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 element of clothing. The man who keeps both his socks on looks much sillier in his nudity than if he discards them.
In his most disturbing late self-portrait he presents himself as a naked and paranoid Mephistopheles, crazily smashing around, evilly waving his palette knife as if he sees it as a wand or sword or scepter. In this powerful self-dissection, Lucian Freud allows himself to be seen as wearing nothing but a pair of embarrassing unlaced boots.
In his earlier work his vision was far less pessimistic. It had a lyricism and tenderness rarely to be found in his later paintings. The amazed interest he once took in the human vulnerability of his sitters has been replaced by an appalled horror at their condition.
Sigmund Freud believed that “man cracks like a crystal on a predestined course.” His grandson now obsessively attempts to discover that crack and deplores it in paint. For the most part, he now appears prepared to extend delighted approval to plants, and flowers, and animals. These he continues to paint with his old excited wonder as if he feels no impulse, whatsoever, to elicit their flaws. In a recent painting of a girl reclining with a dog, the pads of the animal’s paws are painted more lovingly than the face of the girl. He now tends to treat his human figures as “poor passing facts.” In a late study of four figures reminiscent of Watteau, the plant behind them is given the greater vibrancy.
Over the last three years he has completed a series of ambitious paintings and etchings of a sitter who is probably the largest human being ever to appear in his canvases. When I was first told that this figure, Leigh Bowery, was a “Performance Artist” from Australia, I was hazy about what his specialized art aspired to.
I made inquiries and was given an explanation which was vague but evocative. Performance Artists, I was told, “try to be hilarious. They paint their bodies with funny colors. They dress up in joke clothes. They glue their penises into painful positions. They camp around. They pretend they are in labor and a woman’s head suddenly pops out from under their skirts. They give themselves enemas and they squirt the liquid into the audience. They will do anything to entertain…”
Leigh Bowery as he appears in Lucian Freud’s portraits is a naked Colossus. He has a limp, dangling penis that appears pathetically small in proportion to his other vast proportions. He is made dramatic by the astonishing amount of beautifully painted, translucent fat which encases his muscularity. A giant, and a grotesque, his image lolls and slumps around in these very large paintings as if he is exhausted by the sheer bulk of all the flesh he has to carry. The Australian has not been captured by the painter while in the act of entertaining. He has the depressed, lost, apologetic eyes of the jester caught off-duty. He is a young man but he looks prematurely aged by his egg-like gleaming baldness and the sheer volume of the obesity which imprisons him.
Within all the powerful portraits in which the Australian makes his gargantuan appearance, in every sense he is a “tour de force.” His main interest lies in the painter’s superb rendering of the actual texture and the radiant luminosity of his fleshiness.
Lucian Freud’s Performance Artist is a disquieting image as he looms out of this series of paintings. He is shocking. He has been painted as lustrous, almost succulent in his decadence. A back view of him squatting naked (see opposite) has been bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exact sum paid for this picture has not been publicly disclosed. It was rumored to be about $1 million, a price befitting its subject’s unusually spectacular bodily dimensions. Yet few would choose to have the male stripper hanging on their bedroom wall. Although he is remarkable and luscious in his plenitude, he is not erotic.
But as an artistic conception, the Australian has been so endowed with exquisitely painted overweight that he is awesome. The uncanny glow of his corpulence infuses him with a quality that almost seems spiritual. He is portrayed as Titanic in his physical immensity and this gives him an authority that masquerades as a majesty. But ultimately it is only the superb painterly skill with which he has been depicted that gives this haunting giant freak much human dignity.
Lucian Freud has always had the ability to make the people and objects that come under his scrutiny seem more themselves, and more like themselves, than they have ever been—or likely will be. In a very early study entitled, “Ill in Paris,”* the girl he draws is portrayed as suffering so horribly from her bout of flu that the viewer starts to fear that her illness may be infectious. She seems more agonized than the average sufferer from influenza. Her flu seems more deadly than the average one. It appears to be a strain so severe that it has still not been isolated. The excruciating pain of her raw infected throat, the hideous throbbing of her head, the ache of her bones, the dangerous burn of her fever, are all so unpleasantly and vividly conveyed that the viewer starts to feel that he is developing her symptoms.
