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Lucian Freud died on July 21 at the age of 88.
There is a red chair in an indistinct room. It stands alone. Hundreds of naked bodies have sat here or sprawled across it. Now its arms are frayed. The upholstery is stained black by contact with human skin. The painter is Lucian Freud. The chair is a fixture in his Paddington studio. It reappears over and over again in his paintings. Once the chair was a mere prop. Now it is the subject of a portrait. A nude of sorts, stripped of its usual human cover yet evoking the same sense of tired isolation found in Freud’s other paintings.
Lucian Freud has a thing about chairs and couches. So did his grandfather, Sigmund Freud. Sigmund probed the mind. Lucian is obsessed by the body. His interest in chairs and couches and beds derives from their proximity to the flesh, which is his unyielding concern as an artist.
And he is an artist of the first rank. I’ve come to admire Freud slowly, having resisted his work for many years. But the current retrospective of his paintings covering more than 50 years at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art settles the issue. He is our greatest living painter. Indeed, since the deaths of Francis Bacon, Willem DeKooning and Morris Graves there’s no one who is even close.
It didn’t start out that way. Freud’s early works are comparatively crude efforts, alternating between a kind of neo-realism and a surrealist approach. But from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic. Too much technique. And the concession must be made. Freud is very serious; his irony is dark and far from the flippant excretions of a Jeff Koons; and his is a master technician, cribbing from sources as varied as Egyptian painting and sculpture, Durer, Rembrant, Rubens, Chardin, Velasquez, Cezanne, Courbet and Bonnard.
Freud’s paintings take on an added urgency being seen during wartime. Remember that Freud is a child of war. He was born in Berlin in 1922. His father, Ernst, the second son of Sigmund Freud, was an acclaimed architect and amateur painter, who loved Hokusai, Durer and Degas. His mother, Lucie, was a well-educated daughter of a grain merchant. Both were Jews.
Lucian Freud grew up under the tightening grip of the Nazis. According to his mother, Freud’s first word was “alliene”-“leave me a lone.” This initial utterance would become an apt motto for much of his work.
It was a circumscribed and closely watched childhood. There were occasional visits to Vienna to visit his grandfather, where he played with Freud’s collection of Egyptian statues and laughed at cartoons. Freud was suffering from cancer of the jaw and young Lucian remembers the hole in his cheek. But by 1932, with Hitler now chancellor, the situation in Berlin had become intolerable for Jews and Ernst Freud, with the help of Marie Bonaparte, spirited the family away to London. Freud’s early Max Beckman-like painting, The Refugees, documents the paranoid and furtive existence of middle-class European Jews on the run from murderous thugs.
Sigmund Freud would hold out in Berlin until 1938, when he finally left for Hampstead. Lucian recalls visiting Freud in London, where they would laugh over the cartoons of Wilhelm Busch and Punch’s Fougasse. Freud also gave Lucien a print of Bruegel’s Seasons: Hunters in the Snow. But Lucian mainly remembers his grandfather taking him to see horses and secretly slipping him money.
Like other English school children of the 1940s, Lucien Freud endured the Blitz and the V-1 and V-2 rocket strikes on London. Fires, bomb craters and dead bodies were common sights in his adolescence. In the summer of 1944, his block was hit by a V-1 rocket, shattering his window, while one of his best early paintings, The Painter’s Room, sat unfinished on the easel. The Painter’s Room is a surrealist effort featuring a room with a couch, a potted palm tree, and zebra with blood-red stripes sticking its head through the window. The painting survived unscathed. But the brush with death seems to have jolted Freud. He moved away from stylized surrealism, owing much to the Italian Giorgio De Chirico, toward an extraordinary series featuring Kitty Garman, his first wife.
These paintings, which Freud says were influenced by his study of Ingres, are drained of color, the faces overwhelmed by large brooding eyes, the jaws clinched. The paintings are charged with an inexplicable tension. In Girl With a Kitten, a young woman with a baleful look grips a kitten by the throat. There’s no hint of violent intentions in the woman’s face, but the kitten seems on the verge of being strangled.
Two years later Freud painted Girl with Roses. The pose is nearly identical. Again Kitty Garman is the model. The same strange look haunts her face, this time with her lips slightly parted. Now she is tightly griping a long-stemmed rose, spiked with thorns. Our concern has shifted from the object being held to the woman herself.
