Lucian Freud, who just died on July 20, 2011, devoted his long career to painting figures and portraits from life, perfectly ignoring all the art-world trends of his era.
Many of his images are of people and/or animals sleeping. He always painted directly from live models, often friends or family members rather than professionals, and he worked very slowly, so the sleeping poses may be an accommodation to the models. I am struck, though, by the sense of struggle and intensity in these works. Freud’s paint has the writhing quality of Goya’s horrors or El Greco’s spiritual transports, but in pictures of people simply relaxing on beds and sofas. I think the sense of agitation arises from Freud’s own restless struggle to see more deeply and to capture in paint the intensity of his own visual experience. For Freud, every canvas was a wrestling match against a powerful foe.
The fleshiness of his painting can be a distraction. I got a better understanding of the energy of Freud’s searching eye by looking at his etchings, where the quality of movement stands out. Most portraitists view their sitters across a distance. Freud’s perceptual focus hikes over his subjects like a surveyor mapping a territory. He treats the figure as a landscape, to be explored by touch and movement.
Freud loved animals, and he often shows his own dogs posing with his models. He told William Feaver, who wrote a book about Freud’s work, “I’m really interested in people as animals. Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more, and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.”
Lucian Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the progenitor of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud spent hundreds of hours with his subjects lying on a couch, trying to penetrate the hidden recesses of the mind through dreams and free association. Lucian Freud also spent hundreds of hours with his subjects lying on a couch, but he kept an intense focus on the surface. I think he felt that the physical body, truly seen, could reveal hidden depths. Surely Lucian Freud’s work reveals depths, although, as with Sigmund’s work, it could be argued that those depths belong to Freud more than they do to his subjects.
Freud said, “My work is purely autobiographical… It is about myself and my surroundings. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I know.” Given the necessity of spending a great deal of time with his sitters, he wouldn’t work with anyone unless he genuinely liked that person. Still, he absolutely avoided any sentimentality or idealization. Freud’s subjects had to accept that he would portray their every flaw, that he would reveal their mortality.
While Freud, as far as I know, never worked from photographs, some of his models were photographed while posing for his paintings, which gives us an excellent way of seeing where he exaggerates and what he emphasizes.
The painting above is one of Freud’s best-known works, having set a record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist when it was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for 33.6 million dollars. Notice how much older the model appears in the painting than in the photograph. He seems to have made her more obese and more splotchy.
Many figurative painters do the opposite, omitting bruises and calluses and visible veins, subtly idealizing the body. And many people are repelled by Freud’s figures, with their sexuality and mortality so blatantly on display. Speaking for myself, this is the very aspect of Freud’s work that gives it spiritual power. It is the essence of the human condition that we are spiritual beings manifested in animal bodies that experience fear and desire, suffering and decay. I see this as the quality of art that Federico Garcia Lorca calls duende, the life force intensified by the closeness of death.
Freud’s earlier work, such as the portrait below of Lady Caroline Blackwood, lacks the blotchy impasto of his later work, but there is already a kind of magical realism, with enlarged eyes and expressive distortions.
Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” You can see this principle not only in the individual works, but across the artist’s entire oeuvre. The later work is unquestionably more abstract, the strokes wilder and freer, but they also have a living presence that is much stronger than in the earlier work.
The face below is surely distorted, yet you can see the intensity of the artist’s perception in every thick stroke. There is a kind of aura, a powerful presence that cannot be achieved by working from photographs and fretting over accuracy.
Freud said, “Perhaps when you have the sort of temperament that is always looking for flaws and trouble it might stop you from having what you always want, which is to be as audacious as possible. One has to find the courage to keep on trying not to paint in a stale or predictable way.”
I’ll conclude this post with two of my favorite Freud nudes. Night Portrait, above, finds beauty in a pose that seems to be both resting and running, and in the textural contrast between the body and the quilt. Naked Man, Back View, one of Freud’s many paintings of the model Leigh Bowery, also well known as a performance artist and costume designer, suggests an interior life through the turned-away display of a mountainous back.
All the images in this post were found on the web. Clicking on the pictures links to the pages where I found them. The Lucian Freud quotes were also found on the web. All the quote sites seem to have a similar collection of Freud quotes, unfortunately not sourced.