Lucian Freud’s retrospective at Tate Britain

The advantage of being ‘our greatest living painter’ is, I suppose, that everyone has some sense of what you work is like; the disadvantage is that most people’s sense of your work will invariably be wrong. Hence Lucian Freud will go down in popular history as the artist who painted ugly, non-erotic nudes spread-eagled amid squalid settings. Unfair? Of course – but when someone says ‘Lucian Freud’ to you, what image comes into your mind?

Tate Britain’s major Freud retrospective (sponsored by UBS Warburg) which opens on 20 June, shows at once how right it is to hand the laurels of painterly supremacy to Freud, and how wrong it is to write him off as a chronicler of veiny breasts, sallow sagging flesh and unsprung sofas. The majority of works on show are not nudes – indeed, a fair number aren’t even portraits. Freud is perfectly capable of diverting his attention away from the human figure to deal instead with horseflesh (as in his lovely, persuasive Filly (1970)), or greenery (Cyclamen 1964, Two Plants 1977-80), the best running water painted within our lifetimes (Two Japanese Wrestlers by a Sink 1983-7), or the mesmerising ordinariness of everyday London life viewed with unaccustomed clarity (Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, 1970-72). In his portraits, the non-human elements occasionally end up stealing the show, starting with Interior in Paddington 1951 (the large unhealthy plant, at least as menacing as the angry young man it flanks) and carrying on to include Night Portrait 1977-8 (the quilted silken coverlet) and Two Irishmen in W11 1984-5 (the stuccoed Paddington terraces glimpsed out the window, punctuated by an ugly skyscraper beyond). Nor has Britain seen such a skilled and sensitive painter of whippets for a very long time, as several works (Double Portrait 1985-6, Pluto and the Bateman Sisters 1996) make abundantly clear.

Freud, then, is about more than nudes. Indeed, as if to amplify this very point, the most powerful group of works in this show have nothing whatsoever to do with nudity. Between 1972 and 1989, the artist made a series of portraits of his mother, Lucie Freud. She was old, wrinkled, and badly depressed after her husband’s death, yet these amazing paintings are remarkable not so much for the truths they tell about ageing flesh and the stealthy approach of death – striking though these are – as for their weird combination of tenderness and ruthlessness. Freud seems to have spent much of his life trying to avoid his mother (apparently she was a very forgiving parent, and doted on her son, but ‘it was being forgiven I didn’t like’) yet here we are invited to experience the tensions of those hours spent so near to her, examining and recording every detail of her appearance as she stared vacantly ahead of her. Here one feels less that psychological insight we are always being invited to detect in Freud’s work, than a battle of two formidable wills. In The Painter’s Mother Reading 1975 (certainly one of the greatest paintings Freud ever created) the elderly woman is reading a book, but even though her eyes are turned downwards, she looks shrewd, almost humorous, and more than a match for her wayward son. By the time of The Painter’s Mother Resting 1982-4, however, her face is all resignation; the paisley ensemble of previous paintings has faded down to a shroud-like white, interrupted only by a beautifully-realised hand laid across her torso; rarely has any painting looked so silent, or any subject so ready for death. It was not until five years later, however, that she died. Freud drew her one last time as she lay on her deathbed – eyes closed, dentures removed, lips sunken. As a group, these works are surprisingly powerful, not least because it is so easy to see in them, or perhaps project on them, even the more painful ambiguities of mother-child relationships. For whatever reason, though, they are unforgettable, and ought to banish forever the idea that Freud can only paint naked women on sofas.

Now that his old Soho drinking pal Francis Bacon is dead, there can be little doubt that Lucian Freud is our greatest living painter. (One could make claims for Auerbach, Hockney and others, but invariably Freud’s claims seem stronger.) It is absolutely right that now, on the eve of his 80th birthday, he should be accorded this major retrospective at Tate Britain. The show, curated by William Feaver (apparently with considerable help from the artist himself) could hardly look better, hung across a succession of large rooms benefiting from a lot of natural light. The organisation is chronological, rather than thematic, a decision which fits well with the fact that Freud’s models are almost invariably important figures in his own life. But in keeping with contemporary fashion and its preference for aesthetic buzz over didactic slogging, Feaver has made a brave decision more or less to banish explanatory labels. ‘Look at the pictures!’ he says, knowing that most of us would otherwise spend far too long on the written commentary. This has the effect of stripping the sitters of any identity beyond that Freud chooses to create for them – ‘is that really Kate Moss? It doesn’t look much like her’ a woman commented incredulously on the morning I saw the show, peering at a marvellous little painting called Woman with Eyes Closed 2002. I had assumed was a portrait of Emily Bearn. Perhaps it’s someone else altogether. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

