Recently, I made it over to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the Freud exhibit, a retrospective of Lucien Freud’s artwork, and was reluctantly impressed. Though the subject matter was sometimes perverse, demanding, and grotesque, the craft of his portraiture held me spellbound. For me, the intense physicality of Freud’s work was the most impressive. Like Egon Schiele, an Austrian painter prolific in the early 1900s, the curves of the body and the twisting of the muscles underneath the skin, emphasized the psychological and emotional intensity. I so dearly love both of those artists’ treatments of the planes of the body. I don’t love that both of them play with perversions of sexuality. Schiele’s work is a less fraught, more peep-show, than Freud’s invasions and possessions of his subjects. But sensuality is critical for both artists.
In the earlier portraits, it was the quality of lines that conveyed the combination of scientific attention and emotionality. Many of these paintings, for their emotional distance and emphasis on isolation, reminded me of Edward Hopper’s work. The people in both artists work exist in close proximity to one another, but don’t make eye contact and rarely touch. Freud’s Father and Daughter, 1949, is one of the only portraits that includes people in contact with one another. 1954’s Hotel Bedroom is a monument to emotional isolation amid physical proximity. So much in that image is broken and breaking, and the treatment of the subverted, melancholic turmoil with color and style is just gorgeous.
Freud habitually exaggerated the size of the hands, eyes and lips of his subjects, especially in his earlier work. This intrigued me, since those are generally considered sexual attributes, and important to human evaluations of each other’s attractiveness. I wondered whether he consciously emphasized these aspects of his models, and if so, why. It was also interesting given the public’s awareness of Freud’s promiscuity.
Of the entire exhibit, I was most disturbed by his treatment of women and children, especially in his early paintings. Often he painted women and children naked or partially naked, acutely and sometime uncomfortably observed. This intimacy didn’t seem particularly invited or welcome. Of all the uncomfortable moments during the Freud exhibit, viewing Large Interior, Paddington, 1968-9, was the most disconcerting. It seemed an almost total exploitation of this young girl, lying exposed and vulnerable on the barren floor in the fetal position. Only after reading the label did I learn that the child was, in fact, his daughter. The refusal to acknowledge the identity of women and children in these early paintings was, I thought, derogatory. He seemed to use them but not to honor them, almost rejecting their value as individuals because they were women and children. His gaze fell especially harshly upon children. I cannot pretend to understand what might have provoked that perspective, but that the museum’s treatment of the collection barely mentioned it.
As his style evolved, the application of the paint and the treatment of edges became thicker, more worked. By the end of the retrospective, it was clear that Freud thought of himself as an artist. As his public reputation grew, so did the scale of his portraits, his demands on his models, and the texture of his paint. It was around these that Freud lost me; he became more of a persona than an artist. Though I was still fascinated by his work, it was morbidly so and his motivations seemed more superficial. His work became less complex, for me, because it seemed more actively driven by external forces. In general, I felt that his persona as an artist swamped and overpowered the quality of his artwork.
This exhibit was both interesting and worth being seen, but I think the art would be more impressive if viewed apart from Freud’s name. Seen on a wall, hung discretely in the National Portrait Gallery, viewers would inevitably be drawn to the work, drawn to the drama and the tension. In that context, viewers would be allowed to experience the power and skill of the work before they evaluated it through the lens of public perception of Freud. He’s such a complex and demanding artist that the art should be contextualized within his life only after after the art has stood alone.
laissez les bon temps rouler,