PRINT March 1994

Frayed Fraud

MY INITIAL REACTION TO the exhibition “Lucian Freud: Recent Work,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this winter, was an almost visceral repugnance. It was a malaise brought on by a combination of undistinguished painting and bad faith, tricked out with surely the most ostentatious hype ever lavished on a living artist: a veritable “blizzard of blague,” to borrow the words of Hilton Kramer, a critic whose words I do not borrow often. As I revisited the show, it became clear that Freud’s achievement rests on a traditional and complacent belle peinture—not even so beautiful at that, but often dull and muddy—deployed in the service of a trendy imagery of apparent sexual subversiveness. I say “apparent” because at no time does Freud ever challenge the most banal clichés of class, age, and gender, or call into question the stereotypes that keep them in place. On the contrary: the exhibition embodies the rappel à l’ordre at its most authoritarian and patriarchal, spiced with a dash of transgressiveness in the form of spread thighs and drooping penises.

Camden Town, Augustus John, and Stanley Spencer are the pictorial ancestors of this art, not Titian, Goya, and Watteau, as many critics would have it. Provincial and literary at once, Freud’s art suffers deeply in comparison to that of his near-contemporary compatriot, the late Francis Bacon, who invented a highly individual language of extremity to body forth a powerful if uneven sexually charged imagery. Freud’s language, on the other hand, is retardataire, his conception of things and human beings monotonous. His figures are lacquered over with a false lushness, in which we are supposed to understand that scumble stands for angst, odd angles of vision for alienation. In some of the latest work, sheer enormity of scale, and the bravura refusal of the model—the now famous, or infamous, Leigh Bowery—to simply lie down and be painted, endow the image with a perverse and engaging liveliness. The same cannot be said, though, for the truly horrible Evening in the Studio, 1993, in which Mr. Freud lets us know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of women who are no longer “girls” and have the temerity to take their clothes off in front of him: neither Titian nor Velásquez comes to mind, but Ivan Albright at his scariest.

Freud’s patronizing view of gays and women is of course descended from the gender stereotyping that marked earlier recalls to “order.” Women—young women, that is (“girls,” I imagine Freud and his circle would call them)—are often blonde, almost always nude, deployed in passively splayed poses, pinkish about the cheeks and the genitalia; men—gay men, that is—are either nude and passive or nude and monstrous. “Real” men, meanwhile, like Sir Jacob Rothschild (Man in a Chair, 1989), are clothed, seated in portrait poses, and accorded the dignity of individuality, their wrinkles and irregularities standing for “character.” In a portrait of an older woman (Woman in a Butterfly Jersey, 1990–91), on the other hand, wrinkles stand for decay, what time has wrought on tender flesh. In Freud’s simpleminded taxonomy, an old woman, or a fat woman, can only be grotesque.

So engaged with the figure and its foibles is Freud in these later works, so entranced with odd and estranging angles of vision, that he loses all sense of the pictorial surface as a totality. The omnipresent pile of rags in his studio may be useful as cut-rate allegory (Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick,” etc.), but one suspects it has another function—as a textured, readymade space-filler. For this is an artist whose main focus is the body in isolation, and who doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the odd bits of canvas left over.

Why then the enormous psychic investment on the part of so many patrons, critics, and curators? First of all, genuine admiration for genuine gifts. There are some good paintings there, and taking them in small doses, and on a small scale, one cannot deny Freud’s achievement. Man’s Head and Arm, 1988, is a formal and expressive triumph, with its lovely adjustments of the parallel curves of the quilt to the arc of the pillow and the larger curves and hooks of the profile, its delicate handling of flesh and hair, the inventive way the neck emerges in the corner of the canvas. Some of the earlier work is impressive: Interior at Paddington, 1951, for example, a mercilessly objective self-portrait, Neue Sachlichkeit in its inspiration, in which the human subject is decisively overshadowed by an intricately spiky potted palm. But such achievements scarcely account for the degree and amount of uncritical adulation lavished on Freud’s production. There must be some unconscious or ideological factors at play here—one of them perhaps being that the art-world position vacated by the death of Picasso is still waiting to be filled by the most likely candidate.

