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Anguished Vision

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Lucian Freud: Recent Work. By Catherine Lampert. Metropolitan Museum of Art. $35 paper.

Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, was born in Berlin in 1922 and came to England in 1933, the year Hitler took power. Educated at two progressive schools, where he was mad about horses, and trained at two art schools (one of which he accidentally burned down), he joined the Merchant Navy in 1941 but was invalided out after three months. His work first appeared in Horizon in 1939 and his first exhibition was held at the Lefevre Gallery in 1944. He married Jacob Epstein’s daughter Kitty Garman in 1948 and Caroline Blackwood (who became Robert Lowell’s third wife) in 1952. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1983, and is the greatest realist painter of our time.

The handsome exhibition catalogue by Catherine Lampert—who organized the show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (December 1993-March 1994)— contains a sound 26-page Introduction, 91 large plates of Freud’s paintings and etchings (82 of them since 1980), a brief chronology and a list of exhibitions. It provides an essential complement to the major books on Freud by Lawrence Gowing (1982) and Robert Hughes (1989).

Freud’s astonishingly precocious works of the 1940’s followed the precise linear tradition of Holbein and Dürer. In Girl with Roses (1948) Kitty Garman, seen close-up on a smooth, flat surface, has startled, widely-spaced, exaggerated, childlike eyes and crisp brown hair that is painted like the furry mantles of Van Eyck. Seated before a lemon curtain on a curving, cane-backed chair, she clutches one rose with her right hand, pressing it protectively against her striped jersey, while the velvety red flower on her lap mingles with the rich texture of her dark skirt. A great tenderness pervades this portrait of “some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing.”

In Interior in Paddington (1951) a square-jawed young man in an olive raincoat, backed into a corner, with his feet spread apart, is holding an unlit cigarette in one hand and clenching the other into a fist. He seems surprised, threatened by whatever force has rucked up the red carpet and fissured the pot of the spiky plant that surges out toward him. He is about to let loose some awful retribution. Outside in the misty street, below the curved balcony grill, a boy with pocketed hands leans against a yellow wall, waiting for a rendezvous—or for salvation.

Lampert writes that Freud has produced “during the last decade .. . the most outstanding works of his lifetime.” Though his late works are significant, his masterpieces (not included in this catalogue) were all produced in 1952, the year he married Caroline Blackwood. The two paintings of Caroline are as sensuously beautiful as the Venus of Botticelli. The tragic Hotel Bedroom (1954), in which the handsome Freud gazes down at the suddenly aged and wretched Caroline, suggests that something has gone horribly wrong with their marriage (see Hughes, plates 13, 14, 17).

In the profound portrait of the tormented John Minton, the long-faced, open-mouthed, inward-looking painter looks as though he has just been devastated by news of a mortal illness. More like an inquisition than a sitting, the portrait foreshadowed his suicide five years later. In the famous parallel portrait of Freud’s sometime friend, the bulging ovoid face of Francis Bacon—with its alarming pallor, twisted lips and swollen asymmetrical eyes—fills the whole frame and threatens to burst out of it.

Naked Girl (1966), in the Metropolitan show, marks Freud’s startling transition from linear to painterly, and to fascinating but slightly repulsive human subjects portrayed, with agonizing scrutiny, as naked animals or raw meat, as patients “etherised upon a table” or cadavers laid out on slabs and ready for refrigeration. Freud seems about to tear off their skin and anatomize them completely. Naked Girl opposed the idealized tradition of the nude that had dominated Western art until the 20th century. The vulnerable, almost catatonic figure, lying on a rumpled sheet and exposing a bright uninviting vulva, looks as if she has just been raped and abandoned. The figure in Naked Man on a Bed (1990) covers his eyes during a troubled sleep, revealing his dark anus as well as his thick sexual stalk and aubergine-like scrotum.

Leigh Bowery (1966), seated on a red velvet chair in a room stripped bare as his body, looks like a circus strongman who has escaped from an insane asylum. He has a shaved skull, unexpected blue eyes and a massive wrestler’s torso: thick neck, fat paps, sagging guts, tumulous calves and heroic feet. The striking distinction in Robert Graves’ “The Naked and the Nude” illuminates the anguished paintings of Freud:

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometime nude!

The most ambitious work of Freud’s late period is the massive, six-by-six foot Large Interior Wll (after Watteau). Freud reverses the tranquil mood of the commedia dell’arte figures in Watteau’s Pierrot Content (1712) and offers instead a disturbing dramatic scene out of Beckett or Pinter. The five characters, complete with Watteau’s mandolin and fan, are transposed from a sylvan setting into a stark, dingy, upstairs room in West London—a sort of lodging house for the terminally ill. The bricks are exposed, the walls are stained, the paint is peeling, the plumbing pipes wind about like serpents, a ragged plant twists out of control and threatens to entangle the figures. The child is sprawled on the floor instead of being, as in Watteau, part of the group. Though the four adults are crammed defensively together on a tubular bed, they remain isolated and sadly disconnected. Freud’s paintings impressively fulfill his own prescription. “The task of the artist,” he said, “is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent.”


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