Lucien Freud July 2002

From: Roxy Walsh
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 14 July 2002


Characters in Freud’s paintings are often undone by disclosure. The two successive paintings of Bruce Bernard illustrate particularly that if Lucian Freud is around, one would do well to keep oneself covered: it is as if skin itself is insufficient to contain the writhing mass of disease, that the spillage of hands alone is enough to reveal our inner awfulness: that one can only be fully human when one is fully buttoned up. (And even then perhaps not, as the canker-bearded queen Elizabeth might say)

In some ways the paintings’ characters are like Dickens’: strong and memorable, but subtlety-lite. Whilst in reading Tolstoy or Proust one has the luxury of continually reappraising one’s responses to characters as they are developed, here there seems to be a guillotine on sympathy, a constant re-statement through other mouths of a similar call to mortality. Certain subjects are more criticism-proof than others, and the essential awfulness of mankind is perhaps one of them. These paintings use this ‘truth’ of our essential and embodied sinfulness in parallel with a painting manner that claims reality close to itself, conjuring an authority that I would like to suggest is humbug.

We are flesh, we must die. But on the other hand, you’re alive until you’re dead.

Robert Hughes seems to have no problem in citing Freud as the greatest living realist painter*, and I’m sure I’ve read ‘our’ (read English) ‘greatest living painter’ in reviews of the current show here. Brendan Prenderville writes of Freud (with Bacon and Auerbach) as having the un-English traits in the work of ‘emotional intensity and painterly style’*, but the intensity seems in Freud’s paintings to have been thoroughly anglicised, or angstitsized, with nakedness posited more often as exposure or punishment than as freedom or pleasure. He seems to have an almost military command over the space of the studio. This is a consulting room par excellence, outside which one tensely waits to enter, only to be shown in, stripped, and told what is wrong with us, and that it is undoubtedly terminal.

There is an assumption that these are in some way ‘traditional’ paintings in their adherence to reality, that the relationship between artist, studio and model is transparent and received. But what does the studio represent in the paintings, an aesthetisised image of half century old squalor? And Whose reality is this ? One where on boarding house doors it says ‘No Blacks or Irish’ for though the ‘Irish’ get through the door they do it only in full character cliché, reddened from the drink, and fat with building. And ‘the woman from the benefits agency’ fares little better.

Leigh Bowery is unusual in thwarting the cruelty of Freud, as if his flamboyant, Maja-like (more genuinely traditional?) presence is enough to show up the studio for the shabby stage set that it is. Here the aplomb of the sitter is too powerful for the reducing gaze, and somehow seems to be able to look through Freud to the audience, to laugh at his diminishing process: to show up those islands and acres of grubby muslin as nothing like the body at all.

In early paintings, young-as-his skin is almost unpainted, moved wrinklessly aside to allow enormous baleful eyes to glitter at us noiselessly: but of course skin continually disintegrates (or continually grows fresh, according to one’s disposition). In more recent paintings than these, Freud saves his wartiest, shittiest paint for his most virtuosic displays: for genitals of course, and for famously ‘difficult’ hand and foot painting. Though he can paint himself as a marionette or a Venetian mask, the mist revealing Freud self portrait is not in the show – the one where he literally turns in a smudge from his own gaze.*1

This is of course a huge generalisation, and there are paintings of tenderness at many different junctures: Esther in particular seems to survive his gaze with some bloom still in her cheek, but Leigh Bowery does seem to me almost alone in surviving with his sexual agency represented as in-tact.

Incontinence seems close to the surface in many of the paintings, the dripping of the tap in ‘after Watteau’ or the studio sink, the squirt of green paint from the tube on the floor in ‘Artist and model’. Here too we come to a different skin of paint, of Naples yellow (deadly lead?), on the wall, and beneath and beside it - as fresh a piece of nakedness as anywhere in the painting, the tender pink of raw plaster.

The graffiti on the top left of the painting, the ejaculate of paint on the woman artist’s smock and the gouged away arm of the sofa seem to form a triangle of activity already past, whilst four of the five feet in the painting point to the only painting action in the room, the spurting tube of green: Which starts another triangle, of spent potency, with the lowered brush of the woman-artist, and depleted brush of the model-man.

The lowered brush and the lowered eyes indeed, and the sadly un-naughty foot action: she really really shouldn’t be there, and seems penitent almost to fury. There she is with three limp penises, and at least one of them came too soon (Getting Off In Gateshead as we say in Newcastle).

In Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, (cited here via an essay on my work by Adrian Rifkin), Her reaction to the bloody body of Adonis is described ‘That her sight dazzling makes the wound seem three; And then she reprehends her mangling eye, That makes more gashes where no breach should be.’ but as Freud dwells over and over on the rips in the covers, the holes and gashes in the sofas and the walls, he never seems to reprehend himself, revelling instead in his violent fantasia, like a little boy pulling the legs from spiders and mixing them in the paint, pushing the shit with a stick, camouflaging the skin of his sitters like boy-soldiers in the mud.

I’m getting married on Sunday, and in the past few weeks have paid more attention to my skin than in the preceding thirty-seven years together. I have pumice and pepperminted my feet, olive stoned my body, and oatmeal and honeyed my face. I’ve been made over like a clown at Chanel, and slightly more humanely at Mac. The skin on my face is far from as clear as the girls who were operating, but a little more so since the facemasks got going (maybe the wartiest, shittiest paint would do for exfoliating). But it has meant, along with the preparation for this talk, that I have been looking and looking at skin and I’d like to say that bad as it might be, thank God it doesn’t look like a Freud’s.

I remember the skin of my Grandmother. Even in extreme age and with twice what would cover her tiny old body it was as soft and subtle as silk: silk with the bloom of a white peach but falling in folds around eyes that could still move it aside to twinkle and glitter through.

*Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud, Paintings (Thames and Hudson) *Brendan Prenderville, Realism n 20th Century Painting (Thames and Hudson)

This is a text prepared for the symposium ‘Skin’ at Tate Britain on June 28th 2002.

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