The first painting by a living British artist that I can remember seeing—not just “noticing”—was by Lucian Freud, hanging in the Tate Gallery more than twenty-five years ago. It was his 1952 portrait of Francis Bacon (see illustration this page). A small picture, about the size of a shorthand note pad, and one whose extreme compression makes it even more compact in memory; I remember it as a miniature. The thought of “miniature,” with its Gothic overtones, was affirmed by the surface: tight, exact, meticulous, and (most eccentrically when seen in the late Fifties, a time of urgent gestures on burlap) painted on a sheet of copper. There seemed to be something Flemish about the even light, the pallor of the flesh, and the even cast of the artist’s attention. But there, on the edge of familiarity, its likeness to the modes of older portraiture stopped. What a strange, ophidian modernity this small image had, and still retains! One did not need to know it was the head of a living artist to sense that Freud had caught a kind of visual truth, at once sharply focused and evasively inward, that rarely showed itself in painting before the twentieth century.
In “normal” portraiture, a tacit agreement between painter and subject allows the sitter to mask himself and project this mask—of success, of dignity, of beauty, of role—upon the world. But here the face, with its lowered, almond-shaped eyes and eyelids precisely contoured as a beetle’s wing cases, is caught in a moment between reflection and self-projection. It is as naked as a hand.
The point is not that the artist has “penetrated the character” of his sitter, that commonplace desideratum of portraiture which is, in fact, only a little more sophisticated than the pleasure people express when the eyes of a subject “follow them around the room.” Rather, it is that he has seen everything with such evenness while conveying the utter disjuncture between the artist’s gaze and the sitter’s lack of response. Everything is there, down to the shadow cast on the forehead by an escaped curl of hair whose strands you can count; but every particular, like the long horizontal S made by the curl of the eyebrow and a shading on the crease between the eyes, seems to obey the strictest impulses of artifice. Here, the fluent continuity of Ingres’ form-world seems to have been refracted through the detailed spikiness of northern Renaissance art, but in no antiquarian way: Bacon’s pear-shaped face has the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off.
In the thirty-five years since he painted this, Lucian Freud has become the greatest living realist painter. To grasp what he has done we need to set aside one or two shibboleths of contemporary culture, ideas meant to distinguish a “post-modernist” state of mind from others allegedly less up-to-date.
The main one is the idea that painting can still enrich itself by incessantly quoting other visual media—film and print,…
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This article will appear in different form in the catalog, to be published by Thames and Hudson, of the Lucian Freud exhibition that has been organized by The British Council and will open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington in September. Copyright © 1987 by The British Council and Robert Hughes.