PRINT October 1987


LUCIAN FREUD IS one of those artists whose work seems difficult to discuss, both for critics and for the painter himself. “I don’t like talking about my work—it feels unnatural,” Freud wrote to me recently; “I’m not much interested in talking of what I’ve done, because it’s done. And I feel guarded about what I am trying to do now.” Still, a fair amount has been written about Freud in the forty-odd years since he began to exhibit. We get Lucian Freud, realist painter: the artist who, through all the swells and changes of art since World War II, through Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism and Conceptualism, through Pop and Op and on, has basically stuck to a small range of traditional genres—the portrait, the landscape, the still life. And we get Lucian Freud, technician: his brushwork, his use of this or that pigment to achieve a certain effect, his palette, his draftsmanship, and so forth. We get Lucian Freud the man: born in 1922 in Berlin, the son of an architect and the grandson of Sigmund Freud, an émigré to England while still a boy. Finally, in the painter Lawrence Gowing’s monograph on Freud, we get many of the few remarks he has made publicly on his art, and these, in the absence of any longer statement of intent, achieve almost the status of aphorisms. This is an artist who believes that his work is better understood through looking at it than through anything he might say.

Over the years Freud has meant many different things to many different people. Seen when he was young as a potential Rimbaud risking burnout,1 in the ’50s he was interpreted as a combiner of 19th-century form and 20th-century angst. Later, with the accession of the new media, pared-down or dematerialized objects, and experimentation of the ’60s and ’70s, to some he stood for the dogged traditionalist ploughing the old realist field. Readings like these come and go with the times, and hold varying degrees of interest for later eras. Today, Freud’s work—removed by a generation or more and so not a presence from which it is necessary to break away—clearly holds enormous fascination for the art community, notably the younger critics and the latest generation of figurative artists. Yet all these responses over the years have been aroused by the same central core in his imagery.

My own fascination with Lucian Freud began with Naked portrait, 1972–73, in the Tate Gallery, London—a nude young woman sprawled on a threadbare bed. The two main foci of the composition, which lie on a horizontal axis in the middle of the picture, are her face and groin. The painting draws us in, involving us in its intimacy and at least initially disconcerting us through its plain straightforwardness about the body. Freud’s subjects often seem uninterrupted in their privacy. Many of them face us but don’t meet our eyes, instead looking thoughtfully downward or to the side. Their position withdraws them from us at the same time that they are realized as strongly particular and present. Usually, they are shown stripped of trappings—without their possessions, in the studio or against a neutral background instead of in their homes, often naked. The process might seem to brutalize or deprive them, but instead it is a way of confronting them in their most irreducible being. That is why Ned, 1961, untypical of Freud’s portraits in that it is of a baby rather than an adult, is also perhaps paradigmatic among his paintings: a mortal being shown not only without the material accompaniments we drag with us through our days, but minus history, minus narrative, minus all but life.

Part of the interest Freud holds for the painters of the last ten years, one suspects, lies in the issues his work raises of the place of drawing in painting—we’ve seen a lot of line in painting lately, in the use of outline, layering, and recently the silhouette. The line in the pictures from the first part of Freud’s life leans toward the descriptive in its conception—in paintings as well as in drawings, the artist was deliberately working in the drafting tradition, as a consequence, he has said, of a “total lack of natural talent” that he saw drawing and accurate observation as a way of overcoming.2 (In this respect, as Robert Melville has written, Freud was “about as untalented as Aubrey Beardsley”;3 if all the painter’s statements are as misleading, we may feel quite at ease about making do without them.) In these works Freud devotes equal attention to the details and to the essentials, to the lacy frill of a dress, a bead curtain, a cane chair-back as much as to eyes, mouth, hair. And he tends to play down the modulation of surface or texture, of shadow or light, giving his pictures a flat, iconic look. This is not always the case: the portrait of Christian Bérard, 1948, in black and white conté crayon, enjoys all the highlighting of surface that drawing can deploy, and all the delicate passages of shading in gray, as the focus of the picture moves from the rendering of this idiosyncratic face to the top of Bérard’s robe to his pillow and out to the background. (The strongly particularized face recalls the portraits of Jan van Eyck.) Generally speaking, however, one can say that these earlier images are carved by line rather than modeled and built up by color.

