The Flash of the Blade

Musée du Louvre, Paris
Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–1819

I enjoyed an essay about Lucian Freud that Julian Barnes published in 2013—a piece brought together with sixteen others on art and artists in his collection Keeping an Eye Open. I confess that one reason I kept muttering “Well judged!” as I read it was that its comments about Freud’s work as a painter corresponded pleasingly to those in an essay on the artist that I myself contributed to these pages back in 2008. Remarking on Freud’s midcareer lurch toward the influence of Francis Bacon, or on the way that the tortuous stylisms of Freud’s later portraiture are thrown into relief by other people’s photographs of the sitters, or on his greater empathy with still life subjects, Julian the celebrated British novelist seemed, whether by coincidence or design, to walk step by step with Julian the British part-time art writer.

Barnes, however, had unlike me “met Freud a few times” before the artist’s death in 2011, and these memories sharpen his account, lending it the edge that fills a room when two nervy males enter it and circle it for advantage. Barnes was “struck by the fact that [Freud] never smiled, neither on meeting, nor at any point in the conversation when any other, ‘normal’ person might smile: it was classic controller’s behavior, designed to unsettle.” Barnes’s bid to posthumously outflank the painter leans on Breakfast with Lucian, an indiscreet memoir by the journalist Geordie Greig. Not only will Greig’s gossip “do Freud’s personal reputation harm,” Barnes declares, it will “harm the way we look at some of his paintings, and perhaps harm the paintings themselves.” He transcribes two tales of Freud’s misogyny too demeaning to bear further repetition and submits that

once we know these two stories, we can’t unknow them, and they seem to change—or, for some, confirm—the way the female nudes are to be read…. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?

“Can’t unknow”: what more could art writing aspire to than to make such an indelible dent on “the paintings themselves”? The butchering of Freud is all the more stylish for the sagacious shrug with which Barnes’s closing paragraph extracts the blade: “Perhaps, in time, all this will cease to matter. Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” Until that day, however, Barnes’s censorious vocal performance, his scolding more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, will linger resoundingly in his readers’ ears. Now in two senses, it has to be said, this Freud essay is uncharacteristic of Barnes’s collection: it is not his habit to disparage the painters on whom he focuses, and the only other Londoner he writes about here is the late Howard Hodgkin, a friend he saluted in 2003 with…

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