Another painting from this period the strangely unsettling Interior in Paddington. A man is standing in a room, near a sickly palm tree growing from a cracked terra cotta pot. He is wearing a rain coat and thick glasses. His skin has a green cast to it, as unhealthy as the tree. He holds an unlit cigarette in his left hand, it dangles like a penis. His right hand is tightly balled into a fist. Outside the barred window is a young boy crouching against the wall of alley–a comicbook figure out of Fougasse.
Taken together, these post-war portraits present the troubled faces of the children of an empire that has slipped away: inward-looking, unsure, anxious. As such, they are perhaps an unsettling preview of the future faces of American youth.
Two other works from Freud’s early career stand out. One is called Dead Heron, a painting worthy of the great Morris Graves, who did a series of paintings of dead birds in the 1940s and 1950s. But where Graves’ birds seem like totemic creatures, Freud’s painting is an almost clinical study of the process of death and decay at work, the structure of the awesome bird crumpling into the canvas. But it is also a study of beauty. The outstretched wings are given a cubist treatment that almost puts them into motion. Call it the aesthetics of organic decay. As if to underscore this dissonance, Freud presents the decomposing heron upside down, as if hanging by its feet. It is a theme that Freud will return to again and again with his human subjects.
Then there is his striking 1952 sketch of the English painter Francis Bacon. Using an economy of sharp lines, Freud captures Bacon’s demonic leer. He could be beckoning someone in a back alley, his leather pants partially unzipped, his legs crossed provocatively, his shirt held open by unseen hands. A solicitation to danger.
Freud fell under Bacon’s spell. He painted him again later in the year: a small, Vermeer-like close up of Bacon’s face, painted on a glowing surface of copper. This compact masterpiece was stolen in 1984, when on loan from the Tate Gallery for an exhibition in Berlin. Bacon returned the favor by painting Freud, dressed in suit and tie, entering a dark room. The face on Lucian Freud’s body, however, is not Freud’s. It’s Franz Kafka, Freud’s favorite writer.
Freud and Bacon were close friends for more than twenty-five years. Bacon played the role of mentor. But eventually the prodigy surpassed the master. Bacon resented it. Bacon’s grotesques are shocking, but superficial. They have the quality of bad dreams or hallucinations. You know they’ll pass. You shiver and walk on. They don’t get under the skin the way Lucian Freud’s comparatively realistic paintings do. The more you look at Freud’s post-60s work the more disturbing it becomes.
By this time Freud had abandoned all vestiges of the surrealism that had informed his early work. His focus now was almost entirely on the form of living creatures, mainly humans, but also dogs, horses, plants. Indeed, Freud often entwines the bodies of animals with his human subjects, particularly his whippet Pluto. This is a dog of sinuous lines: he’s all legs, tail and twisting neck.
There is also, infamously, a rat, clinched in the hand a naked red-headed man, the thin tail of the rat lacing over the man’s thigh near his fat cock. Man with a Rat is apparently an inside joke, apparently, aimed at Freud’s friend and sometime model, the painter Katy McEwan, who raised Japanese lab rats. But the painting doesn’t feel the least funny. Unlike Bacon, who would have bathed the scene in blues and blacks, Freud gives us this despairing scene in full light, it’s all russets and reds. The despair is as plain as day.
Of course, as with his grandfather, what you get in Lucian Freud’s work are not the perversions of his models but of his own consciousness. And the same obsession keep asserting themselves. Freud imposes them on his subjects.
To be painted by Lucian Freud is to be subjected to a kind of aesthetic autopsy. His portraits are as unsparing as Goya’s. But unlike Goya, who savaged the ruling class even as he pocketed their commissions, Freud largely paints his most intimate acquaintances: friends, family, lovers, fellow artists, even a pregnant (and, for once, healthy looking) Kate Moss.
But Freud is equally unforgiving of his body. There are several self-portraits in the MOCA show. In Reflection (Self-Portrait), Freud’s grizzled face is shown in a grim and threatening profile, suggesting Gauguin’s famous devilish self-portrait. In Painter Working from 1993, Freud depicts himself standing nude in a dark room. It is an old man’s body. He is wearing curious, unlaced boots and nothing more. In his left hand he holds a palette. In his right hand, a palette knife, slightly raised, as if it were a switchblade. He looks like an aged Perseus, emerging from the gloom, with a bodkin and Medusa’s head, warning all onlookers about the dangers that await them.
