"To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself" if this old adage of John Berger's from Ways Of Seeing is true, then Lucian Freud's subjects are certainly Naked.
And all that space that exists with the naked form before a dissecting eye, masterfully encouraged where in all that grotesque interchange does beauty exist. There is an undercurrent of danger and spontaneity when a person is naked in the presence of another.
Memories of Lucian Freud are layered into my subconscious, at one time five Lucian Freud prints displayed themselves across my bedroom wall. I remember walking through Notting Hill in my early twenties when I was doing theatre in London looking up at the houses and imagining Lucian Freud painting one of his subjects. The quietness in the room, the unsettled dust moving through air in the light through the windows illuminating the skin of his subject as she glowed on the couch, her slow heavy breathe the only sound in between Lucian's brush hitting the canvas.
In 1988 my father said of Lucian Freud;
“Whatever estimate may be placed upon Lucian Freud's 'naked portraits' by future generations, it is unlikely that they will ever be attributed to any time other than ours"
To be a master of one’s craft today is often considered passé, and in many fields we are witnessing the death of craftsmanship, this is to the detriment to all but for the few men and women who uphold and constantly inquire as to the workings of themselves and their world. As Donald Trump exemplifies the cultural flaw in America where it's just as affective now days to get onto Network TV and ponce around, as it is to put in decades of hard work refining your skills at your own craft. The artistic equivalent of course is Damien Hirst who put a shark in formaldehyde and became an instant sensation across the globe, Hirst now puts some dots on a canvas made in a factory by other people and sells them for millions.
"The very concept of mastery has become denigrated, associated with something old-fashioned and even unpleasant. It is generally not seen as something to aspire to. This shift in value is rather recent, and can be traced to circumstances peculiar to our times... Many take this change in value a step further, giving their passivity a positive veneer. They romanticize the self-destructive artist who loses control of him-or herself. Anything that smacks of discipline or effort seems fussy and passé: what matters is the feeling behind the artwork, and any hint of craftsmanship or work violates this principle. They come to accept things that are made cheaply and quickly. The idea that they might have to expend much effort to get what they want has been eroded by the proliferation of devices that do so much of the work for them, fostering the idea that they deserve all of this— that it is their inherent right to have and to consume what they want. “Why bother working for years to attain mastery when we can have so much power with very little effort? Technology will solve everything.” This passivity has even assumed a moral stance: “mastery and power are evil; they are the domain of patriarchal elites who oppress us; power is inherently bad; better to opt out of the system altogether,” or at least make it look that way." Robert Greene, Mastery
However, Greene (best-selling American author of 48 Laws Of Power) goes on to explain in detail why this way of thinking is an illusion, and that Mastery in whatever field we chose, is the only real power that we have, and forms the foundations of our individual legacies. It was this same desire for mastery and a kind of unending search that fascinated me about Freud's process, like DeNiro's creation of a character there is a submission to the will of the craft, searching constantly within it for a way. Timing is also a significant factor in the creation of both the painting and of acting, which is unlike other crafts.
I always got the sense from this and from others in the milieu of artists, writers and philosophers that I grew up with, that the real authentic artists were greatly influenced by their personal relationships. The majority of Freud's subjects were taken from his existing inner circle of friends and family, even some of his sons and daughters making appearances, one in particular to great controversy, his daughter Bella Freud posing for him naked on the couch. If they weren't in his inner circle before the process they certainly were after. Leigh Bowery was for me the most interesting of these relationships, as in life Bowery was a notoriously flamboyant showman, yet in these pictures Freud strips him bare of all his bells and whistles and we are left glaring at the man, raw in the flesh.
It’s not surprising then that women found Lucian irresistible, as he was able to give his whole mind and feeling to a woman, allow them to wrap themselves around his consciousness and be for a time his entire world. He recreated their image in their most intimate state. A kind of listening that went far beyond the ordinary. To take on a muse is to absorb a foreign influence entirely, to allow that influence to derail the artist not completely but forcibly in another direction. That is certainly what Leigh Bowery and perhaps only Leigh Bowery was capable of doing.
