PRINT March 1994

Fresh Freud

This week, the editors look back at two responses to the work of British painter Lucian Freud—one written by Donald Kuspit, the other by Linda Nochlin—that appeared in Artforum’s March 1994 issue. “Lucian Freud: Real Lives” is currently on view at Tate Liverpool until January 16, 2022.

In December 1993, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened “Lucian Freud: Recent Work,” a large-scale exhibition of the painter’s latest portraits. The artist was then seventy-one and had been both celebrated and reviled at various times and by various minds over his storied career. Some found his flesh-forward depictions strikingly unsentimental, born of a preternatural-clear eye for human complexity. Others saw cruelty, callousness, and believed Freud to be little more than an artistically accomplished creep. On the occasion of the Met show, Artforum invited two scholar-critics, Donald Kuspit and Linda Nochlin to weigh in on his place in the art world: their takes were published side-by-side under the titles “Fresh Freud” and “Frayed Freud,” respectively. Although each writer offers a vivid report—Kuspit understanding that the artist’s “realism is redeemed by a quasi-psychoanalytic purpose,” Nochlin declaring her first response to the show was “an almost visceral repugnance”—it is the pair read together that give the reader the closest thing to a whole picture of the artist’s oeuvre.

—The Editors


THE BODIES ARE NAKED and displayed in odd poses, as though they were inherently odd “constructions,” or else arbitrary arrangements—as if Lucian Freud were reinforcing their “expressiveness” by giving their parts, and particularly their appendages, a disjointed, askew look. Where have we seen this before, if in a tamer, less contorted and conflicted—less modern—version? Where have we seen less poisonous, more gracious versions of these odalisques, which look like the victims of a strange mental accident caused by some hit-and-run part of the psyche? Laid out in the studio morgue, they wait for its autopsy. The loins are central—no doubt another modern touch, emblematic of modernity’s interest in sexuality without the sugarcoating of romance; “demystified,” purely anatomical sexuality. But however uninhibited, the loins—male and female—are always confined within the figure’s tightly closed outline, suggesting anxiety about complete, clinical exposure. Though famous for his interrogation of the figure, Freud doesn’t really want it to surrender all its secrets—or maybe he doesn’t know that it has any secrets. The body, after all, is by definition physical, however psychologically suggestive, even symptomatic, its vulnerable pose seems to be.

This ambiguous attitude to the body is also familiar. We have seen it before, if less disguised by paint (Freud’s paint is applied heavily, and with calculated harshness, until it violently contradicts the plane of the canvas) and less unmasked (that harshness adds sadistic bite to his observation). We have seen it in Ingres’ grand odalisques and harem scenes, with their air of perversity made quaint and stylish. Freud’s abruptly foreshortened perspectives, which shoot the bodies diagonally into empty space, as though burying them at sea; his collapsing cots, as pedestrian as the nakedness of the figures on them—these seem a long way from Ingres. They are Ingres-like, though, in their clear, curious dispassion—for all the pseudopassion of the twisting, uncomfortable bodies—and in their attempt to create, as Freud says Ingres did, the illusion of “something unreachable.” But if Freud is Ingres existentialized, as Herbert Read suggests, he is also Ingres without a utopian fantasy of pleasure—without Ingres’ sense of the revelation the body hides. Freud has replaced Ingres’ illusion of luxury and pleasure with the less grand and elaborate—indeed, reductively mean (hence modern)—illusion of anatomy as destiny. His is an Anglicized, leg-of-mutton realism, not unlike that of Stanley Spencer: the nude is reduced to edible (if still Oedipal) plain food. Only the vestige of Ingres’ idealism survives, like a hangover, in Freud’s collapsed, lukewarm outline and meatiness.

Freud was a draftsman before he began painting seriously—began struggling with paint as a recalcitrant medium rather than applying it as adornment to a drawing. It was the late Francis Bacon—a really existentialist, psychodynamically astute painter of the body—who in effect taught Freud to paint, and whose mantle Freud now wears. Freud is a more equivocal painter than Bacon was. We know the modern relevance of Bacon’s hysterical, holocaustal realism; what is the relevance of Freud’s? He may be the “greatest living realist,” as one critic exclaims, but is realism even viable today anyway?

Bacon’s realism follows, for all its painterliness, in the tradition of Manet. In Freud there seems to be a break with the Manet model of hard (if ironic and understated) realism. We can see that break coming in Bacon, who is more aware of internal reality than Manet was: Bacon’s ironical painterliness undermines his suggestions of his subjects’ external surfaces, and signals their inner states. He is ready to let external, collective reality go, until the external seems almost smothered by the internal. Though Freud tilts back somewhat in the direction of the collective social identity (Manet’s principal interest), he continues Bacon’s concern with the most fundamental inner reality. (Unlike Bacon, however, he is not completely successful in conveying it.) Where he really departs from Manet is in his lack of irony. Freud’s brand of realism clearly signals that Manet’s line has come to an end—that Manet’s irony no longer has any point. It has done its job, served its purpose—witnessed and told the truth, except for the truth that is always hard to disclose, and is in fact undisclosable by irony: the deepest truth of inwardness.

