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The Way to All Flesh

Espousing French classicism, he shrugged off whatever in his formation was German—a suppression he maintains in his talks with Feaver. Notably, he rejects any association with expressionism. But his instincts kept signaling in both directions at once. In Girl with a White Dog, a showpiece canvas of 1950– 1951, his first wife is rendered in Ingresque winding linear rhythms, with a cool, fastidious palette. Yet the tremor in her big eyes as she discloses a breast from her gown unmistakably suggests an emotional narrative. Other pictures of other women in other beds seem to supply further parts of it. Whatever his personal entanglements, Freud’s virtuoso elegance was standing him in good stead. In 1954, at the age of thirty-two, he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale.

After that early career high, he seems to have been derailed. The immediate cause, by his own account, was the charisma of his fellow British exhibitor at Venice, Francis Bacon. Bacon and Freud had fallen in as part of a London drinking and gambling scene. Bacon’s recklessness in the studio and his social knack of shuttling between crooks and dukes dramatically expanded Freud’s notions of “how to live.” (That being largely a question of how to fine-tune an aspiration to aristocracy; how to lend a Byronic edge to bohemia; how to sidestep the “genteel,” the snare of the polite English middle ground.)

At first Freud cemented their friendship with an exquisite, quasi-miniaturist portrait painted on an etching plate. Later, however, he tried to ape Bacon’s freedom with the brush. By the early 1960s he had thrown away all linear handrails to his portraiture and taken to slathering and slamming his oils across the canvas, attempting to reconstruct physiognomies through sheer dynamism. The few remnants of this unhappy period reproduced in the Rizzoli volume—sometimes, by the look of it, transcriptions from photographs—show the artist struggling to overcome a patent unease with the slithery mire into which he had chosen to plunge.

And yet this is where I begin to find something engaging about Freud’s career and example. From the late 1950s onward, he is more or less in eclipse. Outside his romantically ruinous studio in a dilapidated Regency terrace and his small circle of titled patrons, the London around him is being transformed by an influx of new energies, chiefly American. The dowdy niceties of Austerity Britain have been swept aside and either the artists have turned to Pop, celebrating imported plastic and chrome, or else they are busy with home-grown variants on New York abstraction and conceptualism. He is temperamentally unable to join them; and no artist could ever really join Bacon. Very gradually, he fortifies this awkward corner until it becomes a considered position of defiance.

Two major canvases of the early 1970s,4 done as the artist was turning fifty, set out his ways of falling back and of fighting back. One sets down, item by item, what he sees through his back window—the gray London sky; the drab reiterations of brickwork, chimneypots, windowframes, and drainpipes that make up a run-down terrace; the buddleias springing from moldering mattresses and charred timbers in the dank wasteground below. The other forces two people, each oblivious to the other, to coexist in tension within a single square canvas. Freud’s widowed mother waits for nothing in an armchair while his girlfriend stares at the ceiling, half naked on a bed: the hinge of this mute drama being the intense significance each has for the room’s invisible third party.

I saw these two canvases in a show in 1974, when I was learning to paint in London, and they meant a lot to me. Just then in Britain retrenchment—both cultural and economic—was the agenda of the hour. The old, grungy, unswinging London had swung back into view after an interlude of foolish optimism, and in art it seemed the moment also to break with all the airy projects of the 1960s. Like many an art student before and since, I reckoned it was smartest to be stupid. The dumb simplicity of saying “Let this mark be that thing” and the dumb intensity with which Freud clutched at his personal emotional sphere seemed to hit a certain bedrock. Could one maybe build on it?

Freud himself certainly did. His energies seemed to gather and accelerate as he moved into the later part of his life, and ever since a steady working regime has continued to unfold the potential that pictures such as those contained. He has returned again and again to the challenge confronted in that square canvas—how, simply, to get people into a painting, to make figures work within a frame. No artist alive has felt through more fiercely the pictorial issues of scale, nor with more startling results.

Freud has also returned repeatedly to the dumb delight of making paint look like things. “Dumb,” I say, because whenever Freud renders mattress ticking, armchair leather, or floorboards (his daily vegetables: “My world is fairly floorboardish”), his brush naively falls in with the grain of the material; and that runs quite against the grain of the Old Master “painterliness” he is sometimes alleged to revive. Yet it communicates a primal, childlike interest in objects that can be truly moving. No other modern painter, again, is more eloquent about a flower, or a pattern on a blouse, or water twisting from a tap. How wholehearted, however, is his faith in material facts? On the floor beneath the mother and the lover, one observes a pestle and mortar. When I returned, a little older, to that picture, a nasty suspicion dawned on me: Was the Freud who hated symbolism here to be found toying with Freudian symbolism?

Nowadays, having come across many such an equivocal moment in his oeuvre—Eight Legs is arguably another—and read many an interview, I believe that Freud has been trying to inject the frisky mischievousness that peppers his conversation into his painting; also, that his attempts to do so have fallen woefully flat. A stranger both to lightness and to light, his working hand pins him down to arrested symbolisms, arrested expressionisms, to dressing up the anxieties that lurk beneath the bed as quantities of palpable flesh.