The show traces Freud’s artistic development from 1939 (only six years after he arrived in England aged 10, an émigré from Nazi Germany) to the present day. Obviously enough, constructing such a history is never either a neutral nor an objective business. (Bacon’s solicitude for his own career narrative led him to destroy a great deal of his early work, not only the failures but the work that was simply far too indebted to Picasso – his real father had not been much of a success, and the last thing Bacon wanted was an art-historical surrogate.) From the schoolboy-Cézanne apples of Box of Apples in Wales 1939 to the astoundingly accomplished drawing of Christian Bérard (1948), the hang insists (as does the catalogue) on an artistic lineage connecting Freud with France, rather than Germany – whether one means by that the Germany of Durer or Grünewald or the Neue Sachlichkeit. (There is also an intriguing case made in the catalogue for Freud’s indebtedness to an old Phaidon art book, J. H. Breasted’s Geschichte Aegyptens (1936), and photograph of a stone head of Amenhotep IV (1372-1358 BC), better known as Akhenaten.) Claims that Freud ever had any truck with symbolism or surrealism are brushed aside, despite the visual evidence of works like The Painter’s Room 1943-44 (introducing those leitmotifs of Freud’s early work, the spikey plant and stuffed zebra-head, coupled with the threadbare sofa, at once analytic couch and premonition of so many later works), spanning all the way to Sunny Morning – Eight Legs 1997 in which surreal narrative is implied by the image as loudly as it is denied by the painter.

The show also posits an essential continuity between ‘early’ Freud (in which thin paint is applied precisely with a sable brush, up until circa 1959) and ‘later’ Freud (from circa 1959, in which thicker paint, including grainy Cremnitz white, is applied with a broader hogshair brush). It does this through Freud’s subdued palette of colours, through concentrating on portraits rather than other work, and – at least in the case of the later style – by the rigid set of conditions under which Freud creates these portraits.

Freud doesn’t portray people amid the normal circumstances of their lives – he portrays them being painted by Lucian Freud. This may sound too obvious to need saying, were it not for the fact that it explains a great deal that people have found curious or problematic in his work. It explains, for instance, the persistently dingy settings (no better or worse than those in most painters’ studios), the unsparing light, the glazed or withdrawn or faintly troubled expressions on the sitters’ faces (something which should surprise no one who has ever drawn from a live model for more than an hour at a time). Rarely can any painter have made as much a feature of this as Freud does. Freud has rarely – on the evidence of this show, anyway – painted subjects out in the open air, and then only very early in his career. Instead, these north London studios are central to his work. Hence all those white rags (left over from cleaning loaded brushes), the spatters of paint, the studio sink, even the mortar and pestle under his mother’s chair in Large Interior W9 1973 which he apparently uses for grinding charcoal for pigment. Hence the general reluctance to identify paintings by the name of the subject, since that would draw attention to the subject’s own objective life in the world beyond the painting. Hence part of the attraction, perhaps, of painting the subject naked if possible, since this means removing any evidence of the subject’s own taste.

It is this, rather than nudity or even a particular way of handling paint, that lies at the heart of Freud’s recognisable manner. Freud has shown a complete unwillingness to make his studio look like anything other than his studio, or to make his sitters look like anything other than people sitting for a painting by Lucian Freud. And easy though it might be to speculate on the psychological origins of such an approach, the reasons behind it really do not matter much. ‘Everything is autobiographical,’ Freud has said. This is spectacularly true in Freud’s portraits, if only for their insistence on recording his act of creating them. Freud the artist is everywhere in his pictures.