“Painting myself is more difficult than painting people,” said Freud of this arresting self-portrait. “The psychological element is more difficult. The first day I reworked it, it turned out to be my father.” Chew on that, Freudians.
Lucian Freud’s paintings aren’t nudes. There is nothing idealized or romanticized about their form, putting them at striking odds with Los Angeles itself, a city which peddles the ideal with shameless zeal. Freud paints naked people. Nothing is hidden. Imperfections are relished, almost fetishized. And no quarter is given by the painter.
The flesh is raw. The skin of the subjects is achingly pale, the extremities often a scrubbed pink. The models are English and Irish mostly. Bodies deprived of sunlight. They look as if they were grown in these curtained rooms. In a sense, they were. The setting for nearly all of the paintings is his studio, as evidenced by the spatterings of paint on the floor and wall, the repetition of the same chair and bed, the same narrow window and its shade.
If light is the language of painting, then skin is the text of Lucian Freud. He obsessively paints each fold of flesh, traces each scar, zit, bluish vein, as if these are the marks the outside world has inflicted on the body. He also paints booze-reddened faces with an enthusiasm not seen since Franz Hals.
Many of the figures are asleep, exposed, vulnerable. You can’t help feel that they have in some way become Freud’s victims. The painter is a voyeur and he transfers this sensation to the viewer of the paintings. There is a slight sense of guilt in viewing Freud’s work, as if you are intruder in a private space. In one portrait of a nude woman sleeping, there is the shadow of a head on the floor. It is surely meant to be Freud’s. But it also becomes the viewer’s.
This painting is part of a series called Naked Girl Asleep. Each of these paintings reimagines what is arguably the most erotic painting in western art, Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. Courbet’s canvas shows a naked reclining woman, legs spread, vulva exposed. The painting was eventually acquired by the neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, the obscure philosopher of desire, who kept it hidden behind a wooden sliding door.
Freud’s version drains away Courbet’s eroticism. The woman may be sleeping. Her eyes are closed. But her pose seems too uncomfortable. There is the sense that she may be dead. Dead to all the world, but Freud. Here Eros has been supplanted by Thanatos.
There are also portraits of naked couples. Men and women. Women and women. Men and men. They lie on beds and couches. Across futons on the floor. Their legs and arms slide around each other. But, with a precious few exceptions, these are portraits of post-coital ennui, suggesting a loneliness and alienation more pervasive than any Antonioni film.
The most acclaimed group portrait is his 2000 painting After Cezanne. There is a futon on the floor with a crumpled seat. A chair is tipped on its side. The floor is stained with paint. Against the wall is an empty bookcase. A naked woman is holding a platter with two cups of tea. She is staring at the floor, as she strides across the room. A naked man is laying on the futon, his elbow propped on dirty flight of stairs. There is a look of despondency on his face. A woman sits next to him, her fleshy back to the viewer. She places a consoling hand on his shoulder. The scene is at once humane and profoundly disturbing.
The same male subject appears another large canvas by Freud called Freddy Standing. It is night. A longhaired man is standing naked in the corner of a yellow room. There is a window, with the shade partially drawn. In the reflection of the glass, there is a glimpse of Freud, brush in hand. Freddy’s body is emaciated. His hands are limp. His feet seem to almost levitate off the floor. Strangely, his body casts a shadow on each wall, as if it were swaying. Although there’s no rope, I wipe away the impression that Freddie wasn’t so much standing as hanging.
Is Lucian Freud a Freudian? Well, his technique is certainly anal. He compulsively wipes his brush clean after every stroke and throws the rags on the floor of his studio. In the late 1970s, these stained rags began regularly showing up in his paintings. The 1992 portrait of the art critic and photographer Bruce Bernard shows him standing alone in a dark room, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his gray pants. There is a stern, almost constipated look on his face. Behind him is a pile of soiled rags.
There is another painting called Standing by Rags featuring a naked blond woman leaning against a pile of rags flecked with paint. But now the paint takes on the appearance of blood. The woman’s eyes are closed, her body limp. One arm is raised unnaturally. She looks for all the world like the pose in Annibale Carracci’s Lamentation of Christ. The rags could be her winding sheet.
