All Too Human: Lucian Freud / by Laurence Fuller

Lucian Freud is the next artist essay by Peter Fuller in the All Too Human series, in co-ordination with the exhibition at TATE Britain.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.