Writing about the history of portraiture, the great art historian Max J. Friedländer remarks that "the heightening of self-consciousness, so favorable to the development of the portrait when found in the object, became a stumbling block to it in the subject, i.e. the creative artist."(1) The problem, Friedländer continues, is that "the job of painting a portrait entails something akin to obsequiousness, against which creative power puts up a fight. Apart from the fact that the object, the appearance as given, demands to be observed accurately and objectively, thus limiting the artistís freedom, his imagination, his spirit, the portraitist is quite specifically in a subservient position."
But the portraitist has one subtle weapon against the object and its appearance, one ironical escape from obsequiousness and subservience: "The painter seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself. The portraitistís gift lies in the ability to spot this moment and hang on to it." This is Dostoyevsky, quoted by Friedländer, who agrees that the portraitist paints this moment of concordance, however illusory -- the fleeting moment in which the painter imagines he finds himself in the model, so that in representing the model he represents himself. It is the dialectical moment when the artistís creative power puts up a fight against the irresistible object while succumbing to it.
The painter in effect projects himself into his model on the basis of an unconscious identification with the model, articulated through the momentary illusion of their physical resemblance, suggesting their emotional affinity. More subtly, a successful portrait is the portrait of a transference: the model looks most like the painter when the model symbolizes, unconsciously, some internal object in the painter, thus substituting for a lost, forgotten object -- representing what has come to seem unrepresentable. Obscure but evoked by the external object that the model is, the model represents, in contemporary form, some sedimented relational experience from the remote past, which the painter unwittingly recovers by representing the model. If all representation is the representation of an internal object by way of an external object -- a Symbolist as well as psychoanalytic idea -- then the painter is drawn to the model because the model represents his dearest internal object. And if, as Freud wrote, "hysterics suffer from repressed memories," then portrait painting is a hysterical attempt to remember emotional truths that have been repressed in the form of memories.
Thus, the successful portrait has a cathartic purpose, suggesting that a genuinely convincing representation of external reality -- that is, one which seems to be what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls a creative apperception, so much so that it makes us forget, for a moment, the art involved in achieving the illusion, appreciating the work as an insight into experience rather than approaching it as a discourse to be analyzed -- suggests the painterís achievement of an objective perspective on his own internal reality. Only such rich verisimilitude, compelling us to take the perspective of the artist, convinces us that the portrait speaks the universal emotional truth. We and the portrayed person seem conscious of it. Thus we move from the surface to the depth in a creative apperception of our own, suggesting that the seriously engaged spectator unconsciously works through his or her own feelings about his or her objects while consciously working through the work of art -- especially when it is a portrait. A successful portrait is thus a specious presence: timeless internal object and timely external object combine to form a presence more magically alive -- and seemingly self-conscious -- than either one can ever have by itself.
Thus portrait painting is an act of projective identification with primitive emotional roots. It involves a wish for closeness and intimacy, even attachment and reciprocity, thus denying the distance between painter and model and the chance character of their relationship, indeed, suggesting that it is inevitable and memorable -- that it has existed from the beginning of time and will survive its end. Such absolute transcendence of chance and separateness can only be achieved in and through the act of art: the seemingly literal portrait is in fact a regressive fantasy of the undifferentiated unity of painter and model -- a fantasy that exists only in the painterís psyche. It is clearly a fantasy of controlling omnipotence: the alienating difference between artist and model -- their different roles and responsibilities in their relationship -- is overcome in the fantasy that is the portrait.
The point is that the portraitist insinuates himself -- his own subjectivity -- into the object, so that, in the final portrait, it is not always clear, even to the psychologically sensitive observer, whether it is the subjectivity of the object or of the artist that is exposed. Is it Helga that we are looking at or is it Andrew Wyethís Helga, and thus as much -- perhaps more -- Wyeth than Helga, however obviously the woman in On Her Knees (1977) is female rather than male? Are we looking at a naked woman, or does Lucian Freudís Naked Portrait (1999) tell us more about himself than about her, however conspicuously female she is? Do both nudes unconsciously represent the dissociated female side of the male artists, or are they simply being as persuasively objective as they know how to be? Clearly the portraits must be a compound of the artistís and modelís subjectivities, signaling both the artistís conflict with his object and his reconciliation with it.
And his narcissism: the portraitist struggles to become attuned to the characteristic affects of his model -- to render a so-called inner likeness as well as an outer likeness, each reinforcing the other -- but he may in emotional fact be using the model to mirror and display his own typical affects, sometimes to idealize them as though they were perennially caring, sometimes to devalue them as though they were absolutely despicable. The model may be the painterís alter ego, but her ego is only an extension of his.
A feminist art historian has argued that a male painter paints a female model for sexual reasons, and another feminist art historian has argued that the female model is always the victim of the sexualized male gaze. But sexuality is an instrument and vehicle for selfhood, and sometimes a veneer on it. As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes, "the self. . . must precede the selfís use of instinct,"(2) and portraiture is an issue of selfhood, not sexuality, however sexually provocative a portrait of a nude may seem. Psychosexuality is undoubtedly present in the relationship between male artist and female model, but it remains a matter of their self-understanding rather than behavior. Just as a cigar is not always a penis, so portraying a model is not always copulating with her. Lucian Freudís paintings of the female nude may in fact be a masculine protest (to use the psychoanalyst Alfred Adlerís term), against the threat of femininity. That is, Freud manhandles the female body so that the spectator will not suspect him of being feminine, as his delicate early drawings were thought to be.
Indeed, as his self-portraits show, Lucian Freud is as hard on himself as he is on the soft female body. Not a shred of the tender feeling evident in the drawings is left in the paintings, suggesting that their assertiveness has a suppressive as well as an expressive purpose. Their Sturm-und-Drang intensity hides more than it reveals.