Increasingly in the ’50s, and crystallizing around 1958–59, Freud’s canvases are less defined by the “linear” and involve more of the “painterly,” to use the terms that Heinrich Wölfflin made popular. In Woman smiling, 1958–59, the surface is heavily worked and modeled, and a series of paintings from 1960 makes the development more than just occasional. Freud does not forsake his earlier approach, nor does he really subjugate the line. He continues to work with the language of drawing in his painting, and also with drawings per se. But the line has become more painterly, and is modeled rather than led by outline; it has basically moved to a looser calligraphy. Baudelaire, in his essay on the Salon of 1846, makes a distinction between the colorist and the draftsman:

It is possible to be both a colorist and a draftsman, but only in a certain sense. Just as a draftsman can be a colorist by broad. masses, so a colorist can be a draftsman by a logical understanding of lines as total shape, but one of these two qualities will always absorb the detail of the other.4

What Freud shows in his later work is the possibility over 100 years later of overcoming the hierarchy implicit in Baudelaire’s view that one approach or the other must have the upper hand. The line of a profile gathers what otherwise is almost an abstract color field into a face; a painting combines expressive brushwork and minuteness of detail, as well as a learned awareness of art history. All this would be interesting but somewhat academic were it not for the way of Modem vision it implies.

In 1954, Herbert Read referred to Freud as “the Ingres of Existentialism.”5 There is indeed a lot of Ingres in the artist’s oeuvre. Existentialism was certainly the stuff that intellectual conversation was made of in the postwar years, and Freud has always been a man of his time. But the impression one gets from Freud’s paintings is not of the rather abstract debates that Existentialism engendered—on the precedence of existence over essence, for example—but rather, and quite simply, of showing something that makes us all anxious—the condition of being alone. We see that being alone is not just the province of isolate people, but is a basic condition of life. It is also the terrifying price of freedom—the more separate one is from the culture’s enslavements, the more alone one is. This is the sense in which the work is Existentialist: in the feeling that it conveys of having to stand alone rather than accepting the illusion of shelter from any god or system, and of the isolation inseparable from the freedom gained by refusing to have that illusion of shelter imposed upon one. This feeling is so omnipresent as a part of the experience of this century, in fact, that often it seems that Freud finds it in those he looks at even when one suspects that it wasn’t part of the sitter’s conscious projection to the painter. The sense of the alone and separate in Freud’s work extends to cityscapes and still lifes, to his various images of animals and plants, but it is most acute in his paintings of people. In these, the fact that the nudes, faces, and clothed busts are without accoutrements—minus all those material things about them that would determine a narrative reading of who they are—acutely emphasizes their aspect of basic condition.

Melville writes that in Woman smiling Freud “takes no account of human pride. He finds or invents a fearsome tattoo of blood clots under the skin. I wish he had fallen for Modigliani instead of Soutine.”6 Melville has struck something fascinating here. Freud may not have “fallen” for Amedeo Modigliani, but he had probably thought as much. about Modigliani and his vision of portraiture as about Soutine. Many of the early portraits—Girl in white dress, Girl in dark jacket, and Girl with a kitten, all 1947; Man at night (self-portrait) and Girl with roses, both 1947–48; and Girl with leaves, 1948, for example, bust-length figures, viewed sometimes frontally, sometimes obliquely, against a neutral background—are iconic rather than physiognomic. They have still and calm expressions and, often, large and staring eyes. The format is as simple as it is effective; we find the same kind of iconicity in the Coptic portraits of Al-Faiyum, in the sixth-century Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna’s San Vitale church and elsewhere in Byzantine art, in 15th-century Flemish and Venetian painting, and of course in Modigliani. No doubt Freud has thought as much about pre-Moderns as about Francis Bacon, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and the other 20th-century artists with whom he has been compared in the past. When he was asked to choose 29 paintings for the series of exhibitions called “The Artist’s Eye,” at the National Gallery, London, earlier this year, his selection embraced seven by Rembrandt, three by Constable, three by Degas, and two by Ingres, one of them that archetypal Ingres portrait Madame Moitessier, 1856.

