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The Way to All Flesh

Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 16, 2007–March 10, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by Starr Figura
Museum of Modern Art, 144 pp., $40.00

For me, the paint is the person.”1 “I’d like to think that I had in some way caught a scene rather than composed it, so that you never questioned it.” “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me. That would be a pointless lie.” By his own account, Lucian Freud is a painter who reaches after truth and substance. And for many today, the claims he makes hold good. To treat him as “the greatest living realist painter” has now become commonplace. Robert Hughes gave Freud that title in 1987,2 the point at which he started to acquire an international renown.

For much of the four preceding decades, he had been a somewhat marginal figure on the art scene, even in his own adopted hometown of London. Twenty years onward, however, the world lies at the feet of the still-active octogenarian. It’s not just that his work is deemed to give new force to the age-old equation between the bodies we look at and the marks we make. His persona—that of a loner and a gambler, trailing, in Hughes’s description, a “long and labyrinthine” sexual history—lends itself to the equally popular pairing-off of high artistic achievement with bohemian recklessness. So it happens that, besides the current MoMA exhibition, “Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings” (showing till March 10), and the imposing 362-plate retrospective volume Lucian Freud, published by Rizzoli, Knopf has recently issued Freud at Work, a book trading on the glamour of his studio. An old photographer friend, Bruce Bernard, and an assistant, David Dawson, catch the famous and the naked sitting for the famous artist, who is glimpsed on occasion nearly naked himself.

Freud’s remark that he, too, wishes to “catch” what he depicts, obtaining an image that is unquestionably real, comes from an interview reprinted in the Rizzoli volume. It is one of several with the London art critic William Feaver, who also supplies an introduction. Feaver and Freud form a long-standing double act: they are talking here in 1998, by which point the one has already been writing about the other for nearly three decades. And yet on this occasion the painter finds that he has to defend himself against his outstandingly well informed interlocutor. His hopes for his work seem thwarted: confronted by one of his most recent canvases, Feaver is driven to question and question again, baffled and almost indignant.

The bone of contention is entitled Sunny Morning—Eight Legs and it now belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago. It is an upright canvas, almost eight feet tall, and like so much of Freud’s output it depicts a corner of his drab and inhospitable London studio. At its top, the cheese-yellow of a papered-over window interrupts the sour browns of a rawly plastered wall to indicate that somewhere outside, a morning sun may indeed be shining. But this is hardly a picture of light effects: the bed that dominates it seems less to pick up exterior radiance than to emit its own heavy off-whiteness, as might a quarry of chalk. On that bed sprawls a naked man whose left arm cradles a sleeping whippet. Both their heads fall backward on the bedspread. What, one might ask, brings them together so? Is it a dream of empathy with the animal that sends the man’s eyes reeling, or is it mere exhaustion at the task of crooking his limbs, hour by long hour, for the inspection of the painter? At the base of the canvas, however, there lurks a rather larger enigma—in the form of two masculine knees that poke out between the bedspread and the floorboards.

How on earth have they come to be there? “Man + Dog” may be a standard image, but “Man + Dog + Pair of Knees” appears in no known storybook. Feaver confronts Freud: surely you can’t have thought of “slipping in the extra legs” when you started the canvas? True, Freud allows. He obliquely comments that this particular whippet and this particular man—his assistant David, the Freud at Work photographer—are individuals he has long known well, suggesting that the picture turns on this familiarity. But why, Feaver presses, the mystery beneath the bed? This is where Freud starts talking about “catching” a scene rather than “composing” it. It seems such an implausible response that it drives Feaver to risk for once a hint of critical antagonism. He accuses Freud of “shoving things in,” and even of wanton “symbolism”—a taunt that he knows this devotee of observed fact will wish to rebut.

Oh, the spare legs came about out of desperation, as things quite often do in my pictures….” Freud at last half-opens his hand. Somehow, he “sensed” that there needed to be someone under that bed; and it turned out that only David himself would do. His assistant had to offer up his legs for inspection a second time. That way, the picture could become yet more full of his bodily presence. Knees B echo Knees A by a principle of “nervous repetition,” Freud postulates, rather as the dog’s angly muscularity reiterates the man’s.

Unlike Andy Warhol, who said “people go on asking about my work[s], they don’t realise that they are exactly as they see; there is nothing behind them,” I want there to be everything behind mine.

Real bodies, then, are the motor to Freud’s imagination, he would have us believe. They drive his realism toward extravagance—that is to say, to a wandering beyond normal bounds. To term Freud’s art “realism” is to associate it with the aesthetic of Courbet, and that in many ways makes sense. Throughout his long career, he too has dwelt on the substance of things rather than on accidents of light: moreover, the Frenchman’s famous retort to idealists—“Show me an angel and I’ll paint you one”—foreshadows Freud’s already mentioned declaration that he only puts in pictures what is “actually there in front of me.” But the actualities in front of Freud—both the bodies and the pictures themselves—have strangely and inexorably inflated during his career’s later stages. A longtime specialist in the minute and the punctilious had become, by the 1990s, an intrepid stretcher of over-lifesize canvases.