Indeed, in terms of both style and persona, Freud plays the Great White Western Male Artistic Genius to perfection. After the various aberrations of post-Modernism, his work offers a return to Real, Heroic human values—angst-ridden to be sure, but still that old sexy, scumbly, all-too-human flesh. (And certainly, besides being a token of painterly prowess, Freud’s signature scumble—on faces and bodies, primarily, rather than on clothes or drapery—is a sign of the flesh’s mortality.) Like Picasso, this candidate for the art world’s leading role is a real man—seducer of women, progenitor of children (legitimate and not), volcanic of temperament, unlimited by the rules that tie poor ordinary people down to moral behavior, an artist who feels free to look where and how he will, who can consort with all types, from aristos and high Bohemia to marginalia and riffraff. In the most extreme paroxysms of the critical mythomania, it is even hinted that like Renoir, his predecessor in flesh-painting, he “paints with his penis”—a figure of speech, of course, but a powerful one. Like Greta Garbo, according to the numerous articles about him, he craves, and insists on, the most absolute privacy—always the surest way to get people interested in every detail of your life. This is Great Artist behavior of the most classic kind.

Yet unlike Great Artists of the immediate past—Picasso, for example, or Jackson Pollock—Freud cannot extend his role-playing to the realm of genuine pictorial invention. Rather, he resorts to visual sensationalism. Hence the omnipresence of head-on crotch views—male and female beaver shots, as it were, or, borrowing from Sylvia Plath, perhaps “giblet shots” is more apposite in the case of the males. I would have thought Cindy Sherman had demystified that bit of naughtiness with her prosthesis photos, but this is obviously not the case. Freud’s representation of the male genitalia makes one wonder why his grandfather believed so fervently in penis envy: why would anyone not already encumbered with one want that pathetic, flaccid, droopy excrescence? Of course, Freud grandpère referred not to the literal organ but to its symbolic power: penis as phallus. And certainly Lucian Freud’s reputation suggests his allegiance to that notion.

It is hard to imagine Freud positioning anyone without a penis—e.g., a woman artist—in as triumphant a creative position as the man who poses before us naked, a palette knife in his hand, in Painter Reflecting, 1993. Despite his token obeisance to the humility of van Gogh’s boots, Freud seems in this self-portrait literally to “reflect” the mythology constructed about him; heavy with Rembrandtian overtones, this is a portrait of the aging artist as the traditional old master. The imperious claims of the artistic ego have triumphed over the demands of the challenge faced by the realist painter—to transform the visible world into image on surface in an interesting and novel way. In his nude—no, naked—self-portrait, the aging painter reveals "himself’ to his audience: flabby but powerful, armed with palette knife and penis, the pathos of his fading physical strength allegorically deployed to contrast with his undiminished creative powers.

I put “himself” in quotation marks because, in the age of Cindy Sherman, Painter Reflecting seems more ludicrous than fraught with fading grandeur. Freud still subscribes to what Fredric Jameson has described as “the mirage of the continuity of personal identity, the organizing unity of the psyche or the personality . . . the notion of the organic unity of the work of art.”1 Sherman knows, as Freud doesn’t, that a portrait of the artist is not a “self” but a representation; just taking your clothes off, instead of putting them on, doesn’t make it any less a fictive construction. But it is the business of ideology, and of an artist like Freud, to hide the telltale cracks and fissures along the boundaries between so-called experience and its representation on canvas beneath a veil of unifying, self-expressive pigmentation, to pretend that there is some direct and privileged relationship between the marks on the canvas and what the artist feels and sees. This is precisely the persiflage that Sherman reveals and brings to the surface with such relentless wit in her “History Portraits” series, and that Freud conceals in his self-aggrandizing self-portrait and in his oeuvre as a whole.



1. Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, p. 8.