In short, in "render[ing] an immortal account of the idiosyncratic" in the model, to use Friedländerís words again, the artist renders an immortal account of his own idiosyncratically urgent identity, if only through the filter and mediation of the modelís dramatized appearance. Indeed, it can be argued that the "something strange" in the proportions of beauty that the philosopher Francis Bacon spoke of is a sign of the presence of the artist in the object. Emotionally felt yet physically absent, the artist is the hidden force to be reckoned with in the final account of the exposed object.
The finished portrait, then, is a kind of compromise formation -- an artistic dialectical resolution of what remains an unresolved relationship. The best portraits seem uncanny and convincing because we sense the unconscious conflict repressed by the conscious compromise. The preparatory drawings for many portraits tend to be less convincing because they show the artist struggling to be objective about the modelís appearance -- to capture an exact likeness -- or else so radically subjective that they lose sight of the modelís objective appearance and thus seem gratuitous, not to say an impulsive acting out of contradictory feelings.
For example, Freudís 1962 drawing of Lawrence Gowing suggests Freudís own grotesque psyche and mental disturbance -- a grotesqueness and psychopathology which are under greater compositional control in his paintings, where they are also subject to the demands of objective observation, so that the object seems to have less violence done to it, however violently it may be rendered -- and Wyethís drawings of Helga have a pedestrian objectivity, for all their sensitivity and delicacy, in contrast to his more subjectively dynamic paintings of her. Both kinds of drawing destroy the balance of power -- and potential for harmony -- between artist and model.
What I am getting at is that the relationship between artist and model is rather complicated, involving a subject and object, their consciousness of each other, and their unconscious feelings, fantasies, and attitudes to each other, that is, what they wish, need and expect from each other. But since we only have the artistís painting of the model, we are able to know more about the painterís psychic position than about the modelís psychic position, for it is the painter that after all positioned and represented the model in a certain way. This often occurs in the painterís studio -- an environment of his own making -- suggesting that the model submits to the painterís will, however voluntarily the model agreed to be portrayed, whether for money, friendship, vanity or simply to be included in the social and historical record.
Submitting to the painterís will means being put in the painterís psychic position, indeed, functioning as a kind of double for the portraitist. Every portrait is indeed a self-portrait, that is, a representation of the inner life of the portraitist, however much it is also a response to the external appearance of the model and what the painter thinks it tells him about the modelís inner reality.
The relational character of portrait-making is explicitly acknowledged in Lucian Freudís description of it as a "transaction." It is a special transaction, one in which he tries to overcome "the sitterís power of censorship," to use his words, which are clearly reminiscent of his grandfather Sigmund Freudís idea of the dream censor developed in The Interpretation of Dreams. The conflict between the dream censor and the unconscious wish that is the dreamís latent content results in the distortion, that is, unrealistic representation, called the manifest content of the dream that fulfills the wish. Now I want to argue that this idea of overcoming the sitterís power of censorship is equivalent to what the psychoanalyst calls overcoming the patientís resistance to facing the unconscious truth about him or herself. I suggest that this is implicit in every serious effort of portraiture, that is, every artistic effort to disclose the core self. There is nothing new in this, but what is new in Freudís approach to the model is the aggressive determination with which he tries to strip the sitter of the self-defensive power of censorship.
Indeed, Freud attempts to overpower the sitter -- he relates to the sitterís power, not to the sitter as a whole person -- with the power of his art. His distortion of the sitterís appearance acknowledges the sitterís inner power even as it objectifies the artistís creative power over the sitter.
I submit that it is a sadistic creativity in Freudís case -- that Freud is profoundly hostile toward the sitter, and that his creativity is an expression of this hostility. It is because of this that his attempted, indeed, forced disclosure of the sitterís selfhood becomes an act of violation -- more a brusque act of exposure, against the will of the sitter, and more in the interest of the painter than the sitter, than a discreet act of disclosure, with the cooperation of the sitter, indeed, by the sitter. Freud deforms, or suggests the inner deformity of the sitter by placing him or her in an awkward, uncomfortable position, making the sitter look ugly.
Lucian Freud himself has said that "it is the task of the artist. . . to make the human being feel uncomfortable" -- presumably the spectator as well as the sitter -- in order to achieve what he calls "clinical exposure." Others have called it his "alarming candor" -- alarming because it seems to devalue what it so candidly discloses.
"Clinical exposure" is clearly his distorted idea of what occurs in the clinical situation, suggesting his hatred and fear of it -- he apparently has never been psychoanalyzed, however mentally disturbed he has acknowledged he was as a child -- as well as his contempt for his grandfather, the founder of psychoanalysis. Clinical exposure may be analytically necessary, but Freud totally forgets that it is carried out in the name of healing, that is, the relief of suffering and to enable psychic change for the better. Instead of offering mastery of trauma, Freud suggests that it is too ingrained to be mastered -- certainly not by art, which can only ruthlessly expose it. The relationship of analyst and analysand -- the so-called analytic dyad -- is the model of the relationship of artist and model for Freud, but he has no understanding of the dynamics of the relationship, certainly not of his own negative countertransference to the model, let alone the modelís transference to him.
