Apart from his in-your-face paintings of the naked human figure, the thing that has given Lucian Freud more than his fair share of notoriety is his famous surname. He is, of course, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and the question that inevitably haunts his paintings is the extent to which they are informed by his distinguished grandfather's controversial ideas about the naked human psyche. More than he cares to acknowledge, as his thinking about the "transaction" -- his term, and a psychoanalytic one -- between artist and model indicates: for Lucian it is essentially the same as the transaction between analyst and analysand.
Just as the classical Freudian analyst tries to overcome the analysand's resistance to the unconscious truth about himself -- in effect stripping him emotionally naked within the safety of the clinical relationship -- so, for Lucian, the portrait painter struggles to overcome "the sitter's power of censorship," as he calls it, in order to convey the emotional truth about him or her. The difference is that the analyst wants to bring the analysand to consciousness in the hope of relieving his or her suffering by revealing its unconscious sources, while the portrait painter -- Lucian -- is interested in his own consciousness of the model, not in his or her consciousness.
It's a crucial difference: the difference between a concerned, helpful, knowledgeable analyst and a selfish artist whose pseudo-analysis of his models tells us more about his unconscious feelings and attitudes than theirs, especially because in the end he's more interested in making a good work of art -- whatever that might mean (and it keeps changing meaning) -- than in understanding or helping anyone. Lucian has no intention of liberating his model from the slavery of inner suffering. Instead, he exploits it to paint a "telling" portrait -- without quite realizing that it tells more about his inner life than the model's.
The notion of the censor is a key idea in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In a sense, the aim of dream interpretation is to lift the censorship that suppresses the meaning of the dream. The censorship is lifted -- never without resistance -- by associating to the manifest, conscious content of the dream in order to discover the latent, unconscious content it symbolizes. Lifting the censorship has a revelatory -- and salutary -- eureka effect: the naked truth -- the unconscious truth -- is suddenly uncovered.
Similarly, for Lucian, the aim of art is to lift the censorship imposed by the conventions of seeing to reveal the truth about what is seen. No longer stifled by the assumption of familiarity, seeing seems to become insight. What seemed everyday and boring becomes unexpectedly strange and exciting. Lucian once said: "When I look at a body I know it gives me choices of what to put in a painting; what will suit me and what won't. There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so." Lucian picks and chooses among the facts of the body to reveal the truth -- as he sees it -- about the sitter. Some facts seem more relevant to his or her personhood than others do, and the facts that do are also relevant to Lucian' unconscious sense of himself.
The problem is that the sitter, fearing "clinical exposure," resists the painter's "interrogative eye," to use Lucian's terms. He has said that "it is the task of the artist. . . to make the human being feel uncomfortable," but human beings don't want to feel uncomfortable -- vulnerable and anxious. (However uncomfortable they unconsciously -- and not so unconsciously -- are.) "Professional models" and "extreme narcissists" are always comfortable with themselves and their nakedness, Lucian remarked, which is why he never uses them as his models. Instead of such hardened types -- people so well-hidden behind their character armor that they don't know it hides a vulnerable body and anxious feelings -- Lucian preferred friends and family as models. Already familiar with each other, he lured them into the intimacy of posing naked, with the hope of catching their emotions off-guard, that is, uncensored by sociality -- by the civilizing proprieties that protect one from the predatory eye of the emotionally curious. (Perhaps a better term than interrogative eye, for it more accurately conveys Lucian's determination to pierce the social surface to get at the uncivilized emotional truth. In this he follows a modern trend that officially begins with Paul Gauguin¹s interest in the "savage" or "primitive," which he conceived of, as Rousseau did, as inherently "noble" -- one of the grand delusions of modern thinking and art.)
