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Sitting Pretty

What’s so good about Lucian Freud?

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Exaggerated impasto can disfigure as readily as depict. Gayford accepts Freud’s distortions as deliberate awkwardness. Even without the cues that crystallize between the lines here, those coarsenings convey a certain spite. Something visibly sour inhabits such later canvases as the campy The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005). Why this acrid parody of himself and his audience? Why now, at the height of his reputation? Gayford is not the one to ask. 

Freud endorses—tongue in cheek?—the current dictum that the real point of painting is paint. But realistic figuration is, ineluctably, about more than that. Rooted in the subsoil of the figurative tradition is a vital question: What is man? On the answer depend all claims to greatness—a concept that entails a moral dimension distinct from technical or market considerations. Though Freud acknowledges the “spiritual grandeur” of Rembrandt’s figures, it is unclear whether he approves. In Freud’s eyes, that stamp of dignity homogenizes Rembrandt’s subjects; they all look alike to him. What is clear is his sympathy with Bacon’s bleak credo: We are meat.

Man’s animality spurs the temper of Freud’s work. Dogs people his canvases in intimate equality with what he terms “animals dressed.” Or undressed. His nudes—“naked portraits”—are subordinate to his conviction that man and animal are dual aspects of the same thing. Herein lies the nihilist’s dilemma: Man-as-meat disqualifies itself from grandeur. Meat is not a moral agent; it bears no imprint of the inscrutable. The carnal pull ends in barren ash. It is not for the brute materiality of painted flesh that Rembrandt ranks among the greats. If only Gayford had pressed the point. Or any point at all.

Expect this book to be well-received. It gossips. It flatters illusions of being privy to the sacraments of art-making. It observes ritual pieties, notably the conceit that artists are necessarily exempt from common constraints.  Freud’s own estimate of Gayford’s fan worship, however, can be gauged, in part, by the difference between the fate of Man with a Blue Scarf and Portrait of James Lord. Giacometti gave his painting of Lord to the man himself. Freud, by contrast, put Gayford’s portrait up for sale with Larry Gagosian in New York.

Maureen Mullarkey, a painter who writes on art and culture, keeps a weblog at www.studiomatters.com.

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