If ugliness means hatefulness, as the dictionary tells us, then Freud hates the sitter. And if the ugliness that is deformity suggests injury and defectiveness, as the psychoanalyst John Rickman argues, then it is Freud who has injured the sitter, as though by deforming the sitter he was making the defectiveness of human beings in general explicit. They are defective because they are distorted by desire -- they twist and squirm with uncontrollable desire, like figures in a medieval hell, which is what many of Freudís anguished figures resemble. They are in effect enlarged close-ups of bodies tortured by desire -- desire somatized, as it were. Desire is the original defect, from a Judeo-Christian point of view, particularly when it is desire for another human being rather than for the God who created human beings, that is, rather than a wish to return to and adore oneís origin. In making desire grotesquely manifest and inescapable -- grotesque just because it is inescapable -- Freud seems to triumph over it, if only in the dream of his art. But in fact he is projecting his own insatiable, omnipotent desire onto the model, thus distorting its appearance -- while punishing it for its desire. The model is in effect his scapegoat, that is, the model is the victim of Freudís conscious desire and his unconscious guilt about his barely controllable desire -- the fact that he has had more than 15 children suggests just how uncontrollable -- however controlled it may seem to be in his art. It is embodied in carefully composed figures -- which hardly makes their bodies desirable -- as though in compensation for their lack of inner composure, not to say self-containment.
Thus the deformation and ugliness to which Freud subjects the modelís body conveys its guilt-ridden desire in a futile effort to purge it. According to Rickman, "people. . . regard deformity of body or defect in growth, whether generalized or localized, and whether seen in the flesh or in a representation, as ugly."(3) The reasons for this are "quite complicated. There is a component derived from the anxiety about personal mutilation which comes from an identification with the victim of the distortion; but since the mind resists the idea that the self is ever horrible this factor of identification with a dreaded sight cannot in itself lend much strength to the feeling that the object is ugly. There is, however, sometimes another component derived from an identification with the aggressor who has produced the distortion; such pleasure as is harbored in the unconscious on this account is manifest in consciousness as discomfort due to guilt, the direct perception of guilt feelings as such being suppressed. In the case of a work of art the aggressor is clearly the artist."
It is the ugliness of unexpressed guilt that we see in Freudís portraits as well as the ugliness of desire, which is why his figures seem self-mutilated and why we feel mutilated and ugly when we see them, and also why we cannot help taking them seriously as self-representations.
Freudís violent, disrespectful, ultimately destructive treatment of the sitter is more conspicuous than the sitterís power of censorship. But that power survives in the form of the sitter closing his or her eyes or averting his or her glance from the artist and spectator, or simply turning away, making the sitter inscrutable and unreachable. This is the case even when the artist consciously poses the sitter turned away or with eyes closed or looking sideways, for it is the artistís unconscious way of acknowledging the rights, power and dignity of the sitter -- ultimately the sitterís separateness, independence and autonomous identity. Freud may do what he wants with the sitterís body, sadistically attacking it -- indeed, all but flagellating it, so that it often seems like raw flesh -- but the sitter remains true to his or her self, surviving the artistic abuse and torture, indeed, holding out and enduring by remaining silent, confessing nothing, that is, disclosing nothing of what is inside him or herself. The sitterís body may be exposed, but the core self is not, however evident the desire that makes it twist restlessly, all the more so because it is forced back on itself by Freudís sadistic examination of its flesh. Defended by silence, the sitter retains integrity in defiance of Freudís effort to destroy him or her.
These telling little details of the sitterís expression, and even posture -- however vulnerable it makes the sitter seem, there is a certain strength and forcefulness in it -- show that the sitter is sufficiently self-contained to survive the artistís sadistic attack, suggesting that the sitter is not the masochist he or she sometimes seems to be. Why, after all, should the sitter give up his or her power of censorship, since Freudís motives, unlike those of the psychoanalyst, are destructive rather than constructive? Freud beats the sitter as though it was a bad object, but it reconstructs its goodness by not responding to the beating -- by a certain indifference to the artist, or at least withdrawal from him.
Freudís violent handling of the sitter does not do the sitter any good, nor does it give the sitter much insight into him or herself. But it does give us insight into Freudís place in modern art. He is a modest practitioner of what the psychoanalyst Michael Balint calls "the dissolution of object-representation" characteristic of modern art. To rebel against the object to the extent of dissolving it is to assert oneís own creative power, but it is also to withdraw into oneself as though one is the only object in the world. Compared to photography, "feelings can enter painting to an unlimited degree," Freud states, but the feelings that enter his paintings are more his than the objectís. As Balint writes, "this trend, getting away from the object and putting more and more emphasis on the subjective processes in the mind of the artist, seems to be universal in modern art."(4)
The resulting art is narcissistic, but "narcissistic states are unstable because the tension in them is so great that they break down, disintegrate spontaneously even without any forceful attack from outside." In contrast, "states in which there is a satisfactory relation to objects are usually stable, even when under severe external strain." For Balint, the "narcissistic withdrawal" or "narcissistic preoccupation" of modern art, which signifies the absence of the artistís satisfactory, stable relation to an object, leads to its disintegration, or rather the artist projects his sense of impending disintegration into the object, disintegrating it. More particularly, he subverts the object representations or internal objects integrated in his sense of self, confirming that he has no core sense of self. Isolated in himself, he has no self, because he has no self-objects, to use the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohutís term -- unless the artistís portrait of the object is the artistís self-object manquť. To put this another way, the portrait of the model rather than the model is the artistís real narcissistic object.
This is because the artistic result of narcissistic aggrandizement of the object is regressive, as Balint argues. The art "cannot remain on the mature level; it assumes more and more immature Ďpre-genitalí forms. . . . The treatment of the object, or the artistís attitude to it, i.e. his fantasies, feelings, emotions, ideas, images, etc., when stimulated by his chosen object, are conspicuously on what psychoanalysis would describe as the anal-sadistic level. The objects are dismembered, split, cruelly twisted, deformed, messed about; the dirty, ugly qualities of the objects are Ďrealisticallyí and even Ďsurrealisticallyí revealed; some forms and methods of representation in Ďmodern artí are highly reminiscent of primitive Ďanalí messing; less and less regard is paid to the objectís feelings, interests and sensitivities; kind consideration for, and Ďidealizationí of, the object becomes less and less important." For the psychoanalyst George Frankl, such ruthless sadism is the inevitable consequence of the modern tendency to "regressive desublimation." It is an attack on "the cultural Superego, a demand to express any impulse previously considered taboo." Indeed, it is an anarchistic attack on "sublimation itself, the foundation of culture." The nihilistic end-result is what the psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel calls the "reconstitution of Chaos," that is, the creation of a so-called "anal universe" in which all difference tends to be obliterated, or not respected.