If nakedness was not discomforting and primitive enough, Lucian posed his models on cots, as though they were prisoners in the solitary cell of the picture. The narrow cot was all the more uncomfortable because one end often leaned on the floor while the other was raised, forming a steep incline that the model could slide off, as though falling into an emotional abyss -- which is what we see in many medieval scenes of hell and its tortures. In fact the model was often on a mattress flat on the floor, as though already fallen -- damned. Cruelly and precariously positioned, as though in free fall, the model seems condemned to a lonely death. Indeed, Freud looks at his models with the same detachment and aloofness -- he often views them from above, as though on a higher plane of consciousness -- with which an executioner looks at his victim. There are no comforts in Freud's studio; it is empty apart from the piles of discarded paint rags, which suggest that it is a wasteland -- a kind of emotional hell. In fact, Lucian's development charts his rebellious, agonized move away from the stylish comforts of home, depicted in his early work, toward the uncomfortableness he himself felt with life, which the harsh solitude of the studio objectifies. It is only in the studio that he can be true to himself; the home falsified him, that is, made him feel uncomfortable with himself. In the studio he apotheosizes his uncomfortableness with himself by projecting it into his models.
It seems clear that Lucian knows the basics of his grandfather's theory of dreams, at least in outline. But in his art psychoanalytic ideas lose their therapeutic purpose. Sadistic clinical exposure was never Sigmund's purpose; it became, however unconsciously, Lucian's main purpose. Once again cruelty is the royal road to major art in modernity, that is, art that conveys the corrosive effect on the self of living in the cruel modern world: with the death of Francis Bacon -- who encouraged Lucian to make the transition from socially polite to existentially potent art -- Lucian became the greatest English master of the anti-heroic body. The stresses of life are inscribed in its uncensored flesh. Flesh becomes uncanny in Lucian's paintings -- the flesh of feeling, more crucially, the flesh that conveys the feeling of inhabiting what Max Scheler called the lived body. Lucian prefers painting to photography "because feelings can enter [into] painting to an unlimited degree," in contrast to photography, where they enter "to a tiny extent" if at all. The "culture of photography," as he said, has lost the "tension" of the relationship between artist and model -- the tension generated by the inner resistance of the model to the artist, who finds it hard if not impossible to overcome (the vitality of the work grows out of the artist's great effort to do so, whether the effort succeeds or not) -- while in painting the tension remains intact, indeed, palpable in the paint.
It is in fact through the extremes of painterliness -- chaotically visceral paint, as tangible as it is visible -- that the feelings generated by the tug of war between Lucian and his sitter enter into his pictures. The painterly rendering of flesh makes it seem full of strong, uncontrolled feeling. Painterliness seems to strip the manifest body of its skin, exposing its emotional guts. Both the lived body and lived paint -- which is what genuinely tense painterliness is, for it is the painter's way of living and living through paint, indeed, identifying with its fluidity so that it becomes the medium of his inner life -- give off intense feelings, at once libidinous and aggressive, the way a radiator gives off heat.
Lucian is justly famous for his painterly flesh, which is more than equal to the fleshy paint of Willem de Kooning. For both painterliness conveys the emotional charge of naked flesh, but de Kooning, unlike Lucian, became, as he aged, a completely modernist painter. The material medium of paint became more important than the emotional medium of flesh in his late style -- indeed, de Kooning lost all feeling for the body, which disappeared from sight, and even for the bodiliness that painterliness can evoke (his no longer did) -- while in Lucian they remain inseparable. His sense of the truthfulness of the body became stronger and stronger with no sacrifice of his mastery of its facticity and his respect for the materiality of paint. Lucian remained true to the expressionist vision: to paint is to feel, even more deeply, to grasp the feelings latent in the body, indeed, generated by it.
What makes Lucian's paintings of human flesh especially startling is that they reveal the feeling of death latent in the body. Lucian does not angrily attack the body from the outside, as de Kooning does, but reveals the truth of its inevitable death -- the death hidden within it, slowly but surely becoming evident as it ages. Lucian's paintings show the secret death -- without resurrection -- within the still-living body. This is particularly evident in his 1982-84 portrait of his depressed mother. Her rigid body makes her seem all but dead. His 1989 portrait of her face in death completes the emotional picture: the death implicit in depression -- Soren Kierkegaard called it the sickness unto death and D. W. Winnicott, in his account of the mania that defends against it (the mania evident in Lucian's painterliness), calls it the death within -- has become explicit. Lucian's two great themes are the living of death and the inevitable death of the living. The isolation of his figures conveys the existential truth of the loneliness of death. He shows the corrosive emotional effect of the growing consciousness of it, which consciousness of the body catalyzes. It has been said that nothing concentrates the mind so well as consciousness of death. Lucian's bodies, for all their provocative painterliness and sexual explicitness -- another form of manic defense -- seem wonderfully concentrated, as though mindful of their own deaths.
