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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.

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. 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.

  4. 4

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

  5. 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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