I suggest that one can see this chaos in the repulsive flesh of Lucian Freudís bodies, which for all their apparent realism are a sum of savage details that add up to a surreal whole. Freudís gruesome, oddly anonymous bodies are so many ugly messes abandoned in space. They are corpses in all but name, bodies twisted in the final agony of death, ironically making them seem more impulsive than they were in life. It may seem strange to say so, but Freudís figures are reminiscent of the death camp victims the Nazis left behind, unable to complete their liquidation because of the rapid approach of the Allied forces. Photographs of the victims were readily available at the time when Freud took up painting. Since feelings enter into photographs only "to a tiny extent," as Freud said, the victims had to be painted, to bring out their final chaotic feelings as well as the focused sadistic feelings of those who systematically murdered them.
Freudís figures are a synthesis -- or condensation, as the psychoanalysts would say -- of these incommensurate feelings, confirming their dream-like character. I am suggesting that Freudís empirically ferocious, death-inflected bodies -- certainly a long way from the idealized nudes of antiquity, to use Kenneth Clarkís distinction between the naked body and the nude body -- are uncanny relics of the Holocaust, or at least associated with it in his unconscious. Freud and his family might have been among its many victims if they had not fled to London before it officially began.
Can one say that Freud is taking Jewish revenge on Christian bodies? Do they become, in his unconscious fantasy, the Jewish bodies the Nazis dissolved into smoke, rationalizing their liquidation by objectifying them as human garbage, that is, disposable Untermenschen, as the Nazis called the non-Aryan Jews? Does this mean that Freud unconsciously identified with the anti-Semite aggressors, even as he expressed his contempt for them by victimizing them -- a disidentification, as it were? Many were still alive, outspoken, and prominent in England -- T. S. Eliot was one(5) -- which, it may be recalled, is the place where the yellow star originated and the first place from which the Jews were expelled. The ambivalent Anglo-Jewish component in Freudís mentality -- his sense of being a Jewish foreigner in English society, and thus just as uncomfortable himself as he wants to make his model -- remains to be thoroughly investigated.
In contrast to Freudís harsh treatment, shameless exposure and pre-genital attitude towards the model, Wyeth has a more idealizing, genitally mature attitude, allowing the model to exist in unashamed autonomy. Where Freudís figures suggest unhealthy decay -- a decay epitomized by his 1970 painting Wasteground, Paddington, which conveys the same sense of isolation, abandonment and disconnection evident in Interior in Paddington (1951), all the more so because the plant seems alive and full of itself compared to the depressing and depressed figure Ė- Wyethís Helga seems radiantly healthy and whole. She is a whole object in good spirits, even if sometimes pensive -- though never melancholy -- rather than a traumatically twisted object about to tear itself apart. Wyeth is not attacking her but appreciating her. Quietly being in her presence -- watching her exist in seemingly hermetic aloneness (as distinct from the perverse loneliness of Freudís figures, their abortive longing for a relationship they are incapable of) -- is more important for Wyeth than intrusively proclaiming his own presence by impulsively manhandling her body. Wyeth wants to witness Helga, not appropriate her, as Freud does with his models. Wyeth wants to let her be rather than scoop her out -- turn her inside-out -- as Freud would do.
Imagine Freudís portrait of Helga; it would probably reek of unconscious envy rather than conscious gratitude, to refer to the psychoanalyst Melanie Kleinís distinction. What Freud destroys because it is bad, Wyeth repairs and restores, suggesting its innate goodness.
Empathy and respect are implicit in Wyethís Helga portraits, just as hatred and contempt are implicit in Freudís. Wyeth has entered what Winnicott calls the "area of concern" that Freud hardly knew existed, although it seems more evident in his earlier works, as Ill in Paris and Girl with Leaves (both 1948) suggest, and even in Large Interior, Paddington (1968-69), where the tree stands watch over the sleeping child -- rather than at odds with it, as the blossoming cactus, its inner wetness at last manifest, is with the dry, sterile figure in the 1951 Interior in Paddington. It also seems implicit in Large Interior (After Watteau) (1981-83), although the figures, however grouped together, seem more isolated in their individuality than intimately involved with one another. Rarely is Freud ever affectionate enough to show figures in a concerned relationship with one another, not even when they are asleep together, as in his painting of two nude male lovers. It is invariably a power relationship, however subliminally, like his relationship with his models.
Wyeth takes pride in his relationship with Helga, while Freud has a certain arrogance toward his models. If, as the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion suggests, arrogance is an expression of the death drive and pride of the life drive, then Wyeth shares Helgaís pride in being alive, while Freud is fascinated by impending death, explicit in his numerous studies of his mother on her deathbed. Wyeth in fact associates Helga with the life of nature, as numerous works show. In several her naked body blends into nature as though it was an inevitable part of the landscape. She is often seen outdoors, her outfit changing with the seasons, and in one work she wears a crown of flowers, as though she was the incarnation of nature itself. She has an uncanny resemblance to Flora, the goddess of Spring, in Botticelliís Primavera. Even when she is asleep and naked indoors, the light of nature enters her space, suggesting that her body is a revelation. Wearing a winter capecoat, she stands in the shelter of a porch, looking out to the sky -- to the infinite expanse of light, suggesting her own spirituality and sublimity. Wyeth never idealizes her appearance -- he remains the ever-realistic observer -- but he nonetheless suggests that she is inwardly ideal.