Manet’s realism equivocally straddled painting and photography, but finally, however indirectly, it tilted more to photography (that is, to its conventional 19th-century formulation as matter-of-fact, almost routine description), for it seemed to destroy or at least undermine the act of painting as such. Bacon’s realism also straddles that divide, but tilts decidedly toward painting; the photograph may be his starting point, but his painting obliterates it. Freud’s realism—however insecure, even inadequate—completes Bacon’s move away from Manet by making the argument against photography explicit. Freud’s painterliness argues for the built-in sterility and human failure of photographic realism. For him, realist painting should charge its descriptions with impulsive affect, registering to a virtually “unlimited degree” the conscious and unconscious “feelings” aroused during the “transaction” between painter and model. The relationship between photographer and model—a relationship inherently mechanical and sterile, because mediated by a machine rather than a sensitive human hand—sparks such feelings only to a “tiny extent.”1

For Freud, the painter must overcome “the sitter’s power of censorship” by making him or her “uncomfortable.”2 The “expressive” result—the ambivalently libidinous and aggressive flow between sitter and painter, which “reveals” the human existence of both—is subtly registered by the painter’s hand, as by a seismograph. Attuning not only to the external reality of appearances but to the inner reality of feelings, the hand can synthesize them both in a gesture, a sign, that bespeaks the singularity not only of the sitter’s appearance but of the emotional transaction between sitter and painter. Freud’s murky, countertransferential feelings about his models are also evident, I believe, in the studio rags with which he often surrounds or supports them, as though to take possession of them, and more explicitly in the way he lords it over them from above, so that they appear fallen, dislocated, disoriented.

The thing is, Freud’s portraits always reveal the same thing. It must be his obsession, that is, a projection of his own most basic feeling—his basic sense of what it is to be human. What the sitters try to censor, and what Freud must reveal, is their borderline existence between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness. Freud symbolizes this by alternating from painting to painting between making their eyes open and closed, and by precarious arrangements of their bodies as “on the edge” of space—at risk. In his portraits of his mother, her alert, open eyes contradicting her static, even prematurely rigid body, she seems clearly aware of impending death—in fact already half dead. Indeed all Freud’s bodies are dead in all but name, as their grisly flesh suggests. They have been turned into semigrotesque still lifes (if less so than in Bacon’s more fatal, more fatalistic realism). They seem to be reflecting on the possibility of becoming authentic, even as anxiety undermines their authenticity—whispers to them that authenticity is no more than a minor defiance of death. Thrown and falling toward death, they are isolated, even when shown together, in pseudo-intimacy.

For Freud, then, realism is redeemed by a quasi-psychoanalytic purpose. Indeed, I think his realism was inspired by identification, conscious or unconscious, with his inescapable grandfather Sigmund. This is what gives it its edge. (His own name, after all, makes only partial sense apart from his grandfather’s.) For Lucian Freud, realism is relevant to the extent that it reveals the psychological depths, as distinct from the self’s social surface (to which he always does painterly violence, scrambling, even disintegrating it). Realism can do this not simply in the generalized, “universal” way of the best abstraction, but in a very particular way. Like Bacon, Freud wants to represent the reality of trauma—like the trauma he himself experienced as a boy who saw horses burned to death, and whose family moved to England to escape the Nazis, and who felt as out of place in polite English society as a wild horse, or as the uncanny zebra he clearly identified with in several of his early works. (He seriously thought of becoming a jockey, and his only sculpture is of a three-legged horse.)

He conformed for a while, making what were essentially drawings (“drawing room” works?)—works that “fitted in,” disguising his feelings of being a misfit. But then he had a midcareer crisis and breakdown. Now, he projects his sense of being fundamentally an outsider, a stranger, on his peculiarly self-estranged figures, with their “strange” poses and surfaces. Freud has said that the artist’s task is to make his sitter uncomfortable, but the inalienable uncomfortableness we sense in his paintings is his own, as projected onto the model. I think he saw Bacon as an outsider (because a homosexual), despite Bacon’s international success, and that he sees Leigh Bowery, a frequent model of his, as even more of one. (Not only is Bowery very fat, he is, in snobbish, xenophobic England, both a performance artist and an Australian. In Freud’s imagination, Bowery seems to have replaced the artist’s mother now that his real mother is dead; Freud’s obsession with Bowery’s “pregnant” body externalizes a desperate wish for rebirth in old age. Bowery’s performances in fact include a pretense at giving birth.) Freud’s identification with these men is his way of finding and accepting himself, as finally occurs in his 1993 Self-Portrait (Reflection), painted when he was 71.

For Freud, then, realism can still be used in the same discomfiting way that Manet used it. Manet’s quasi-photographic means may not work any more—after all, the camera too is now technologically retardataire—but paint endures. Paint can directly register trauma. The question for Freud’s audience is: however traumatic these paintings are, however overstimulated and conflicted their surfaces—are they relevant? Can what is internally relevant to the individual continue to be expressed in clichéd modern terms? Can it ever be realistically represented?

Donald Kuspit will be the Nova lecturer in art history at the 1994 meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. His next book, Primordial Presences: The Sculpture of Karel Appel, will be published later this year by Harry N. Abrams, New York.



1. Lucian Freud, quoted in Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud: Paintings, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987, pp. 18, 20.

2. Ibid., p. 19.