It is this revelation of the irreversible suffering unto death built into the body that makes Lucian's paintings profoundly anti-heroic -- however heroic his (and art's) stand against time, as in Painter Working, Reflection (1993), a remarkable portrait of himself standing naked, palette in hand, in unlaced boots (he seems to personify art, in all its aging omnipotence and inherent vulnerability) -- in contrast to the heroic bodies of ancient warriors. Even when they are wounded and near death, as in the famous fallen barbarian, they emanate a vigorous life that transcends the noble body that is its vehicle.
Lucian Freud began his career in pursuit of linear esthetic perfection. But in 1954, in what had to have been a mid-life emotional as well as mid-career artistic crisis -- probably involving the realization that he was likely to end up a minor master if he continued to work in a manner and medium that he had become too comfortable with -- he stopped drawing for seven years. It was as though he realized the falseness of the "enamel-like, precise surfaces of his earlier works" -- they were meticulous drawings, however painted, reflecting his admiration of Ingres -- in comparison to what he later called the "superior potency" of paint. As John Russell wrote, Freud had used "drawing as a means of keeping painting at bay" -- and, one might add, the carnality and sensuality, that is, bodiliness, it evokes.
To this day Freud finds painting difficult, as he has acknowledged -- which is why his paintings continue to be full of life, however much they make us conscious of the death we prefer to be unconscious of -- no doubt because of the difficulty of lifting his sitter's censorship, which makes for the (necessary) tension of their relationship. He seems to have begun to paint under the influence of Francis Bacon, a friend he portrayed in 1952. His first paintings, exhibited in 1958, were badly received. They were regarded as crude and coarse -- vulgar. Kenneth Clark, famous for his distinction between the nude and the naked body, essentially a distinction between the refined and the raw -- Freud, like Bacon, abolished the difference (although his figures tend to be more raw than refined, while Bacon's suavely blend the raw and refined, which is why they seem civilized however barbaric) -- congratulated Freud on the exhibition and never spoke to him again. Thus polite society passed judgment on his painting. It preferred the familiar illustrator, whose drawings conformed to social and esthetic norms -- even in their very English eccentricity, which added tang to their tastefulness -- to the violent, irreverent, transgressive new painter, going into all too human territory, usually repressed. Freud's new paintings were, after all, too "Freudian." He had come into his own by identifying with his grandfather, spurred on by the already Freudian Bacon.
It was also an identification with masculinity: to paint was to be manly. Drawing was implicitly feminine for him -- literally drawing room art. Drawing also meant submission to the sitter, while in painting he could dominate the sitter -- forcefully overcome his or her inner resistance in what was in effect painterly rape. Painterliness was uncensored painting, as it were -- painting that was not censored or constrained by the niceties of drawing, and thus did not fit into the drawing room -- which is why the people Freud portrayed in a virulently painterly way seem like social outcasts, whether naked or not. Leigh Bowery¹s corpulent body -- a theatrical mountain of soft flesh -- was a "great performance," as Freud said, but so was his painterly rendering of it, which made Bowery's nonconformity explicit. (It is worth noting that Sigmund Freud once compared the interplay of id, ego and superego in the psyche to the interplay of forms and ideas in a painting, suggesting that Lucian's paintings can be understood as the interplay of id painterliness, ego representation and superego / social censorship.)
Lucian himself felt like an outcast and misfit -- someone who could never fit into proper English society. Like Bowery, he was socially unassimilable, not because of his body or even because he was an artist, but because he was a Jewish foreigner, and one with a notorious name. He was like the three-legged horse he depicted in his only sculpture, made in art school. His early work is full of horses, suggesting that he identified with them. Indeed, he had seriously considered becoming a jockey. One of his earliest memories is of a fire in the stables of his maternal grandfather's country estate near Kotbus. It was a traumatic event, which had to have occurred before he was 11 (he was born in 1922), when his family emigrated from Berlin to London, in response to Hitler's rise to power -- no doubt another traumatic, disorienting event. (Sigmund Freud emigrated from Vienna to London after the 1937 Anschluss.) The horse is a potent symbol. Sigmund Freud's case study of Little Hans's horse phobia tells us what it can mean for a young boy, and D. H. Lawrence's story Saint Mawr makes the horse's sexual, masculine, even paternal significance explicit. Nietzsche's madness showed itself when he embraced a horse on a street in Turin, sympathizing and identifying with it after watching it being abused -- in effect castrated -- by its owner. Whether censored or uncensored by society -- whether domesticated or wild -- the horse is a convenient symbol of instinctive or animal power.
