Lucian Freud, Reflection
The great realist and most famous of contemporary British painters, Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, died recently at age 88. He was a major and celebrated figure in the revival of figurative painting in the last half of the 20th century.
I must admit to profoundly mixed feelings about Lucian Freud’s work, feelings of great admiration and deep ambivalence. To my mind, he was a very great, though very limited, artist who stayed within a very narrowly defined area of specialization, portraiture, and that includes his nudes. His portraits are mostly limited to friends and family. He was certainly not any kind of society portraitist despite the many attempts by the British establishment to turn him into such. He has much less in common with Gainsborough or Reynolds than he does with the aging Rembrandt or even Thomas Eakins. Like both of those artists, he wanted to create an equivalent in paint of the basic unedited animal flesh of human beings. Like Eakins’ work, Freud’s paintings are expanded portraits of individuals. What is there in both Rembrandt’s work, and in Eakins’ work is a sense of tragedy. In Rembrandt, the tragedy is in the constant struggle between the flesh and spirit as they try and fail to come into agreement. In Eakins, there is the contrast between the great task at hand, and the frail mortal who must accomplish it. There is nothing like that in Freud’s work. Tragic drama, like the tenebrist lighting in both Rembrandt’s and Eakins’ painting, does not exist in Lucian Freud’s work.
Lucian Freud, Portrait of Harry Diamond
Lucian Freud, Man with a Dog
Lucian Freud, Large Interior; this painting was supposedly inspired by Watteau.
Lucian Freud, The Queen; Freud clearly was not meant to be a society portraitist.
The lighting is always the same basic chiaroscuro, and the faces on his subjects are usually flat and unrevealing. They are the expressions we would expect to find on people sitting for hours and days at a stretch while Freud paints them.
The point of view and the setting are usually the same from picture to picture: from above looking down, and in Freud’s own insistently dowdy studio with its floor boards, sink, and old ratty furniture.
Freud refused to use the word “nude” to describe his unclothed figures, and rightly so. “Nude” implies that the unclothed are on display, flaunting their unconcealed and unadorned glory for all to see. Freud’s figures are always naked; unclothed, vulnerable, and vaguely repulsive, even when his models really are young and attractive.
Lucian Freud, Blonde Nude
Lucian Freud, Naked Man with His Friend
In his later life, Freud preferred to paint large and ample models, most famously Leigh Bowery, the Australian performance artist.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery
Lucian Freud painting Leigh Bowery
This reminds me of Rubens’ famous preference for ample women, but in many respects, Freud was the anti-Rubens. Rubens painted gloriously alluring flesh by the acre (something which must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, reproduction can’t do his work justice). Freud painted poxy fish-belly pale clammy flesh by the pound. Like Rubens, he painted it gloriously with heavy meaty strokes of impasto laden bristle brushes, and with a remarkably sure sense of color. It is almost always Caucasian and specifically British flesh, never exactly famous for golden clarity. I wonder if this same approach would have worked with a model of color.
Uncredited in many of the obituaries and eulogies of Freud’s passing was an artist who had a decisive impact on his work, Stanley Spencer, an artist not very well know outside of England or of Anglophile circles. Spencer was from rural England and his work was shaped by his experiences in World War I (in very ferocious fighting in Macedonia). Spencer’s public work was very deeply religious and nationalistic setting Biblical stories in contemporary and very specifically English settings. His private work was about the pain and frustration of his two joyless marriages. It was those private works --most famously the nude portrait of Spencer and his second wife with a leg of cold mutton-- that most deeply influenced Freud.
Stanley Spencer, "The Mutton Chop Nude"
Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Cookham, this is much more typical of Spencer's work, especially his public work.
The very bland flat chiaroscuro, the cold unalluring realism, the deliberate distortions of scale and proportion that we find in Freud’s work are there in Spencer’s private work.
We can see all of it in a striking early work by Freud, from 1951 titled Interior at Paddington.
Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington
The potted palm has an amazingly palpable realism beyond the capacities of any photograph. The distorted proportions of the young man (his friend and fellow artist Harry Diamond) return us to the fictional world of art. As in his more famous later work, Freud worked for a long time on this picture, six months, and always requiring the model’s presence. This painting reminds us that Freud was making this kind of realism long before he became a celebrity.
After he became famous and celebrated, Freud was often paired with and compared to his friend and fellow painter Francis Bacon.
Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon
I suppose what they have in common is that they were both British figurative painters interested in getting to a certain reality behind appearances. Bacon’s approach was much more brutally dramatic, indebted in form and in spirit to Picasso. Bacon’s paintings are parodies of Christian narratives of redemptive suffering. Human beings and human flesh are chewed up in the meat grinder of history with no hope of a resurrection at the end.
There is no such Christian content in any of Freud’s works, because Freud was never a Christian. Freud’s approach to people is not nearly so ruthless, but then, it is hard to call it sympathetic. Perhaps what Freud was trying to do was to show the vulnerable reality of the human flesh in an age where such flesh is just another commodity to be displayed and sold to gratify desire on one end and make a profit on the other. And yet, that whole sense of common sympathy that makes the work of Rembrandt and Eakins so enduring in their appeal is entirely absent in Freud’s work. People always look a little battered and shell-shocked in Freud’s work, but we never get the sense that we are there with them in the trenches dodging the shrapnel. They always look remote from us, displayed like specimens on a glass slide. Their brute realism always insists upon itself. To me, they call to mind the photographer Richard Avedon’s insistently realistic photographs. They raise the question of just when does blunt uncompromising realism become itself a kind of affectation.