Indeed, many of Freud’s paintings seem to reenact the mortification of the saints or the disposition of Christ, recalling Correggio and Caravaggio. In Two Men in the Studio, a pale skinned man stands on a futon, his arms raised above his head, hands crossed. He is a dour version of Dosso Dossi’s St. Sebastian, stripped of the arrows, the flesh wounds and the terminal ecstasy.
Aside from these subtle echoes of other paintings, there are no narratives to Freud’s canvasses. No stories. These are captured moments, clipped of context. “I don’t paint people the way they are, but they way they happen to be,” says Freud.
These are bodies languishing in a kind of isolation tank. The room is as anonymous as the one in Last Tango in Paris (which opens with a painting by Bacon, though Freud may have been the better choice for the mood of Bertolucci’s film.) Even when shown in groups charged with Freudian possibilities, there’s little communication between the figures. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, lovers apres sex. None look at each other. Indeed, they scarcely recognize each other’s presence. The only obvious hint of real affection is reserved for animals.
In 1970, Freud’s father died. His mother drifted into a deep, incapacitating depression. Freud and his mother had never gotten along. He found her overbearing, excessively maternal. She was made uncomfortable by much of his work. But he brought her up to his studio and painted her day after day for the next decade. “I started painting her because she had lost interest in me,” said Freud. “I couldn’t have if she’d been interested. She barely notice, but I had to overcome avoiding her.”
Lucie Freud sat for her son more for more than 2,000 sessions, continuing until her death in 1980. Even then, Freud couldn’t stop sketching. His last drawing of her is an eerie image of her face only moments after her death, the skin pulled back tight, her mouth a small black cave. Though far from sentimental, the paintings of his again mother are the most humane works Lucian Freud has produced to date. Eventually, she emerged from her despair and Lucian repaired his brittle relationship with her. All in all, the sessions themselves proved to be a more benevolent form of therapy than Sigmund Freud ever achieved with his retinue of bourgeois patients.
In 1990, Freud stumbled across a powerful new subject, the 300-pound performance artist Leigh Bowery. He met Bowery in a line at a play and immediately the giant’s immense legs and feet, which were shoved into a pair of clogs. “His calves went down to his feet, almost avoiding the issue of ankles altogether,” Freud said.
Bowery is a corpulent colossus with a prodigious penis, which Lucian Freud reproduces in extravagant detail, each vein rendered like a mighty river. Bowery Seated is one of Freud’s most audacious masterpieces. Here is the red chair again, barely visible beneath Bowery’s bulk. He is a bald mountain of flesh, as imposing as that first shocking glimpse of Brando in Apocalypse Now. There’s something vaguely Egyptian about the work, as if he were modeled on one of the hulking scribes from the court of Ahmen-hotep.
The large canvas barely seems able to contain him. And for the first time, Freud paints a figure who looks the painter directly in the eye, challenging him. Unlike the somatic figures in most of Freud’s work, the portrait of Bowery presents a self-assured and slightly menacing presence. He is the first of Freud’s nudes to convey the sense that he knows how much his portrait may unnerve many viewers.
Yet, even Bowery seems vulnerable, rendered down to a fragile casing of flesh. As I stared up at this huge human mound I couldn’t help thinking what a mess a Daisy Cutter would make of this even this monumental body. Surely this is a subtle theme of his work. You search Freud’s painting in vain for technological artifacts: there are no telephones, TVs, computers, electrical cords, cars, or lamps. There is just bodies, a chair, a bed, a couch. Like an elided note in a Miles Davis solo, the missing machines assume an added menace in Freud’s work. The room serves as a sanctuary, a momentary refuge from the truly obscene horrors that swirl outside. This then is Freud’s existentialist Eden: a dingy garret in Paddington with a small dog, naked friends and potted plants for company.
Like his grandfather, Lucian Freud argues that biology is destiny. But Lucian goes further than the old man. Biology isn’t just destiny. It’s apparently all there is left to cling to in an age of fleshless bureaucracies and killer machines.
This essay originally appeared in Serpents in the Garden: Liaisons with Culture and Sex.
St. Clair is
the author of Been
Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand
Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born
Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached