birthmarks, blemishes and bulges it reveals.

In every way, Freud frames his work to focus attention on the scrutinised individual. His paintings are manifestly staged. He rarely leaves the studio setting, and often positions himself uncomfortably close to the sitter. The result is a theatre of posture, pose, expression, gesture under close scrutiny. How we place our hands, what we do with our fingers, how we position our legs, angle our feet, hold our head. How we control our facial muscles.

Freud is clearly obsessed. Obsessed not with nudity, which is, as we have seen, a given for him, but obsessed with precision, with exactitude. He has an astonishing ability to see details in a subject that an ‘untrained’ eye would miss no matter how closely it looked. “True expression (not to be confused with formulaic Expressionism) demands intensity to an obsessive degree,” writes Feaver in his catalogue essay for this exhibition.

Of course, such obsession requires considerable acquiescence from the model. What emerges from these rigorously observed portraits is very often a silent drama between the painter and the sitter. The relationship, no matter how conventional, professional and mutually understood, necessarily involves an intimacy that can pierce through our guard and get to the heart of our humanity. That a person would agree to pose like this for the sake of something so indefinable as a painting is the epitome of how complex our human motivations can be. Freud is surely conscious of this as the sitter poses inches from him, and the question is: what does he make of the privilege of the position?

Early in his career Freud began a relentless pursuit for the convincing modern portrait. Hissurfaces started out mostly smooth, and his rendering of form was quite ‘flat’ – modulated only by very gentle contouring. He avoided putting paint on top of paint, and his touch was very mannered.The results were eerie, paradoxically unrealistic, and suggestive of a universal existential imbalance rather than the everyday troubles of the sitters.

In the late 1950s he began using coarser hog-hair as opposed to sable brushes so as to shift the paint more roughly across the canvasses, paint across and through paint, gradually freeing his style, and bringing a grittier reality to the work. Francis Bacon impressed him at this time with monstrous contortions and tortured expressions. “He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me,” says Freud, “and I realised that it was a million miles away from anything I could ever do.”

But where Bacon could work from photographs without sitters and work up one detail into a figure study, Freud has always needed the person present in front of him to see the point. So, the change in style was difficult for Freud because he could not totally abandon precision. His instinct was, as Feaver says, still “to attend to every freckle and individual hair while still trying to amplify his handling,” and Feaver quotes John Berger describing some of the results as “painstaking naturalism… Only they are more startling because they all emphasise decay – like touched up photographs of rotten apples.” Freud himself says that he “felt more discontented than daring. It wasn’t that I was abandoning something dear to me, more that I wanted to develop something unknown to me.”

The pursuit of a liberated style to match Freud’s organic view of the human form was realized more fully when he began to concentrate on the nude form in the mid-60s. Freud himself doesn’t refer to any of his paintings that feature nudes as nudes but as portraits of the whole person, or Naked Portraits. The approach is close to Enda O’Brien’s suggestion (used as an epigraph by Philip Roth in his recent novel, The Dying Animal) that “The body contains the life story just as much as the brain.” Indeed, Feaver quotes Freud saying that his “grandfather was adamant that to be an analyst you had to be a fully qualified medical doctor, and whenever he examined any of his patients – whatever desperate state they were in – he gave them a complete and thorough physical examination. That seems to me right and proper.”

A thorough physical examination is what many of Freud’s paintings are. In Picasso’s Weeping Woman, he saw a portrait that surpassed likeness, as Feaver puts it, and he Freud went after that effect: “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter, being them.” And elsewhere: “The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

After looking and looking and looking, I confess to being left with a feeling of disappointment. It’s as if someone has expended considerable effort telling me about some funny situation they were in, only to finish by saying that I had to be there to appreciate it. Similarly, I do accept that Freud’s portraits reflect intensively observed encounters of astonishingly intimate nature, but I can’t help feeling let down by the delivery. Freud himself has said: ‘I was always very conscious of the difficulty of everything and thought that by will power and concentration I could somehow force my way, and depending simply on using my eye and my will power overcome what I felt was my lack of natural ability.’


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