This seduction was in the consciousness of the objectifier, how he sees that subject, how it absorbs him is entirely what is desirable about the picture. In this dynamic we see the nature and purpose of a muse. The muse is not akin to the artist, solidarity is not the objective. There is a canvas between the two, a point of view which is taken and expressed indirectly, and a thing apart from their exchange. Freud's work unlike Bacon's is not about taboo. Violence is done in a way but a kind of psychological violence, a piercing of intimacy that yokes both participants in an irrevocable memory, not like an immediate act, but a quiet and unobtrusive recurrent dream.
My father had a Lucian Frued painting of the head of a chicken on the front cover of his first edition of his magazine Modern Painters, the issue featured an article by Lord Grey Gowrie "The Migration Of Lucian Freud". This no doubt played an early part in his meteoric rise beyond the art establishment in which he was already recognized. The controversy surrounding the magazine and my father's work at the time pushed the art that he was championing far beyond the confines of the art world and Freud's popularity was certainly bolstered for this. Below is a copy of the most comprehensive essay he wrote on Lucian Freud.
Grey Gowrie makes the point that Freud's work unlike most artists is incredibly linear. When looking in retrospect at the majority of artists careers we can often observe a variety of styles as the artists drifts with economic and popular forces to find themselves within the existing cultural landscape. Rarely does someone emerge with such a distinct sense of destiny to their artistic vision at a young age, when they do masters like Mozart, PT Anderson. Even Daniel Day-Lewis did not hit his stride artistically until he was 34 when My Left Foot came out. What's clear within the room seeing the linear progression of Freud's work is that he was producing masterpieces at a young age and could well have stayed within the safe confines of what worked. Reminiscent of a Northern Renaissance style, his early work was characterized by a clear porceline hyper realism, combined with a symbolic narrative.
This incomplete search for some kind of reaching some kind striving for a greater depth to ones own craftsmanship, which is in a constant state of evolution yet could never be reached by autonomy like the abstract expressionists, each canvas is faced as a challenge unto itself, which makes each individual painting by Freud unprecedented. Longevity is the honor bestowed on craftsmanship, though it may be overshadowed at times by sensationalism that dwindles as fast as it arises. Damien Hirst's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' decreases in value each year as the shark literally deteriorates each day, Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Resting" sold for £35M last year, and only shows signs of an increasing value.
"A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture that he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. We're it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency that drives him on." - Lucian Freud
by Peter Fuller, 1988
Whatever estimate may be placed upon Lucian Freud's 'naked portraits' by future generations, it is unlikely that they will ever be attributed to any time other than ours. Just as the regents and regentesses of Frans Hals (a painter with whom Freud has something in common) unquestionably belong to seventeenth- century Holland, so Freud's subjects seem indubitably to be children of this troubled century. Their modernity is not in question.
With Freud, this modernity is apparent not so much in telling appurtenances - nakedness strips away such clues as costume - as in the stance the painter adopts towards his subjects. An extensive literature has now gathered around Freud's celebrated scrutiny. Much of this emphasises the unflinching starkness of his gaze, which is not without overtones of the interrogator, even the torturer. He refuses to allow his looking to be deflected by compromise or accommodation. It is this unrelenting quality which recently led Robert Hughes to acclaim Freud as, quite simply, 'the greatest living realist painter'.
But like all 'realisms', Freud's is not without its own tendentious inflections. His pictures bring to mind the fascinated fears of Antoine Roquentin, the hero of Sartre's La Nausee, confronted in the municipal park by the intractable existence of the external world: 'All those objects . . . how can I explain? They embarrassed me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, in a drier, more abstract way, with more reserve.' For Freud, as for Roquentin, what he might have 'liked' becomes irrelevant. He is driven by a sickening and ultimately terrible sense of the bruised and yet abundant otherness of the things and persons in the world - that is what he wants to touch and to paint.