She is perfectly balanced emotionally -- inwardly harmonious -- while the emotional unbalance, not to say inward precariousness, of Freudís figures is evident in their unbalanced position. A good part of the subjective tension in Wyethís portraits has to do with the difference between Helgaís plain outer appearance, far from ugly but not harmonious, as her crooked face shows, and her majesty, calmness and serenity, suggestive of spiritual beauty and grace. Observing the former we are lead to contemplate the latter. Idealization is evident in Wyethís use of her as a symbol of nature, but it never becomes idolization, because he is always acutely aware of her physical reality, as well as that of nature. Helga is regal, as her cape coat suggests, but also has a vulnerable body, subject to the vicissitudes of time -- visible in the changing seasons of nature -- as her nakedness makes clear. Wyeth never exposes her body, but rather lets it disclose itself, as though unaware that it is being observed, while Freudís figures seem to let themselves be cannibalized by the painterís hungry gaze.
Most crucially, Wyeth allows Helga the dignity of modesty, and with that, self-possession and self-containment. Her lower body is covered when she sleeps nude. She sometimes sleeps or stands with her back to the spectator. In one work she is asleep on her front, her face covered by her hands -- an ingenious take on the esthetics of modesty. Something similar is suggested by a work in which we see her naked back with her hands over her buttocks.
In another work she stands in a doorway with her back to us, shadow diagonally falling on half her naked body, making it mysterious. She is not seductively mysterious but a mysterious person. However full-bodied and seasoned by life, she remains peculiarly virginal, or at least virtuous, if not exactly like Wyethís 1969 Virgin. In many works she is naked but glances sideways, her eyes averted as though forbidding entrance to her soul, however much the male viewer may fantasize gaining entrance to her body. That she is a separate person rather than a perversely sexualized and narcissistic object becomes particularly clear in the many images of the back of her head. She looks into the distance, indifferent to our presence.
Wyeth is fascinated by her hair, which he renders with excruciating care, reminding us of the Renaissance notion that the ability to depict hair was a sign of artistic genius, for it meant that one understood what was most subtle in nature. DŁrer, whom Wyeth admired, was famous for his rendering of hair.
Even when Helga confronts us with her nakedness, her genital is never the focus of sexual curiosity, as it is in Freudís Two Fragments (1977). These disengaged female genitals convey the same anxious feeling about the female body as Gustave Courbetís The Source of the Universe. The mystery of woman -- a male idea -- is that she is castrated, that is, deficient and deformed -- unlike man, who has that all-important part object. She ought to be ashamed, and Freud shames her by emphasizing her lack, while Wyeth lets her stand unashamed because he doesnít regard it as a defect. He has matured to the genital stage, that is, he accepts the natural difference between the genitals, while Freud has not, which is why he is enraged by it, for womanís castrated condition suggests that he also might lose his penis, becoming a woman -- a fate worse than death. Wyeth doesnít fear castration, not even in fantasy, which is why he accepts the givenness of the female genital. It is simply another part of the female body. Helgaís sexuality is an integral part of her personality, while Freudís figures, male and female, havenít integrated their sexuality into their identity, which is why their genitals often seem to stand out from their bodies, as though they demanded special attention, in many works.
Castration anxiety is implicit in Freudís early horse imagery. In his one and only sculpture, made to support his application to art school, he depicts a three-legged horse -- a defective horse. The early work is full of horses, suggesting that he identified with them. In fact he seriously considered becoming a jockey. Horse and jockey are one -- inseparable -- when they race. Recalling Sigmund Freudís famous analogy of the horse as id and the rider as ego (it is probably derived from Platoís similar metaphor), and his ironical remark that the ego thinks it controls and guides the horse, but ends up going where the horse wants to go -- that is, the pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle, which in any case is a detour to pleasure for Freud -- one might think that Lucian Freud was desperate to control his id out of fear that it would run away with his ego. But he never did become a jockey, that is, an ego in control of the id, however ironically, suggesting that he remained the three-legged horse, that is, an id suffering from profound castration anxiety. Nonetheless, Freud demonstrated that the three-legged horse, however defective -- however unlikely it is that it would win any race -- could wreak havoc on whomever tried to ride it, which is one way of understanding Freudís unconscious view of the artist-model relationship.
The modelís ego rides on the back of the artistís id -- thus the subservience Friedländer comments upon -- the way Phyllis rode on the back of Aristotle, humiliating him. However great the philosopher or artist, heís a fool when it comes to women and sex, especially if he unconsciously thinks that being a philosopher and artist emasculated him, or threatens to, since both philosophy and art seem to have more to do with mind than body, the artistic representation of the body being a way of "minding" it. We donít know if the masochistic Aristotle ever rebelled, bucking and throwing the dominatrix Phyllis off, but it seems, on the evidence of Freudís paintings, particularly those where the model is positioned on the slippery slope of a collapsing bed or directly on the floor, that Freud threw his models off his back. He thus demonstrated, in however angry a way, his virility -- and by implication his independence and wild creative spirit -- as well as his anxiety about it. His fascination with genitals suggests his fear of impotence -- creative as well as sexual -- which is a kind of self-castration.
Thus the horse may be deformed, but that does not mean it was domesticated -- house-broken. Indeed, it clearly is not in The Painterís Room (1943) and Quince on a Blue Table (1943-44), where a horse incongruously appears in the civilized space of a drawing room. It is a wild intruder, indeed, a jungle animal, as its zebra stripes indicate. In the former work it comes through the window, hovering over a fancy couch. It is the civilized predecessor of what became the crude cot of the later pictures, in which the studio itself becomes a wild jungle littered with debris. Derived from an Ingres painting -- one of Freudís early heroes -- it may unconsciously allude to his grandfatherís famous psychoanalytic couch. In the latter work the horse studies the quince, confirming that the horse is Freudís self-symbol, that is, an observant artist. Horse on a Beach (1944) confirms Freudís wildness: the horse kicks over a basket of fish, indicating that it is an aggressively free spirit. Is Freud suggesting that he cannot contain his feelings, which are as slippery as fish? Clearly kicking over the basket is a rebellious act. Just as Leonardo liberated birds from their cages, so Freud released fish from captivity, as though to return them to the wild -- to the primordial sea that is the mother of all life.