It is hard to know exactly what the horse means unconsciously for Lucian Freud, but in Horse on a Beach (1944) the horse kicks over a basket of fish, suggesting that it is an aggressive free spirit. It is clearly a rebellious act. Just as Leonardo released birds from cages, so Freud releases fish from their prison. Is he suggesting that he cannot contain his feelings, which are as slippery as fish? Do they smell fishy? The Painter's Room (1943) and Quince on a Blue Table (1943-44) are perhaps more to the psychosocial point. In both works -- they are clearly Surreally inspired, for they have a dream-like character -- a horse is incongruously placed in a civilized space. It is an outlandish intruder, indeed, a wild jungle animal, as its zebra stripes suggest. In the former picture it comes through the window, hovering over a fancy couch -- the civilized predecessor of what later became the crude cot -- which may allude to his grandfather's famous couch (although it is probably from an Ingres painting). In the latter picture the horse studies the quince, suggesting that it is an artist, confirming that Freud identifies with it. (Freud drew many still lifes, and still life continued to be prominent in his portraits. The parts of his bodies often seem like still life objects. He tends to separate the features of the face as though they are individual objects even as the contour of the head keeps them together.)
The horse is gigantic relative to the space it inhabits, suggesting omnipotence if also social awkwardness and uncomfortableness. It clearly doesn't fit in the space, and certainly doesn't belong in it -- it is not exactly a pet. It is an alien from another emotional planet, and conveys Freud's feeling of social alienation. But social space is also used as studio space, suggesting that Freud has found an artistic way to deal with his alienation. He turns it into the solitude necessary for creativity. (It has been said that Freud did not make the most of his social opportunities, but for him social space symbolized self-loss.)
Animals remained potent symbols for Freud. He remembers seeing the stuffed bulldog straining on a leash in front of a store selling canine outfits in the Burlington Arcade in London. T. S. Eliot refers to the same bulldog -- a symbol of England (once they bite, bulldogs never let go, which is why they have become a symbol of tenacity) -- in The Family Reunion (Part II, Scene II). Freud remarked that "It frightened everyone for about a second. I was really affected by the thought of this." The aggressive, terrifying bulldog is an even more potent symbol of animal power -- and autonomy -- than the horse. It frightens everyone and nothing frightens it, and however tame it may seem it is dangerous to get close to it. Is it too much to believe that Freud wants to bring out the bulldog quality -- the raw animal power and instinctive aliveness -- in seemingly socially tamed people? Stripping them naked already turns them into animals, for the body is our animal self however artistically it may be rendered (as though art could civilize nature, which it never convincingly nor completely does). And focusing on their genitals, the most obviously animal, raw, uncivilized part of the body, and the most difficult to tame, confirms their animal essence, and makes them even more frightening, if only for a second.
In one notorious picture (1977-78) a rat accompanies a naked man, as though it was his erection, suggesting his predatory sexual power and cunning. In Double Portrait (1985-86) a dog symbolizes the sexual bond between the figures, and perhaps their fidelity to one another (as it does in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Portrait). In Juliet Moore Asleep (1943) the monkey doll symbolizes the lust in which she was conceived -- a no doubt wild but unavoidable interpretation, like my notion that the monkey in the 1978 drawing of Girl with a Monkey suggests her lust -- the monkey on her back, as it were. (A monkey on a chain -- that is, under control [like the bulldog] -- symbolizes the vice of lust in Seurat's La Grand Jatte, and probably in Bruegel's painting of a chained monkey.)