The critics have understandably seized upon Freud's obsession with particular imperfections, with faces and bodies pinched, slapped and swollen by life and worn down by their individual histories. We gaze at a succession of ruddy heads, flaccid bellies, and veins swelling just below the surface of the skin, like rivulets of ink. And yet we feel that, like Sartre's hero, Freud believes that 'the diversity of things, their individuality' is 'only an appearance, a veneer'. For Roquentin, this veneer 'melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, in disorder - naked, with a frightening, obscene nakedness'. Freud seems to paint the moment before such disintegration occurs. Gathered together, his 'naked portraits' descend into it.
Here we are forcefully presented with the Existential angst, if not of the 1980s, then at least of the mid-century, yet when all is said and done, Freud's painting seems untouched by our century and its aesthetic concerns. Freud's ways of working - even in the much-vaunted fleshier and fattier modes of recent years - are redolent with a sense of the past, they bristle with the hogs' hairs of tradition. Certainly, his way of picturing has changed dramatically since the enamelled and coppery images of the 1940s and early 1950s, but the wrong conclusions have sometimes been drawn from this. For Freud's work is devoid of any sense of restless innovation or of experimentation with his chosen medium for its own sake. His innovations have never seemed to me to be about the liberation of the physical means from the burden of meaning. The changes in Freud's ways of painting have been strictly in the service of his Existential vision. He has sought out ways of making the images more mundane, meatier even, more tangible and sore. If Modernism is characterised by, as Clement Greenberg used to put it, an 'ineluctable quest' for the essence of the medium, then Freud is not a Modernist. Indeed, he is a deeply conservative, even reactionary painter. But he is so because he believes that only through such aesthetic traditionalism can he speak most compellingly of our 'modern' condition.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, son of Ernst Freud and grandson of Sigmund, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud has discouraged attempts to interpret his work in relation to his grandfather's achievement, and yet it must be admitted that the tastes of the two men have much in common. For, whatever Sigmund contributed to modern man's self-conception, he remained at bottom a nineteenth-century scientific rationalist. He endeavoured to understand the deepest psychological recesses of the human personality by approaching the human subject almost as if it were a specimen for dissection. In art he was dismissive of the Modern movement and his own preferences were classical, even academic. His one thorough examination of a major plastic work of art, The Moses of Michelangelo, relies on an unremitting scrutiny of physical detail. Freud's own collection of archaeological artifacts and antiquities reflected, as much as anything, an obsession with the subject matter of death - a theme echoed again in the work of his grandson, from the studies of dead cocks and monkeys to the splayed nudes of later years, revealed to us with the pallor of the grave already flickering across them.
Yet it must be said that Lucian Freud's work also reveals other, quite different associations. His family moved to England in 1933. Freud studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and, soon after, at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, run by Cedric Morris. He could hardly have chosen a path which brought him closer to the idiosyncratic centres of the British visual tradition, and, for all his German roots, Freud's attachment to Britain has proved as constant as anything in his life. John Russell has reported him as saying: 'All my interest and sympathy and hope circulate around the English.' And yet these differing cultural tendrils were not easily wound together. Freud responded intuitively to the empirical strand in British cultural life, but in the 1940s, when the effect of outside artistic influences upon him was at its greatest, British art was undergoing a Neo-Romantic revival.
Somehow, through his associations with Cedric Morris, his interest in Sutherland and his friendships with Craxton and Minton, Freud had stumbled into the very centre of this movement. However, he also knew he possessed an imagination stamped by what he has called 'my horror of the idyllic'.