The horse, it should be noted, is a familiar symbol of power. Sigmund Freudís case history of Little Hansí horse phobia and D. H. Lawrenceís story Saint Mawr make this abundantly clear. It has at once paternal and sexual significance. It is the id animal -- Freud compared the instinct-laden id to a wild beast -- par excellence. It is worth recalling that the horse was also a self-symbol for Nietzsche. His madness first became apparent when he embraced a horse on a street in Turin. The horse had been abused, confirming the psychoanalyst Alice Millerís analysis of Nietzscheís philosophy as a response to childhood abuse, especially when it deals with the dialectic of the ‹bermensch -- ideally an artist for Nietzsche -- and the herd. One wonders if Lucian Freudís sculpted horse has only three legs because it was abused.
Freud, it should be noted, drew many still lifes, and still life features prominently in many of his pictures. His body parts -- part objects -- tend to be uncanny still lifes. He tends to separate the features of the face, as though each was an isolated object that happened to be in the same space. Like his early horse pictures, his faces have a surreal quality, that is, they tend to be incongruous composites of incommensurate objects. Freudís realist determination to be objective leads him, however unconsciously, to transform whatever he renders into a hypertrophied object.
He is perhaps at his best when he is dealing with this as it occurs in nature, as his portraits of the obese Leigh Bowery suggest. He must have identified with Bowery, because Bowery looked as odd and out-of-place -- foreign -- as Freud felt. Freud thought that Boweryís corpulent body was a "great performance," as he said -- Bowery was in fact a performance artist -- because of its absurdity. In other words, Bowery, like the three-legged horse, was a deformed misfit -- an artist in body as well as spirit.
Freudís horse may symbolize annihilation anxiety -- the externalization of his own death drive as well as fear of annihilation from the outside -- not simply castration anxiety, as an early traumatic event in his life suggests. As he has said, one of his earliest memories was of a fire in the stables of his maternal grandfatherís country estate near Kotbus. It had to have occurred before he was eleven (he was born in 1922), his age when his family emigrated from Berlin to London. The horrible death of the horses affected him deeply. One wonders if the horse pictures of the early 1940s were in inspired, unconsciously and in part, by the bombing of London, when one could be burned alive. He apparently "accidentally" burned down his art school, suggesting, at the least, that he was a difficult child.
Speaking about what he called his "interrogative eye" -- in contrast, one may note, to his grandfatherís interrogative ear -- Freud wrote: "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 wonít. 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." For Freud, the truth was the eruptive revelation of the savage or primitive id within the civilized and compliant veneer. This is his grandfatherís early view of what it meant to make the unconscious conscious. If Freud knew his grandfatherís dream book, as seems likely in view of his reference to censorship, it seems likely that he knew the topographic model developed in the final metapsychological chapter. But the question is why it took him so long to become a painter and how he became one, that is, why it took him so long to realize that the facts are not the truth. What finally led him to distinguish between them and pursue the revelation of truth? What led him to give up the calculated coolness of his early work, unconsciously saturated with what his grandfather called "strangulated affect," for the feverish release of affect conveyed by his later painterliness?
I want to suggest that, if it was not a homosexual experience with the painter Francis Bacon, then it was Freudís association with the homosexual Bacon that prompted the shift from "the enamel-like, precise surfaces of his earlier works," to the "superior potency" of paint, to use John Russellís admiring words. (Were there any homosexual incidents when Freud was a sailor? He went to sea at the age of 15 -- in 1937, the year that his grandfather moved to London. Did Lucian leave it in response to that event?) Russell thought Freud used "drawing as a means of keeping painting at bay," which meant to keep carnality and sensuality -- more broadly, full-fledged awareness of bodily experience -- at bay. In the drawings the body is under the control of refined line, in the paintings it becomes increasingly raw and uncontrollable -- extravagantly painterly -- so much so that limiting contour tends to crumble, confirming the traumatic deformity of the figure. No doubt this was all part of Freudís effort to overwhelm the sitterís power of censorship, but it was also an attempt to lift his own censorship of his bodily experience. Bacon made him aware of bodily experience, that is, made him aware of the animal character of the body -- including his own body -- and, more subtly, the sexual character of the animal body, or, if one wants, the animal character of sexual behavior. This is apparent from Baconís Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (1964), where the bodies twist and squirm uncomfortably, as though frustrated by their separateness. They do not embrace, as Baconís Two Figures (1953) do. It is worth noting that both Freud and Auerbach -- both painters -- are on the couch in Baconís painting. The tables are turned -- the painter is now the model. Bacon plays the role of psychoanalyst, showing them in the process of overcoming their resistance and self-censorship; that is, revealing their id or inner animal, which looks grotesque because it is not yet entirely free of restraint. If the Procrustean couch also symbolizes social constraint, Baconís painting shows them struggling to escape from it into individuality by way of radical subjectivity, or at least emotional excess.
Bacon also made Freud aware of the expressive potential of the face. For Bacon the face does not passively register affects -- it is not a kind of blank slate on which they are written -- but, to use the ideas of the social scientist Sylvan Tomkins, "innate affects [are] manifested on the face with such rapidity, and [are] capable of such quick shifts, that they [can] not be explained as secondary phenomena."(6) Bacon was a master at capturing such shifts. In other words, for Bacon facial expression and animal feeling were in effect the same. It is a point that Bacon vehemently makes in his portraits, for example, Head of a Woman (1960), and that Freud makes, with equal conviction if less of a taste for the surreal, in his painted heads, and even in his drawings, as Man with Head Wounds (1961) suggests.
