Lucian Freud was governed by his appetites, a man of few inhibitions. That constant indulgence (ably mythologized in 2013 by Geordie Greig in Breakfast with Lucian) so often feels present on the canvas, translated into an almost palpable challenge to the viewer. “Does this body disgust you?” Freud seems to demand in works like Evening in the Studio (1993) or Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995). “Appetites have their price,” he reminds us with his lumpy, ungraceful figures. “Time takes its portion as well,” he seems to add, along with a belt of fat at the waist of his subject. Conventional prettiness was never Freud’s quarry anyway, not on canvas. His self-portraits are equally unsparing, yet there was something about him. Genius, yes, but some irascible charm too. James Salter foregrounds Freud early in his story “Charisma.” A pair of women talk of the ways in which men can be attractive, beyond looks alone. Age needn’t be a bar, either. The talk turns to Freud:
“How old do you think he is, really?”
“I don’t know.”
“More than that.”
“How does he do it all?”
“I don’t know,” Cecily admitted.
They thought about it.
“I’d fuck him, though,” she said.
“In a minute.”
“I would, too.”
That type of raw appeal, and the many years in which his reputation preceded him and found favor with a long succession of women, can threaten to overshadow not only Freud’s virtuosity as a painter, but how incredibly well-schooled he was in the art of both his contemporaries and predecessors. Greig’s book falls woefully short on this count. The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s companion volume to their Freud retrospective, which ran from October 2013 to January 2014, offers a great deal more rigor and scope. It collects essays in German and English translation from a range of scholars and critics on Freud’s affinities with everyone from the Egyptians to the Old Masters to the German Expressionists. The immediate fear is that it’s perhaps unduly easy to find, or infer, common ground between figurative artists. Add Titian and Velázquez, and the question arises: Can Freud really have taken cues from sources so disparate?
The answer, by his own accounting, was yes, at least in several cases. Freud famously declared, “I believe in Velazquez more completely than any other artist whose work is alive for me.” Xavier Bray goes on to enumerate Freud’s attractions to the Spanish painter, “particularly his truthful renditions of the human condition.” Gerlind Gruber’s essay, which is built around Freud’s claim to, “want the paint to look like flesh” aligns him with the Dutch Masters. Freud “did not eschew comparisons with ‘Old Masters,’” Gruber notes, and the evidence suggests he should only have done so out of humility. He didn’t lack for nerve, but humility was a trait perhaps in short supply in Freud the artist.
Richard Calvocoressi’s essay, “Lucian Freud and Vienna: A Complex Relationship” challenges the notion that Weimar-era painting (Neue Sachlichkeit) was an early influence on the young artist. He also disputes the charge that Freud’s lack of exhibitions in Austria came down to matters of ego—the fear that he would be overshadowed by the legacy of his grandfather, Sigmund.
Pierre Rosenberg’s remarks on the “copies” Freud made of works by Chardin and Watteau are knowing and precise. He takes in everything from the dimensions to the composition of the works in question, concluding:“For Lucian Freud to choose Chardin and Watteau was to make the choice of his opposite, this brutality of the brushstroke, these de-centered and unbalanced compositions, this provocative exaggeration which are his characteristics.” That is to say, the choice reflects the best of Freud in many ways, a sort of honorable impulse by which he shows he wouldn’t ask more of the viewers of his work than he would of himself in creating it. He pushes his own boundaries not only as a show of good faith but as a means of accessing content and reactions distant from his own defaults.
Freud died before the exhibition opened. It was well-received, and the accompanying plates in the commemorative volume are large, rich and varied. It’s a handsome, admiring, and above all, deeply considered send-off to a painter of great talent and ambition, even if it wasn’t originally conceived of as one. For all the acclaim and astronomical auction prices Freud generated in his lifetime, we’re still getting to grips with what he means as a painter. It seems beyond dispute that we will continue to class him with the greats. This book goes a long way toward accounting for why.
Lucian Freud likened museum visits—those to Britain’s National Gallery specifically—to trips to the doctor. Unlike so many of his other insights on art, this was an imprecise analogy. This was surely more akin to one specialist watching another in consultation, stealing new techniques, or at least bits of bedside manner. The attention served him well. He took those ideas back to his studio, where he used them to their fullest. Each brushstroke comes from a sure hand. His sense of color as a dramatic element is unerring. Lucian Freud believed in Velázquez. I believe in Lucian Freud.
Ed. Sabine Haag and Jasper Sharp, Lucian Freud, (Prestel 2013)
Images: From Lucian Freud