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The Democratic Paintbrush of Lucian Freud | The Nation

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The Democratic Paintbrush of Lucian Freud

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Some of Lucian Freud’s critics claim that his portraits—especially his naked portraits—dehumanize the sitters, that the light that glares down on their faces and bodies might be more appropriate for a police interrogation or an autopsy, that Freud’s paintbrush reduced the models’ flesh to bags of bones, or else yeasted it up like dough that spills or flops across unsavory surfaces: scruffy couches, crusty mattresses, rag heaps, bare floors. In particular, they cite the gastronomical rendering of genitalia: vulvas splitting like ripe figs, cocks and balls displayed like so much delicatessen. Details from the artist’s life outside the studio get deployed like skeleton keys, as if they could unlock some strange agenda in the paintings: his compulsive gambling; his clubbing with the likes of Greta Garbo and Princess Margaret; his not having participated in the raising of his many children—the head count for whom ranges from thirteen to several dozen; his being the grandson of the person who invented psychoanalysis.

About the Author

Margaret Spillane
Margaret Spillane, a longtime Nation contributor, teaches performing arts criticism at Yale University.

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Those critics who called Lucian Freud shameless were, in fact, right on the money. He painted to do away with shame—the kind that cherishes certain bodily stories and banishes others. He made the case that no body type inherently possesses more capacity to compel and spellbind than another. Freud saw all bodies as engaged in ongoing negotiations with pleasure, trauma, gravity and time, and these marks were no more captivating on the sprawled limbs of a spidery Kate Moss than on those of a cushiony welfare office worker. Sunburns, freckle sprays, sinewy tendons, starbursts of blood vessels across noses, meadows of hair across shoulder blades: Freud saw these not as flaws but as facts worth investigating for the deep stories they would yield. Like William Blake, he could find these signs of reckoning in the look of baffled exhaustion on an infant’s face. The flesh of the old and the young, his pictures argued, is dense with its own ideas, its own specific turbulence—even in sleep.

This egalitarian impulse is just as evident when his sitters are dressed. His portrait of two West London immigrant laborers in their sober suits has no less dignity than the one of Queen Elizabeth II, whose crown is clamped down on her curlicue hairdo like any elderly lady’s hat. Freud’s small granddaughter Alice Costelloe looks just as serene as Her Majesty with a Beanie Baby koala resting on her head. Andrew Parker-Bowles, in his medal-spangled brigadier’s uniform with its sumptuous red-striped trousers, has cheeks like raw steak and a white-shirted gut that genially ambles over his belt. This cavalry commanding officer could as easily be a postal worker in parade gear.

Even within the landscape of a single body, Freud replaced the viewer’s likely hierarchy of attractions with a startling parity of esteem: whereas the viewer’s gaze tends to reward faces, bosoms, butts and genitals with greater attention, Freud often arranged to have other body parts upstage them. In picture after picture, erotic areas are sidelined by the dramatic presentation of an ankle, a collarbone, a pair of nostrils. In the painting And the Bridegroom, Leigh Bowery’s curving penis possesses less drama than the monumental arc of his ribcage. In Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, Sue Tilley’s massive breasts seem like acolytes to her mighty abdomen.

Freud almost never painted professional artists’ models; he only painted his children, his lovers, his friends or the friends of friends. His notoriously labor-intensive approach to picture-making meant that models had to commit to long-term projects—frequent extended studio sessions going on from three to eighteen months. (His daughter Isobel Boyt claimed that while posing for one picture, she read all three volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and other books besides). Those who posed for Freud have described him as a mesmerizing storyteller who often performed skits or sang songs as he painted, and who would invite the model to sing along. As they sat, models might have been distracted by aromas of woodcock or quail roasting in the studio’s kitchen, as the artist often cooked dinner for the people who posed for him. Freud believed that meal-sharing was a critical part of the picture-making process, that the conversations over food would yield vital insights that would keep the likeness on the canvas true to the person being painted.

He was as unsparing in his depictions of himself as of others. His self-portrait standing naked in a pair of large unlaced workboots, displays a lavalike neck that looks as if it is melting away from his face. His right arm is raised as if to menace, but instead of a sword he brandishes a small painting knife. His left hand hangs by his side, and grasps a paint-scabbed palette in place of a shield. Titled Painter Working, Reflection, it would appear to be the final testimony of an aged warrior looking at mortality—yet he painted it almost twenty years ago.

Earlier in this decade, Lucian Freud told art critic Sebastian Smee: “I intend to paint myself to death”—which, lucky for us, he pretty much did. 

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