Apart from horses, the prominence of expressive animals in Freudís paintings, and their symbolic significance, is worth noting. Freud vividly remembers seeing the stuffed dog 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 (Winston Churchill was said to look like a bulldog, which is a symbol of England -- bulldogs apparently never let go once they bite, suggesting their tenacity) -- in The Family Reunion (Part II, Scene II). Freud noted that "It frightened everyone for about a second. I was really affected by the thought of this." No doubt he wanted his paintings to have the same effect. The terrifying bulldog symbolizes Freudís own animal aggression, always straining on the leash of his art. In one notorious picture (1977-78), a rat appears with a naked man, suggesting his sexual power and cunning, indeed, his erection. Sigmund Freud argued that fear of the rat is fear of the penis, that is, the most animal, raw, uncivilized -- and some people think most ugly -- part of the male body, and the most difficult to tame, that is, the most profoundly instinctual. In Double Portrait (1985-86), a dog symbolizes the sexual bond between the figures, and perhaps their fidelity, as it does in Jan van Eyckís Arnolfini Marriage Portrait. In Juliet Moore Asleep (1943) the monkey doll symbolizes the lust in which she was conceived. I also think the monkey in the 1978 drawing of Girl with a Monkey symbolizes her lust. Does Freudís famous painting of a Dead Monkey (1950) mean that the monkey is no longer on his back? Lest you think that these interpretations are too wild, I remind you that a chained monkey -- an animal under control, like the Burlington bulldog -- symbolizes the vice of lust in Pieter Bruegelís painting of a chained monkey and in Seuratís La Grand Jatte. The desperate look of Baconís unleashed Dog (1952) suggests lust on the prowl.
Naked Man with His Friend (1978-80) makes the sexual aspect of Freudís portraits explicit. I suggest that it is Bacon who gave Freud the emotional license to make such a shameless picture. In Interior in Paddington (1951), a lonely male figure stands in a room while outside, a tiny boy is seen playing in the street, sign of a furtive homosexual longing. That the sexuality involved tends to be what is conventionally called "perverse" seems clear from Freudís drawing of a boy raising his penis to reveal his anus. The work suggests Freudís acknowledged debt to Aubrey Beardsleyís Lysistrata illustrations, with their suggestion of sodomy. It is worth noting that "having sex like an animal" usually refers to perverse sex, suggesting a tie-in with Freudís fascination with animals, deformed, dead or dangerous. This also suggests that there is something to the psychoanalyst Robert Stollerís famous definition of perversion as the erotic form of hatred, for to treat a human being like an animal is to dehumanize it, and for that matter its body, suggesting that perversion is an attempt to humiliate, as Stoller argues, and thus to shame.
I think that what Bacon taught Freud was to be shameless, which meant to be fearless and truthful, that is, to fuse fact and feeling. It was the only way out of Freudís breakdown and dead-end. Freudís drawings were a great success, but he felt that they led nowhere. He was too comfortable with drawing -- too expert at it. A minor medium, it suggested that he was nothing but a minor master. He stopped drawing for seven years, beginning in 1954. It was a mid-life crisis, brought on by the feeling that his art was unoriginal and a failure, both as an expression of feeling and from a modernist point of view.
Indeed, it had a somewhat old-fashioned sense of self and art. It was behind the times, both emotionally and esthetically: it lacked innovative depth. Slowly but surely Freud began to abandon the "false compliant self" his drawing represented to search for the "true creative self" his painting came to represent, to use Winnicottís famous distinction.
The latter is rooted in the body and brings with it a feeling of being real, and shows itself through the spontaneous gesture and personalized idea, to use Winnicottís words. Freud struggled to become spontaneous in order to express his personal idea of the body. He struggled to make contact with his unconscious impulses and body ego, and imaginatively elaborate them in a hyper-gestural art that did not dissolve the body, however disturbed it showed itself to be.
Bacon was his mentor. Bacon led the way to the body for the sake of the body. Freud had already met Bacon, whom he portrayed in 1952, suggesting their emotional affinity. A conformist in his drawings, Freud became a non-conformist in his paintings. Bacon had always been a nonconformist, in both his art and life, but Freud was a conformist in his drawings -- perhaps to hide his sense of narcissistic injury and annihilation as well as castration anxiety, that is, his unresolved fears -- before he became a nonconformist painter, if not one as daring as Bacon.
We know that Freudís paintings were nonconformist because, when his first paintings were exhibited in 1958, they were regarded as crude, outrageous, vulgar. Indeed, Kenneth Clark, who had hitherto supported Freud, congratulated him on his exhibition and never spoke to him again. The paintings were not something that sensitive connoisseurs would collect. This was polite society passing judgment on paintings that it experienced as coarse insults, all the more so because they were made by an artist whose drawings respected its sensitivities, suggesting that he aspired to belong to it. Freudís new indiscreet paintings were, after all, too "Freudian."
Unwittingly, Freud had come into his own by identifying with his grandfather, spurred on by the already Freudian Bacon. Clark preferred the familiar illustrator, whose drawings conformed to esthetic and social norms -- whatever their English eccentricity, which added a certain tang to their tastefulness -- rather than the irreverent, transgressive painter, openly engaging all too human feelings usually repressed in civilized society. Clark, who differentiated between traditional realistic naked figures and idealized nudes, could not fathom a third, more modern kind of unclothed figure: the expressionistically intense body, dramatizing its feelings in its face, flesh and form. Clark was too limited and conventional to realize that Freud had fused the empirical rawness of the naked figure and the refinement of the nude figure to new effect. This is why even Freudís most roughly handled and distressed figures seem civilized, however much they have gone native -- certainly compared to Baconís more raw, turbulent, unconventional figures. The Blonde Girl (1962) and Naked Portrait Standing (1999-2000) may have animal bodies, but they seem to have the normal unhappiness, as Sigmund Freud called it, of civilized persons. Freud exposes the sullenness that comes with repression of the animal in oneself as well as the unrepressed animal body.
