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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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Freud’s seamy adventurism is not news. How much is mythomania is hard to know. But the telling makes you mindful of what was lost when the lives of saints ceded to the lives of artists. An irrepressible toady, Gayford disinfects Freud’s affinities with museum-quality finesse: “LF has a novelist’s attitude to people; he has a voracious appetite for different varieties of behavior and character.” Just like Balzac and Dickens. And oh, the inimitable way LF rolls his r’s when he tells these stories! The Proustian sweep of his experience!

“By an act of will and daring,” gushes Gayford, “he revived the figurative tradition.” In truth, the tradition did not need reviving; it never died. It runs deeper than market fashion and will outlive assaults on it for as long as we have bodies. Twentieth-century painting was generous in artists devoted to the primacy of figuration. We can argue over approaches and names—Balthus, Stanley Spencer, William Coldstream, Philip Pearlstein, Avigdor Arikha, Euan Uglow, Antonio López García, others—but at no time was Freud the lone trooper facing down abstraction, pop art, op art, land art, performance art, and the whole avant-garde arsenal. 

What Freud revived was himself. By the late fifties his initial reception had leveled off. Always a linear artist, he began, in mid-career, to lay on paint by the pound, requiring broader, looser brush handling (“a characteristically audacious, even foolhardy thing to do”). Paint density became a trademark mannerism. Freud pumped up the frisson of his compositions with hints of morbid sexuality. Scumbled, encrusted breasts and male crotches—giblet shots—took center stage. More sensational than pictorially inventive, the shift electrified Robert Hughes. In 1987, he jump-started the artist’s current prestige by crowning him “the greatest living realist painter.” The tag stuck.

Without detracting from Freud’s gifts—which are genuine—an alert critical climate would have resisted the superlative. Euan Uglow, a decade younger and an austere, luminous practitioner of direct observation, was an equal contender for the title. Esteemed in Britain, Uglow (who died in 2000) lacked only the crucial ingredient of myth. Missing was that bohemian mystique that excites well-behaved grown-ups who wish they had overturned their porridge when they had the chance. Gayford appears to be one of them.

Time will sift the part played by Freud’s bad-boy persona—the vaunted sexual excess, reckless paternities, and lure of transgression—in generating incandescent acclaim. By and by, someone less hypnotized than Gayford will explore what Freud might owe not to Rembrandt and Titian, but to influences closer to home. Before Lucian Freud there was Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), among the most prominent and original British artists of the 20th century. Look at any of Spencer’s paintings done from life—any nude or portrait—and you recognize Freud’s origins. His figures add little to Spencer’s lead beyond the physical weight of pigment. Then, too, there was William Roberts (1895-1980), renowned in Britain between the wars and a celebrated portraitist. The planar emphasis of his portraits—the iconic 1922 painting of T. E. Lawrence, aka Aircraftman Ross, for instance—precedes Freud’s approach to depiction: pronounced, discrete facets accumulating into a likeness. Gayford ignores both near-contemporaries to acquiesce in ceremonial Old Master chat.

In sum, Man with a Blue Scarf trades on the glamour of Freud’s reputation without adding weight to the voluminous commentary that has appeared in the 20-plus years since his coronation by Hughes. Gayford has written often about Freud before this, joining Lawrence Gowing and William Feaver in making a cottage industry out of Sigmund’s grandson. 

Undeniably, Freud is a splendid technician, and a formidable draftsman. In full command of his medium he can move white lead across canvas with the ease of Devon cream. And in a symphony of tones. Freud is capable of startling grace—and as often, of arbitrary malice. After Andrew Parker Bowles complained that his stomach was too prominent, the painter emphasized it more. He admits to making another sitter “more repulsive” than the reality. His portraits range from the riveting (John Minton, 1952) to the studiously detracting (Kate Moss, 2002), as if courtesy or cruelty toward his subject were the luck of the draw. His late preference for physically grotesque models points to cruelty itself—“terrible candour” in Feaver’s exemplary gloss—as an expressive factor.

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