Sometimes it seemed that the pictures needed to be huge because the men and women that Freud had asked to strip and pose were so physically vast themselves. Sometimes, as with the eight-foot Eight Legs, the format that Freud had dared himself to fill would weirdly distend the presence of the sitter. His “desperation” at his self-appointed challenge had become for his pictured assistant a virtual Procrustean bed. More recently, Freud has taken to sticking odd extensions to his canvases in response to the body spaces of his sitters, creating L-shaped combines.

All of which places Freud pretty comfortably in the art world of the last two decades. Extravagant oddity is what the Guggenheims and Tates are currently being built to accommodate and to celebrate. Their big spaces invite big concepts, and Freud’s swaggering nudes of sitters such as the corpulent drag queen Leigh Bowery and the mountainously obese Sue Tilley happen to answer to the demand almost as well as the split sharks of Damien Hirst and the monster puppies of Jeff Koons. Freud’s account of human flesh, insisting on its gravity and animality, speaks to widespread contemporary veins of pathos and abjection. (It reveals the body’s “swollen, lumpy, pasty reality,” one critic remarks; another, that it “penetrates psychological depths.”3 ) And meanwhile his reputation as a hawk-eyed veteran philanderer, happy to style himself “one of the great absentee fathers of the age,” feeds the perennial appetite for a figurehead whose devotion to the cause of art is imperious, obsessive, and excessive. The art, then, is seen as truthful; the artist himself as an exemplar of self-indulgence; and the pairing of these two seemingly incongruous selling points has secured Freud’s status as a major property of the contemporary art scene. It’s a potent convergence of spotlights, and it begs the question how Freud should have been so long waiting in the wings before.

The Rizzoli volume, with its hundreds of plates, helps us trace his manner back to its beginnings before World War II. (How the selection was arrived at is not made clear, though the slipping in of various inconsequential drawings suggests that the artist himself must have had a hand.) It confirms what the bizarrerie of Eight Legs itself implies, that Freud’s extravagant realism is at root a near cousin to Surrealism. Freud’s Jewish family fled Berlin for London in 1933, when he was just eleven (his father, an architect, was Sigmund Freud’s son), yet his adolescent drawings retain a German tinge, feeling their way between the chilly stares of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) or of the Magic Realists (Alexander Kanoldt, for instance) and the more recent, doom-laden stridencies of neoromanticism and noir. All those styles effectively stemmed from de Chirico’s intuition, around 1910, that you could paint like a symbolist without symbolizing anything in particular—the inspiration also behind Magritte. Suspend the significance of the objects you are picturing and let them dangle in “mystery.” Their stubborn inertia and the artist’s intent gaze bounce off one another irresolubly, and perhaps that state of estrangement is what reality has come to be, in the supposedly disenchanted twentieth century.

Or so it appears when the young Freud applies his pencil to a stuffed monkey, a cactus in a pot, or the head of a friend. It is written into the formula that these objects are in some sense mirroring him, and thus it is allowed for that pathos may leach into them. The plants are usually fearsomely prickly and the faces generally look stricken—it is as though each sitter had suddenly learned of a disaster, and that disaster were himself. The draftsmanship, punctilious and obsessive, also flaunts a winsome childishness in its frequently eccentric proportions. Freud, who can still boast to Feaver that “I never question my actions,” clearly knew how to deploy this waywardness as he charmed his way around the artistic circles of wartime London.

The insular scene around him had many competing pretenders to graphic flair, but few to radical innovation. The twentieth-century avant-gardes were not in the vicinity: Freud set to work in a milieu of considerable cultural pessimism. And just as he has carried the stricken air of his early heads into the bemused reveries of his later full-length nudes, his vision has remained in many senses profoundly conservative. Some defenders of radical art—a cause that surely stands in need of defense, as of now—might leap on this as reason enough in itself to dismiss Freud from their consideration. Against that, I would urge at least the value of understanding their enemy, since art’s right wing has proved quite as adept at renewing itself as its counterpart in politics. As a young, ambitious individualist seeking a style of authority, Freud had various sources he could draw on. Initially, so he claims, he was inspired by a book showing portrait busts of the pharaohs. By the late 1940s, however, he was turning toward the example of Ingres.

  1. 1

    Freud quoted in Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud (Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 191.

  2. 2

    Robert Hughes, introduction to Lucian Freud: Paintings (British Council exhibition, 1987), p. 7.

  3. 3

    Respectively, Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, December 17, 1993; David Cohen, New York Sun, April 29, 2004.

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