He is also everywhere in this exhibition. William Feaver, who curated this show, first met Freud in 1973 and is writing a biography of the painter. Freud seems to have been consulted over the choice of pictures and the way in which they have been hung. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that the retrospective he’s been given is basically the one he has made for himself – a portrait of the artist in his own work, as he wishes to be portrayed. It is, in itself, a work of art.

Not that I mean this as a criticism, really – more as a caveat. Because make no mistake – this is a marvellous, almost magically good show, bringing together a fascinating body of work and showing it off to spectacular advantage. Having Freud on board doubtless helped with everything from securing loans (including those from Freud himself) to providing a lively and stimulating catalogue essay. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that there may be other ways of reading Freud than those provided with his blessing. Any retrospective dealing with more than sixty productive years of an artist’s working life is bound to be, of necessity, selective. So what are we missing here? Certainly, some beautiful early work – for instance, a still-life of prawns which was shown at a London commercial gallery in 1998 – was not present in the show. This is not to say that there is any sinister pattern in these omissions – just that we simply cannot know what is missing, what is gently being pushed towards the foreground, or what is just as quietly being nudged out of the ambit of history.

William Feaver’s excellent catalogue, Lucian Freud, is a delight to read – the colours are good too – yet there are points at which Feaver’s willingness to accept Freud’s statements at face value is nothing short of shocking. Take, for example, his account of Freud’s transition from a comfortable, upper-middle-class Berlin household, complete with a familiar cast of servants, friends and schoolmates, to a liberal boarding school in Devon. Of life in Berlin we are told that

like the other two Jewish boys in his school he was ineligible for Hitler Youth but was told he wasn’t missing much, though the sausages were good.

Once in Devon, he took advantage of his new school’s liberal regime by spending most of his time tending goats, riding horses and avoiding lessons. Having been removed from this school, he was eventually expelled from his next school

not, it so happened, for having redirected a pack of foxhounds into the school hall and up the stairs (‘all flapping round’) but as a consequence of being dared to drop his trousers in a Bournemouth street.

Far be it from me to condemn Freud from deciding to portray himself as a dandyish tearaway rather than a miserable refugee (of whom he must have met quite a number during and after the war); perhaps he genuinely didn’t mind this radical dislocation in his life; perhaps his unwillingness to fit in at his new schools was simply an attractive gesture of individualism rather than a real crisis dealing with his changed circumstances; perhaps he never bothered to worry about what happened to friends and family left behind in Germany; perhaps all of this is simply fact, rather than desire to identify with heroes rather than victims. Or perhaps the legacy of his famous grandfather’s name was a permanent prophylactic to introspection. Who can say? The point, though, is this: if there is any self-mythologising going on, either regarding the work or the man, no one seems willing or able to challenge it. Freud is obviously a charismatic, compelling, engaging figure – a fact perfectly clear amid the turbulence surrounding his complex personal life – and he appears to have this retrospective exactly the way he wants it.

Again, it is possible to argue whether any of this matters much. It is possible to project more or less anything onto a painting. In recent decades it has become conventional for critics to ascribe to Freud near-mystical powers of psychological insight. As Feaver puts it in his notes to the exhibition, ‘the portrait of a painter friend, John Minton [1952], may be deemed to have anticipated, by five years, Minton’s suicide in 1957’. Really? Minton looks a bit anxious in his portrait, but so does Francis Bacon in the famous miniature (stolen, alas – location presently unknown) also painted in 1952. Had Bacon died in 1957, and Minton lived to an enjoyably disgraceful old age, once cannot help but feel that the Bacon portrait would have also ‘anticipated’ this development. The same goes for many of Freud’s other paintings onto which a particularly heavy load of biographical baggage has been heaped – for instance, Girl with a White Dog 1950-1, in which we can apparently see that his first wife, Kitty Garman, is ‘tense’ and ‘resigned to her role’, or Freud’s poignant and beautifully-rendered Last Portrait of Leigh 1995, painted before Freud knew that Bowry was dying of AIDS and yet seeming somehow, with those closed blue eyelids and parted lips, to foreshadow the death that lay only months away. When tackled about the meaning of his paintings, their weirder incidental details and so on, Freud tends to retreat into formal explanations, in which ‘visual interest’ plays a prominent part. Yet he must also realise – since he is one of those rare artists blessed or cursed with great skill in speaking about their visual work – that neither critics nor the general public can avoid creating narratives out of his compositions, and that – more to the point – given the subject-matter, these narratives can only add to the layers of myth surrounding his own eventful life.

