Portraits by Freud

Lucian Freud: Recent Work Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 16, 1993–March 13, 1994; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, April 6–June 13, 1994

at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, September–November 1993; the

Lucian Freud: Recent Work

catalog by Catherine Lampert
Rizzoli/Whitechapel Art Gallery, 192 pp., $50.00

Lucian Freud: Early Works

Robert Miller Gallery, New York, November 23, 1993–January 8, 1994

Those who have recently—and with a certain courage—volunteered to have their portraits painted by Lucian Freud have something in common with the fallen soldier heroes commemorated by the poet Laurence Binyon in 1914. The words, which are enshrined on the myriad graves that overrun the battlefields of the Somme, apply to them:

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Lucian Freud’s recent sitters, whether they be infants, young children, thirty-something, or senile, as trapped by his pigment, cannot “grow old.” Within the confines of the canvas, they have done so, far too long ago, already.

Lucian Freud’s images appear to take a fatalistic pride in the “planned obsolescence” envisioned for them by their creator. Although overtly defeated, they emerge as preversely triumphant. Age can do little to “weary” figures who exist boldly parading their premature agedness. Confronted by characters who have all too openly embraced time’s ravages, Binyon’s dreaded “years” become tiresome and irrelevant, if they even attempt to “condemn.”

The eyes of Lucian Freud’s sitters as they stare out from his pictures suggest that, like the blind Tiresias, they “have foresuffered all.” As selected specimens of humanity, magnified by the cruel accuracy of a microscope, they have also been seen by all. If they ever had secrets they have been spilled so openly that they no longer qualify as such.

The prurient thrill-seeker in the raincoat will find little to titillate him if he chooses to hover around the many nudes depicted in Lucian Freud’s latest exhibitions. Not a lace panty, not an embellished leather jockstrap will he find to give him the feeling that the human genitals have enough mystery and glamour to make the “naughty” peep worthwhile. Painted as surgically as diagrams on the surgeon’s chart, his reproductive organs are rendered as facts. A sprout of pubic hair and a certain reddishness surround the entrance to the dark slit of the vagina. As portrayed by Lucian Freud, the male genitals have about as much phallic grandeur as the pink slug that lies exuding sluggish moisture on the everyday garden stone.

He has been alternately praised and decried as a cruel portraitist, but he can never be accused of showing mercy to himself. From his most recent self-portraits he emerges, unheroic, as any old man who has allowed the doctor to photograph every flake of his skin’s decay. Is the viewer being shown the portrait of the artist as a sufferer from leprosy? The precise diagnosis of his self-painted condition is immaterial. He has been afflicted by something abysmal and inevitable—“this long disease, my life.” He is a terminal case, just as every human being is terminal.

The naked male when deliberately painted as “denuded” looks all the more stripped, pitiable, and absurd if he retains some small …

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