When Lucian Freud paints a sink it gives off a “sinkishness” so powerful it seems to exceed what even sinks can exude. If there are visual odors his pictures make one smell them as they rise putrid from his drain. If there are visual noises, one is forced to hear the maddening drip of the water as it relentlessly releases itself from his rusted faulty taps. God pity the unfortunate housewife condemned to “do time” at the sink that is given us by Lucian Freud.
In the same way if he paints a flower he gives it a beauty exponentially flower-like. Every petal in the painting is allowed to yield its unique, illusionary scent.
Lucian Freud’s business executives also have in their portraits more “business executivishness” than one can easily face. Their greedy essence is conveyed with such a hallucinatory clarity one has the impulse to flee from their painted presence. There can seem to be an element of caricature in the way the artist presents these figures as radiating the unbearable heaviness of their being. But viewers will find to their horror, once they go out the door of Lucian Freud’s exhibition, that one of the dreaded men of commerce whom they’d hoped to leave behind in the gallery has mysteriously escaped from his canvas. There he is to be seen, wearing his expensive formal suit, completing his depressing deals, at the adjacent table in the restaurant.
His portraits have always been prophecies rather than snapshots of the sitter as physically captured in a precise historical moment. In the past this was not so obvious because his prophecies had not yet become so dire and grim. When I used to sit for him nearly forty years ago the portraits he did of me in that period were received with an admiration that was tinged with bafflement. I myself was dismayed, others were mystified why he needed to paint a girl, who at that point still looked childish, as so distressingly old.
It is interesting to remember that the many portraits he painted in the Forties and Fifties, in what is now considered his most romantic and gentle style, at the time were seen by many as shocking and violent and cruel. The same work which has now become widely popular and is viewed as his most overtly pleasing was once denounced by his critics as needlessly vicious. For that reason many dealers were hesitant to handle it. They felt it had an ugliness that made it unsalable.
This can only be comprehensible today if one remembers that, in postwar Britain, Pietro Annigoni was the portraitist then most popular in the commercial art world. He was the artist who could command the roaring prices. A great self-promoter, he told the press that he was reviving the dying tradition of the old Italian masters. He claimed to be in the possession of their secret formulas. He said that he mixed exactly the same amount of egg yolk and nutmeg into his palette as Titian, Leonardo, etc. Using a fake Florentine style he painted British society women with their skin flawless, their hair impeccably arranged, their lipstick beautifully applied. He always put a highlight on their lipstick to intensify its gleam. In the period when Annigoni was adulated as the supreme portraitist, Lucian Freud was not seen to be in the possession of any magical formulas from the past and his work was often disliked or shunned.
Bohemian life, as it once existed in Soho in postwar London, has recently become a legend. As a result it is often romanticized. Younger artists who never experienced it view it with the odd nostalgia one can sometimes feel for periods one has never known. “Berlin in the Twenties” can evoke such a feeling. The intellectuals, the writers, the painters such as Francis Bacon, who wildly gathered every night to drink too much in the bars and clubs of Soho certainly made an interesting, volatile group.
But there was a darker side to all the flamboyant, reckless popping of their champagne corks. Life in Soho, at that time, was like a party that never ended because those who’d been drunk the night before regathered at lunch time to resume their drinking. Soho was the haven where those in flight from English conformity could find acceptance. It was the very incarnation of the “permissive society.” Yet although it was superficially free, it was not carefree. Lucian Freud remains the supreme chronicler of the inner desperation, the despair, experienced by many of his fellow artists in that postwar period.
His beautiful head of Francis Bacon painted on copper captured the profundity of that artist’s Irish melancholy. If one looks at Freud’s brilliant portrait of the painter John Minton, among the seemingly most merry and ebullient figures who used to come to drink in Soho, Minton’s anguish is so painfully portrayed that one feels Lucian Freud eerily predicted the tragedy of his eventual suicide, long before Minton’s other friends saw it as a possibility.
Freud has worked in different styles. One may prefer a certain period of his work to another. One may feel that a particular portrait or still life succeeds rather than the next. But all the paintings that he has done throughout the years share the same powerful quality. They are unforgettable. In the war poet’s words, “We will remember them.”
December 16, 1993