The Magazine

Art and Its Discontents

Lucian Freud's recent work

May 8, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 32 • By ROGER KIMBALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I have never been a particular fan of Lucian Freud's painting. On the contrary, I have always thought there was something distinctly repulsive about it.

I know this is a minority view. Since his emergence on the art scene in the mid-1940s, Lucian Freud has had an enthusiastic claque. Over the last twenty years, in particular, important critics have fallen over themselves to praise his work. In 1982, Lawrence Gowing wrote an admiring monograph on Freud's work -- thus certifying Freud's reputation among the cognoscenti -- and, more recently, Robert Hughes expatiated at length about Freud's "old master" touch. The names of Velazquez and Rembrandt are regularly cited as precedents. With Lucian Freud, the established view runs these days, greatness once more walks among us. The fact that this greatness comes with a decided kink only increases its market value. Not for nothing is Lucian the grandson of Sigmund.

Freud's paintings of naked people have garnered the most extravagant praise. "As the barriers are broken down," one critic wrote in 1993, "these pictures as a group acquire some legacy of punk, clubland, drugs, and the generally non-achievement-bound spending of youth, with its mixed attraction to androgyny and eruptions of supremely gendered eroticism."

"Eruptions of supremely gendered eroticism"? Whenever critics erupt in such supremely pretentious absurdity, it's always a sign that an artist has ascended into the art world's limelight. But, in fact, Freud's paintings of naked people represent the worst side of his oeuvre. (His still lifes have always had more to recommend them.) Freud paints people without their clothes not to reveal them, but to expose them. There is something aggressive and obscene about his handling of flesh. He emphasizes the raw animality of his subjects, as his pictures of naked people lying on a bed with a dog underscore.

Kenneth Clark once distinguished between "naked" -- unclothed and thus liable to shame -- and "nude" -- unclothed and thus closer to the human ideal. Freud never paints nudes in Clark's sense. Quite the reverse: He isolates and champions the brutish side of humanity. That is why Freud's "supremely gendered eroticism" is decidedly unaphrodisiac. If there is something shocking about Freud's pictures of naked people, it is not their eroticism but their blank fleshiness. Sex in these pictures is urgent, ineluctable, and thoroughly unsexy. Freud once suggested that "a life of absolute self-indulgence" was his "discipline." His paintings of naked people are souvenirs.

In the Poetics, Aristotle speaks of "the example of good portrait painters, who reproduce the distinctive features of a man, and at the same time, without losing the likeness, make him handsomer than he is." This has not been the procedure of Lucian Freud. (Nor, it should be added, of much modern art.) An exhibition, Lucian Freud: Recent Work 1997-2000, is now showing at the Acquavella Gallery in New York, and many of the thirty-odd pictures on view reveal the painter in all his accustomed nastiness.

But there is a new element in several pictures that marks a welcome departure for the seventy-eight-year-old artist. Armchair by the Fireplace (1997) and other still lifes possess a quiet dignity that one does not generally associate with Freud. Even more surprising are some portraits. A handful of Freud's depictions of a young Irishman exhibit the kind of respect and reticence that, instead of invading a character, allows it to unfold. His Head of a Naked Girl (1999), though characteristically gritty, has a pathos that borders on a most un-Freudian sentiment: tenderness.

Tenderness is also in evidence in what are perhaps the most surprising pictures in this exhibition, a pair of works inspired by a painting by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, the eighteenth-century French master of small scenes of domestic life. The large version reveals what the small detail only hints at: The subject is a mother teaching her young child to read. There is an element of human solicitude here -- as well as a calmer, more modulated application of paint -- that shows a side of Freud that has hitherto been kept hidden. Perhaps it is a sign of a late flowering into maturity after a (very much) protracted adolescence; or perhaps it suggests that Freud's discipline of absolute self-indulgence may not be absolute, after all.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.