Lust has always been a subtext of Freud's pictures, as Interior in Paddington (1951) suggests. An isolated male figure furtively looks at a boy in the street, as though in homoerotic yearning. Naked Man with His Friend (1978-80) makes the sexual dimension of Freud's portraits explicit. That it tends to be perverse sexuality seems clear from Freud's drawing of a boy raising his penis to show his anus, a work which seems related to Freud's admitted debt to Aubrey Beardsley's Lysistrata illustrations, with their suggestion of sodomy. (Having sex like an animal usually means having perverse sex.)
Freud has a copy of Rodin's "painterly" Balzac at the entrance to his studio. He probably knows that Rodin initially conceived the bulldog-like Balzac -- he seems indestructible, defiant and omnipotent -- as naked and with an erection. Rodin's masculinist work is usually regarded as the first modern sculpture. One wonders if Bowery's flaccid, oddly female body is the last one. Or perhaps Freud's own aged, naked, emaciated body. Freud has always been interested in the sculptural potential of the body, and his bodies have a strong sculptural presence. Their painterliness makes them seem modeled out of clay -- mortal clay. His heads in particular often come close to Bacon's in their sculptural painterliness. They sometimes seem more ruthlessly naked than his bodies, as in Reflection (Self-Portrait) (1981-82). He scrutinizes his own vulnerability and aggression. In another self-portrait he aggressively stalks us from the bush, as though hiding his vulnerability, like Adam after the fall.
Ingres has been called "the saint of Freud's imagination and of modern classicism generally," and Herbert Read called Freud "the Ingres of Existentialism." But I think there is something ironical in Freud's use of Ingres. He has said that "Ingres' history painting has the humor of madness," which reminds me of Winnicott's remark that we are "able, so to speak, to flirt with the psychosis" so long as we see the humor in it, for humor gives us a certain defensive distance from insanity, whether our own or society's. It is the hope at the bottom of the Pandora's Box of emotional evils that the psyche seems to be. Freud has also expressed his admiration for Frans Hals -- one can see the affinity of their brushstrokes -- and Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, with its famous mortified flesh of Christ, which is clearly an ancestor of Freud's morbid, flagellated flesh. So how does one get Ingres together with Hals -- who more obviously has a sense of humor -- and Grünewald, who has no humor at all? I think Freud saw the humor in Ingres' bizarre version of classical perfection -- it has an aura of schizoid untouchability -- and the madness in Grünewald's vision of the crucifixion and resurrection. And also the madness and humor in the stuffed bulldog in the Burlington Arcade. It is the ideal work of art for Freud -- indeed, the model of the effect art should have -- for it brilliantly exemplifies the madness and humor innate to art. Just as Ingres, Grünewald, Hals and the bulldog do, art takes one in for a second (which is what makes it good, at least for the second) -- like a psychotic hallucination, the illusion spontaneously becomes real -- until one recoils from it in the critical consciousness evident in humor, and even created and supported by it. Humor comes to the rescue, like a saving grace, awakening us from the hallucinatory madness that makes artistic illusion convincing.
It's after all just a game or fun -- make-believe, a theatrical mirror whose distortions we mistake for the naked truth. It is as though one has awakened from a dream, realizing, after all, that it is only a dream -- a bad dream, like Freud¹s vision of the body, but still just a dream, that is, an artistic "representation" of a body. It certainly feels real, but that's just a feeling. Humor is the blessing in the midst of the curse of life -- the fact that it is just an illusion we mistake for reality, for we unconsciously know it will soon end -- which is what good art makes obvious. Good art makes the madness of the mistake evident, while allowing it. I am suggesting that Freud unconsciously regards his own art with more than a grain of humor, for otherwise he could not handle existential terror -- the madness of the body, indeed, the trauma and curse of having a body (which is what Grünewald¹s Isenheim crucifixion is about) -- with such troubling dexterity. That is, with a painterly cunning more than equal to our cunning body, which is traumatized and stigmatized when its sexuality is repressed by society, which is why Freud blatantly expresses its animality.
The retrospective exhibition "Lucian Freud" is currently on view at Tate Britain in London, July 20-Sept. 22, 2002. It is slated to travel to the Centro Cultural de la Fundació la Caixa in Barcelona, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Feb. 9-May 25, 2003.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.