Traditionally, and still today, the portrait fell roughly into two types either it was commissioned by the affluent as a way of memorializing themselves and those dear to them, and as a kind of status symbol—the squire shown with his horses—or it was a kind of journalism, a means of describing to the aristocratic audience, for its interest and entertainment, the characters of other classes with whom it had little social contact. Today, of course, a century and a half into the history of photography, the portrait is much more democratic, available to almost anyone who wants one. Yet even within Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. photography, beside those countless images in countless wallets of countless husbands, wives, and children, the commemoration of the rich and famous and the display of the poor still retain their hegemony in portraiture. And although the indiscriminateness of the photograph, its compulsion to render visual everything in its field, can offer a departure from the carefully selected objects and carefully staged scenes of the conventional portrait, there remains in contemporary portraiture, both photographic and otherwise, a pressure toward this kind of selection and staging, as a means of supplementing the presence of the sitter with an implied narrative about his or her life. We have also seen, however, an opposite approach in the work of some Modem and contemporary photographers and portrait painters, who choose instead a stark and empty background.

Freud’s oeuvre does include some implications in images of men in suits, and once in a while there is a partial environment, but most often, in a paradoxically revelatory procedure for a portrait painter, he gets rid of the accoutrements of identity. Even his sitter’s name may be discarded: a handful of his subjects are identified in a painting’s title by their full name, but others are given their first name only, and by far the majority become “naked girl,” “the big man,” “sleeping head,” “night portrait,” and other exercises in basics. It is as though the painter wanted to extend to the sitter the privacy that he preserves for himself, or to sever the portrait from the public person with whom it might be compared for likeness, and so to liberate it from its duty to imitate, allowing it to exist more purely as a demonstration of a way of looking at another human being. Integral to the images themselves is the nakedness of the sitter, whether metaphoric or, particularly in the work since 1960, literal. The full-figure unclothed men and women of Freud’s paintings are as radical an address of the genre of the nude as his heads and busts are of the portrait.

Kenneth Clark has drawn a distinction between the “naked” body—in which we are “deprived of our clothes,” with all the implications of embarrassment, disillusion, and invasion that that can bring—and the “nude” body, which Clark considered not “the subject of art but a form of art.”7 The nude as a form of art—as we have inherited it from classical sculpture—is an idealized object of esthetic contemplation, usually stripped of its subjecthood. The privacy Freud builds into the atmosphere around his subjects takes care that while they may be naked they will not be invaded by the viewer. One feels that they weren’t embarrassed when they got undressed. Another idea of Baudelaire’s, and another reference to Ingres, is appropriate here: “A peculiar . . . fact about the talent of M. Ingres,” Baudelaire writes, “is that . . . he paints [women] as he sees them, loving them too much, it would seem, to want to change them in any way.”8 Looking at the classically perfect face and the slightly ungainly, large-hipped and small-shouldered woman’s body in Odalisque, n.d., one feels Ingres’ conflicting desires to paint what he saw and what he had inherited in his conception of beauty. One can easily perceive in this distinction an extension of the old dichotomy between nature and culture. What is interesting in Freud’s work is the way he leans toward nature without undermining the personality, in part the product of experience in culture, of the sitter. The bodily beings in his paintings are unsupported by the props of their lives, but with the loss of those things they have not lost their identities. They lie on his studio couch or bed, or perhaps on a blanket on the floor, unclothed but not “deprived of clothes,” nude but in no way idealized, intact and entire. Freud’s paintings are frank, willing to go the distance from the “ideal” (or more accurately from the tyranny of the ideal) to the humanness that is in the end so common to all of us—the “beautiful” parts, the “ugly” parts, the “ordinary” parts. The works’ honesty about the human body, and the combination of attentiveness and sensuousness with which they treat it, are what make the paintings so intimate. More than the matter-of-factness of Freud’s description of flesh, veins visible under the skin, and other “imperfections,” it is this intimacy, I think, that disturbs some viewers of the work. The presence of his subjects is concrete and incontrovertible. Today, when the issue of the simulacrum, the copy, the appearance of self without the actuality of it impinges so on our consciousness, Freud somehow seems able still to see a self in those he paints.