For that, from the 1980s onward, has become Freud’s calling card, as his reputation has swelled and soared. The comparisons with Rembrandt, etc., that have pushed him forward in the revived market for figurative painting have rested not on his renderings of inanimate objects but of bodies. The difference is structural. Naked humans, for Freud, may be akin to animals, but they feel nothing like the things and spaces surrounding them. Painting the latter, he stays unselfconscious; painting the former, he must clench his muscles and heroically sweat. To what end? Well, having stated that Freud was something of a father figure in my own life as a painter, it follows—as you may have realized—that I have since discovered a certain urge to kill him. In the course of his already quoted exchange with Feaver, Freud savors the memory of a fellow figurationist, John Wonnacott, telling him, “You are a marvellous painter of flesh but you can’t compose”—a satisfying backhander, Freud remarks, since he wants his pictures to look “awkward, in the way that life looks awkward.”

I couldn’t agree with either painter less. In those early 1970s paintings, Freud was still finding a way to navigate the swirl of oils and retardants he had bravely embarked on a decade before, as he explored how a face or a chest might hold together. But as the studio routines solidified and as the stripped bodies multiplied, his analyses of nakedness turned in my eyes into an increasingly persnickety internal argument, conducted in a prissy, bombastic rhetoric. The overall design and scale of a Freud canvas may well constitute a powerful response to the sitter—composition, in that sense, is one of his great strengths. But do the crusty clots and conglomerations of reds, earths, and lead-whites that meet you at close range deliver any particular insight into fleshliness, let alone “life” itself? I feel not. If they make me shudder, it is less at mortality than at mannerism.

That is how things truly are”—the fallacy to which realist art inclines—always proves hard to refute: one can only pit one realism against another. In such a light, the photographs in the gawp-at-genius bagatelle of a book Freud at Work have their uses. Comparing David Dawson’s snapshot of the sitter in the studio and Freud’s finished portrait panel, one learns that Queen Elizabeth, who quite fittingly sat for the onetime fan of the pharaohs in 2001, might be seen as a mildly vivacious old lady, rather than as a contorted knot of impastos. One learns that the copious body of “Big Sue” Tilley, who stripped for Freud in the 1990s, presents the camera with a warm soft gleam, even if the brush could only interpret it as a ruckled sprawl of pigment deposits. One is reminded that the world is made not just of matter, but of light. One is also offered, as a bonus, a lively artist interview conducted by the critic Sebastian Smee. Freud’s talk generally makes good copy—very sharp and nimble, spiced with strategic selective confessions—but Smee’s eager adulation loosens a button or two which had remained fastened for the older Feaver, canny writer though he is.

Somewhere behind the image-mongering of Freud at Work, the artist actually is at work, a driven old man continuing daily to challenge himself; and one gets closer to the dynamics of that exercise if one turns from his oils to his etchings. The present exhibition at MoMA, setting prints against selected paintings and drawings, explores the nudity not so much of Freud’s sitters as of his own art. Aside from six striking experiments in the 1940s, this printmaking only started in 1982, when Freud opened up a parallel line of inquiry to his ever-heftier tussles with oil paint. The linear artist that he had begun as was thus able to breathe again, with a new sense of wonder at whatever marks might be. Attacking outsize copper plates, he has hazarded an extraordinary, lyrical diversity of scratches as conceivable equivalents for the body before him; the creative distortions are freer, bolder, and altogether more exciting than in the paintings; the discontinuity between a figure and its environment is pared down to the dance of a contour in an empty space. He displays the abstract essence of his realism.

The selection of works at MoMA juxtaposes media stimulatingly, and there is an excellent catalog introduction by Starr Figura. She argues that the riskiness of printmaking—the mystery of how the ink will stain the paper—appeals to the gambler in Freud, and that it aligns with the bigger mystery of whatever bodies themselves might be, his concern from earliest youth. “Strangeness,” she writes, “is at the core of Freud’s art and his worldview.”

That feels right. At the same time, this is the artist who states that he is “only interested in painting the actual person,” and that for him, “portraits have always held the greatest potential.” But in so speaking, Freud is suspending the customary meanings of portraiture, its purposes to identify and honor. “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them,” he explains. The more he dwells on the body that is actually there in front of him and how he might physically transfer its alien substance to a flat surface, the more that “of,” that dangling little preposition, becomes the crux of his art; for in a sense the exercise is hopeless, the paint can never in truth be the person. All he can do is cultivate the quality of attachment, the “ofness,”5 that the image bears toward its original—or complicate it, as in Eight Legs.

Freud thus dismisses any notion that his work has a function. “The absolute cheek of making art” was the message he wished to convey, at a time when he had students to teach. To produce paintings means to rework the truths of personal experience, converting them into gratuitous curiosities—something the world has no real need for, any more than it has for a hawk-eyed loner, although it now finds that this is exactly how it wishes its art and its artists to appear. The only way to reclaim the truth is to face up to this grandiose redundancy. “I’m completely selfish and only do what I want to do.” So Freud tells Feaver in the last of their interviews, coolly reviewing the complexion of the life that Feaver will no doubt one day wish to write.

  1. 4

    Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, 1970–1971; Large Interior w9, 1973.

  2. 5

    The term has been used before in a 1986 paper by Sarah Slatford, building on a line of thought explored by Erwin Panofsky in his 1955 essay “Meaning in the Visual Arts.” Hans-Georg Gadamer used “occasionality” as a term for a similar relation in his discussion of portraiture in Truth and Method (1960).

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