New York

Lucian Freud

Museum of Modern Art/Marlborough Graphics

Among Lucian Freud’s earliest works, from the 1940s, are etchings that, while intimate, feel charged with a rough emotional urgency. The atmosphere recurs in etchings from the 1980s and later, as well as in his oils from the ’60s onward. As an emerging painter, Freud was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon’s disruptive (and as some theorists would have it, scatological) smear and, just as crucially, by Bacon’s sense of the innate perversity of being human. Like Bacon, Freud succeeds in turning his models’ bodies into a kind of painterly residue, recognizably human but still grossly material.

In contrast to a recent exhibition at Marlborough Graphics, which focused on the etchings Freud made from the 1980s through the present day (sixteen were featured, the earliest dated 1984, the latest 2006), a concurrent show at the Museum of Modern Art dealt with the entire range of his etchings, comparing them with a select group of paintings—tamer than we’ve come to expect from Freud—that deal with the same themes and were made at the same time.

If, as his grandfather Sigmund Freud stated, “one of the principal functions of our thinking [is] to master the material of the external world psychically,” then Lucian Freud seems obsessed with doing so materially. This seems the point of his depictions of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, two obese models whom he has often painted: As the body is stretched to its quantitative limits, it becomes absurdly material. Freud (Lucian, that is) is fascinated with fleshy abundance, but also, if less consciously, with the fact that such weight makes it difficult to maintain the “erect posture” that his grandfather said separated human beings from their “earlier animal existence.” This is perhaps why “Big Sue” and many of Lucian Freud’s other models are often shown supine, their animal parts—genitals—exposed, implicitly the emotional (and sometimes literal) center of the picture.

Freud’s figures are unmistakably sexual beings and his faces, however ostensibly civilized, seem haunted by a discontented animality, as in Head of an Irishman, 1999 (shown at MoMA) and The New Yorker, 2006 (included in the MoMA and Marlborough shows). However socially proper, as their clothing indicates, they have the odd impropriety of emotional misfits, the animal in them just barely under control. It makes sense, then, that a favorite subject of Freud’s is his pet dog Pluto; the artist seems fascinated by the animal, perhaps because its emotions are as naked and obvious as its body. It is worth noting that Freud once wanted to be a jockey and has always expressed an affinity for animals, at least as an ideal mode of being to which human beings are sometimes able to regress. He also identifies with nature at large, as in his wonder-filled Garden in Winter, 1997–99.

Freud’s titles seem to indicate that some of the people portrayed are meant to read as national and social types as well as specific individuals. The more personal his relationship with them, the more individualized they become. They also tend to look more individual—uniquely themselves—when they are etched rather than when they are painted. The MoMA exhibition invited us to compare paintings and etchings, and to my eye the latter are the winners in terms of expressive power, the paintings seeming to hark back to the muted look of the 1940s prints.

The faces and bodies in the more recent etchings are given a certain blunt presence by way of their vigorous lines, which often spread into atmospheric cross-hatching even as they delineate the figure with what can only be described as sadistic relish. While the lines often convey the wear and tear that comes to flesh with age, they also sometimes seem on the verge of becoming unmanageably harsh. Again paradoxically, Freud’s handling in his etchings often seems more uncannily and aggressively “painterly” than it does in his paintings. This is certainly the case with respect to the lackluster painting After Chardin (Large), 1999, and the triumph of the Marlborough exhibition (a paler version appeared at MoMA), the etching After Chardin, 2000. The intricate lines of the latter outclass the bland painting, which does matter-of-fact justice to the Chardin rather than using it, as the etching does, as a springboard to aesthetic transcendence.

Donald Kuspit