There is yet another way in which an exhibition might have challenged Freud’s own account of himself. Again, I must stress that I mean this as no criticism of the present retrospective, which is probably the finest thing to happen on Millbank since the launch of Tate Britain – if anything, it is simply a point about the inherent limitations of the one-man retrospective. The problem with the single-artist formula is that, by its very nature, it strips the work out of any sort of context beyond its place in the artist’s personal development. Thus we have no idea of how the work might have looked at the time, where it might have found allies or enemies, what boundaries it might have been pushing, how it looked in the world for which it was made. As Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, put it in 1993,

It is interesting to remember that the many portraits [Freud] painted in the forties and fifties, in what is now considered his most romantic and gentle style, at the time were seen by many as shocking and violent and cruel.

She’s right, of course – this is interesting, but for those of us who didn’t see this work first time round, the full force of this point comes only from, say, memories of the Barbican’s recent show of 1950s art, and from some knowledge of the work of Bacon and Auerbach and Michael Andrews (and perhaps their Continental and trans-Atlantic contemporaries), together with some vague cognisance of British Pop Art and the much-heralded ‘death of painting’ – all of which can only be a weak substitute for the sort of show that would put Freud back into the context in which he was working.

Not least, this might shed some light on the interesting question of Freud’s actual skill as a painter. Freud seems to have taught himself more or less everything he knows about art, from the tiny, meticulous, obsessive sable-strokes of the earlier works down to that oddly additive style – paint dabbed on over paint, until the result looks like some sort of growth generated organically by the canvas itself – so evident, for instance, around Freud’s old-manish neck in Painter Working, Reflection 1993. ‘Learning to paint,’ Freud once said, ‘means learning how to use paint,’ and this retrospective provides a fascinating visual account of this programme of education. One thing seems fairly clear, though – facility has never been a problem for Freud. His draughtsmanship can be almost laughably bad (those feet in Painter Working, Reflection 1993, or the weirdly lurching servant in the frankly dreadful After Cézanne 2000. Indeed, there has to be a suspicion that his fondness for painting seated or recumbent figures stems not simply from the fact that these poses are the easiest to hold for long periods of time, but from his inability to make a figure look as if it is bearing its own weight on two legs. On the other hand, few artists have ever made flesh hang on bone and skin on flesh as Freud, at his best (the monumental Benefits Supervisor Resting 1994, those brilliantly-observed and strangely tender feet in Annabel Sleeping 1987-8, the old woman’s skin in The Painter’s Mother Resting III 1977) has been able to do.

I am not one of those critics who feel that Freud is entering, as Titian did, into a great late style. The later paintings in this show seemed to me considerably less good, less disciplined, less insightful than those in earlier rooms. Still, there were some delightful recent works, not least Daughter and Father 2002, tiny yet eloquent, and the lovely Frances Costello, where every single stroke of the brush seems to do something different and surprising and magical. Some of my favourite works in the show are physically small; the intimate scale seems to make it easier for Freud to control his effects. Yet there is also something strangely endearing about the hit-and-miss character of Freud’s art – a dandyish, devil-may-care bravado, but also a touching willingness to push himself a little bit further than he can easily go. This is why, despite the fact that his work can come across as excessively mannered or even technically inept, it seems so clear, on the evidence of this retrospective, that Freud really is our greatest living painter. I love Auerbach’s landscapes, but after he moved into a brighter palette in the 1960s and then a sweeter palette in the 1980s, he has, in essence, been ploughing the same furrow again and again. Hockney seems to me no longer British, slightly lazy in his fame, and no longer the tough draughtsman he was in the 1960s. And one could extend the list, but to what end? Freud produces failures as well as successes, but there is something heroic and admirable, as well as occasionally arrogant, about the vigour with which he does both. Freud emerges from this late self-portrait looking very great indeed.

The Lucian Freud retrospective (sponsored by UBS Warburg) runs from 20 June to 22 September at Tate Britain (tickets £9), and continues thereafter at Fundacio ‘la Calixa’, Barcelona, and thereafter at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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