The great majority of Freud’s models are people he knows personally. His presence is perceptible in the paintings. It can he guessed in the face of the woman in Naked girl, 1966, who lies on her back and watches someone we cannot see. In Naked portrait, the painter’s palette and brushes lie conspicuously on a stool in the front of the picture, and we look over them to the woman curled uncomfortably on the bed. In Naked portrait with reflection, 1980, the painter actually stalks in the background, visible as a pair of shoes and trousered shins reflected in the mirror behind the couch where lies the sitter. Both Naked girl asleep I and II, 1967 and 1968 respectively, increase the delicacy and subtlety of this implicit relationship between painter and subject: on the one hand the artist is more removed, more absent than he is elsewhere, for the woman is asleep, and thus unaware of him; on the other, she has allowed his presence when she is at her most vulnerable, and the feeling of intimacy becomes more acute.

This tension in Freud’s work—between closeness and distance, encounter and isolation—is constant. If the artist sees people as existentially alone, he also finds poignancy and moment in the way they stand in relation to each other. A relatively small but significant number of his paintings are “double portraits,” to quote the title of a painting from 1985–86; the fact that what is seen in this picture is not two people but a woman and her dog makes the work no less about companionship. Animals in fact appear quite frequently in Freud’s oeuvre, and have as much personality and as much strong presence as the humans they accompany. In Girl with a kitten the woman looks somewhat abstractedly off to the side while the cat she is holding by the neck, almost as if it were a wine glass, stares straight at the viewer, in skeptical assessment. Naked man with rat, 1977, shows a man lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling; his expression is pained, and we feel sympathy for him, until, startled, we notice the rat he holds against the couch, its tail draped on his leg in a visual rhyme with his penis, and we are pushed away again. Often when Freud shows two beings together there is a wonderful warmth and closeness. However, he keeps the sense of individual presence, and therefore, with the togetherness, we cannot forget their separateness, the space between them even when they are in contact. In Annie and Alice, 1975, the two women rest naked on a bed. One has her eyes closed, as if asleep, and her hand lies peacefully on the waist of the other. But this second woman, who is pregnant, has her back to the lighter-haired woman behind her, and her eyes are anxiously awake. The painting, like many others of Freud’s large work, leaves an intuition of the preciousness of the life integral in the human body, and of the fragile but equally precious energy that runs between body and body and constitutes the knowledge we have of people not ourselves.

Sanda Miller is a writer who lives in London. She is completing a book on Constantin Brancusi.


1. See John Russell, Lucian Freud, London: the Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974, exhibition catalogue, p. 7.
2. Ibid., p. 10
3. Robert Melville, “Brief Spell,” The New Statesman, London, February 1 1974, p. 161.
4. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” in Selected Writings on Art and Artists, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1981, p. 59
5. Quoted in Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London: Thames and Hudson, 1982, p. 29.
6. Melville, ibid., p. 161.
7. Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, New York: Pantheon Books, 1956, pp. 3 and 5.
8. Baudelaire, ibid., p. 82.

An exhibition of Freud’s work, “Lucian Freud: Paintings,” can be seen at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., until November 29. It will travel to the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, from December 14 to January 24 1988; to the Hayward Gallery, London, from February 11 to April 18; and to the Neue Nationalgalerie, West Berlin, from May 6 to June 26.