His earliest works seem torn by these irreconcilable influences. They have been related by the critics to numerous sources: to the meticulousness of late Gothic painting, the smooth finish of Flemish miniatures, the electrified Protestant precision of Diirer, the linear classicism of Ingres, Surrealism, and the thorns and thistles of English Neo-Romantic contemporaries. Perhaps the truth is that Freud was still looking for the appropriate style and pictorial conventions through which he might express a vision as yet imperfectly formed. Anyone looking at the conte pencil drawings of 1944 like Boy with a pigeon, might have been forgiven for assuming that Freud would develop into an exquisite, if at times rather precious, lyricist. In the late 1940s, Freud struggled to veil these contradictions of vision behind an exquisite sharpness of technique, manifest in the meticulous images of his first wife, other women, and later in the decade, fellow artists such as Francis Bacon and John Minton.
It is easy enough to see why Freud rebelled against his own early achievement. For all the laborious transcription of skin, flowers, leaves and clothes, there is something ghostly and immaterial about these images; it is as if they are not of this world. Sigmund Freud had a horror of any association between his psychoanalytic method and those of poets, astrologers, and mystics. The paradox of his life was that he wanted psychoanalysis to be recognised as a branch of scientific thinking, even though its subject matter was precisely that terrain of human thought and feeling, which was, by its very nature, 'unscientific'. He 'solved' this dilemma by a life-long hope that the insights of psychoanalysis would eventually be corroborated by the physical findings of neurology. Similarly, the terrain his grandson had chosen for himself was that of the human imagination, and yet he wished to express that imagination through works of uncompromised 'realism'. Poetry, fancy, dream and hallucination sprang up like thistles, making their insidious presence felt not only in his imagery, but even through his techniques. Freud found that his own work was beginning to arouse his horror of the idyllic.
The change of the late 1950s involved more than a loosening of the paint, the use of heavier brushes and fruitier qualities of pigment. Freud, too, wanted to see and to depict the human person as he or she really was. Despite the growing power of his imagination, the only way for him to do this was through a 'scientific' limitation of his subject matter to that which presented itself to the eye. In Freud's case, this is not a matter of some shabby fidelity to the surfaces of things, but rather it grew out of a belief comparable to that of his grandfather, that only through this sort of clinical realism can we hope to cut through the appearances of the other, to grasp at the meaning, even the truth of their otherness.
The objection has often been made to classical psychoanalysis that, despite the analyst's assumption of an 'objective' attitude to the patient as specimen, his analysis in fact involves entering into a relationship with another human being. Lucian Freud works within a similar paradox. The model (always someone well-known to the artist) enters his confined space. The conventions of sitting or sprawling for Freud demand a semblance of objectivity, an assumption that every vulnerability, however intimate and personal, may be exposed. And yet Freud is, in fact, no more a scientific realist than was his grandfather. For, insofar as his work rises above the decorative mortuary arrangements of a Pearlstein, or an Uglow, it is because this fiction of realism is made to serve a higher, if hardly softer, end: the exposure of a personality.
As with classical psychoanalysis, doubts remain. A room full of Freud's female nudes is chilling. The canvases hung together do not suggest a series of deep personal encounters of transcendent intimacy. Few viewers feel more than a sense of revulsion, a vague sensation that they are witnessing something which degrades the persons depicted. The room is heavy with the aroma of death, bringing to my mind uncomfortable recollections of photographs taken at the liberation of Auschwitz and Belsen. Perhaps scientific realism does not work even as a useful fiction. Perhaps we can only find the other by treating him, or her, as a person, whether in studio or consulting room. It is not so much that too much reality is hard to bear. Perhaps, after all, imagination, poetry, metaphor, fancy, symbol - even idyll - are part of the reality that makes us fully human. If we wipe them away, we risk losing the other at precisely the moment when we seem about to reveal him, or her, in nakedness.
Freud, I believe, knows this. Indeed, he seems constantly to have to fight against symbolic or metaphoric expression. How else are we to explain, for example, the mortar and pestle in Large interior W9, the egg in a dish on the table in Naked girl with egg, or the rat in Naked man with rat? If these are not symbols they are something very like. They hover somewhere between the psychopathology of everyday life and the poetic metaphors of Neo-Romanticism. This, in a sense, is where Freud himself is always trying to stand, and why his pictures - at their best - have such a terrible, disconcerting power.