Now Wyeth is also obsessed with the naked body, as such works as Black Water, Black Velvet (both 1972), and Barracoon (1976) show. But his bodies are not shameless and traumatized, but rather unashamed because they are not traumatized. Not wounded and shamed by life, they have no need to clinically expose themselves, because they have no suffering to be ashamed of. The paradox is that the more traumatized one has been, the more shameless one becomes, for shamelessly exhibiting -- indeed, performing, or, more insidiously, acting out -- oneís trauma to the world undoes it in fantasy. If the spectator can tolerate the expression of trauma, its victim can tolerate the devastating feelings it brings with it. Shameless exhibition is subtly ego-syntonic, however fraught with fear of punishment, that is, however unconsciously guilt-ridden. Unashamed exhibition suggests guilt-free sexuality.
Thus Freudís and Wyethís figures convey completely different senses of the self. Freudís bodies suffer bitterly, while Wyethís bodies show no sign of suffering, not even the suffering of aging. This may look unrealistic, but it also suggests that the figures are not overwhelmed by life, unlike Freudís figures. Life is hard, but Helga is sturdy enough to survive it, and she even enjoys it -- enjoys the nature that is its universal expression, whatever its season. There are few signs of enjoyment anywhere in Freudís paintings, even in his almost sexually explicit works. Nature is generally kept to a minimum -- to house plants. No doubt this has something to do with the rural environment in which Wyeth lives and works, and the urban environment in which Freud lives and works, but it is also a matter of emotional choice. Sex must be a grim act for Freudís figures, as it seems to be for Baconís violently copulating figures -- one wonders whether they are primal scene fantasies -- rather than a source of pleasure, even delight, as Wyethís relaxed nudes imply it is.
The psychoanalyst Leon Wurmser, a famous theorist of shame, distinguishes between what he calls "theatophilia" and "delophilia." The former is derived from the Greek theasthai, meaning to see, watch, wonder and admire, the latter from the Greek deloun, meaning to show, demonstrate or exhibit. For Wurmer, "sexual scopophilia and exhibitionism [are] narrower versions of these more broadly conceived partial drives."(7) One might say Wyeth approaches the female body with unconcealed theatophiliac wonder and admiration, verging on sexual scopophilia, but never quite arriving there, because his bodies are proud and unashamed, so that they preclude prurience, and because they are able to love. In contrast, Freud exhibitionistically flaunts the bodies of his models, clinically exposing their shameful reality in delophiliac rage, thus adding to the punishment that fate has already inflicted upon them. Showing that he dominates them, he shows that they are projections of his hatred of the body and his perverse attitude to it.
Herbert Read called Freud "the Ingres of Existentialism." The question is how to reconcile Ingres and existentialism. Freud admired Ingresí classically cool portraits, Frans Halsí more lively and humorous portraits, with their proto-expressionistic spontaneous handling, and GrŁnewaldís Isenheim Altarpiece, with its mortified flesh of the crucified Christ, clearly an ancestor of Freudís morbid flesh. It is generally regarded as expressionistic in attitude as well as handling -- a clinical exposure of existential suffering. How is one to reconcile the dignity of Ingresí bourgeois aristocrats, the sly intensity of Halsí figures and the sense of human catastrophe in GrŁnewald? How is one to reconcile aloofness, even haughtiness, natural vitality and good spirits and inevitable tragedy -- as Freud does in his famous late self-portraits?
I suggest that the clue to Freudís synthesis of these wildly disparate influences -- so emotionally as well as artistically different -- is hidden in his strange observation that "Ingresí history painting has the humor of madness." I suggest that for Freud what Ingres, Hals and GrŁnewald have in common is that they are all ironically mad painters. Ingresí classical reserve hides a certain romantic madness, as his odalisques indicate, Halsí lively handling suggests the madness of an outwardly merry world, and GrŁnewald tackles human madness, masquerading as religious mystery, directly. Freudís remark reminds me of Winnicottís observation that we are "able, so to speak, to flirt with psychosis," so long as we see the humor in it, for humor is a mature defense against the immaturity of insanity, whether our own or societyís. Winnicott thought that modern art flirted with psychosis, sometimes without the humor. So does existentialism, which deals with the fear of going mad because of the meaninglessness of life from the perspective of death. It doesnít seem particularly humorous, but if we spice it up with Ingresí unwitting humor, as Freud does, it becomes more palatable.
There is undoubtedly black humor in Freudís existential paintings. I think this has something to do with his attempt to separate the body ego from the skin ego, as though they could exist independently of each other. It has to do with the insensitive way he treats skin, the most sensitive organ in the body, as Sigmund Freud said. The result is uncanny, and uncanniness is perversely humorous, as one of Sigmund Freudís examples of it suggests: E. T. A. Hoffmannís female mannequin, which a real man fell madly in love with, to the extent of becoming actually mad, suggests the absurd humor in the uncanny. Freudís models are not mannequins, but he treats them as though they were. And while they are not lovely, they seem to beg for love by exposing themselves. There is black humor in this -- all humor is perhaps black, because it is informed by the adversity that Sigmund Freud said it triumphs over -- certainly in contrast to Wyethís figures, whose loveliness suggests their capacity to love and their lovableness. Not trapped in the self-contradiction of Freudís figures, they are not uncanny, but then the lack of black humor in Wyethís portraits of Helga suggests that she has greater humanity -- a stronger "will to be human," to use the psychoanalyst Silvano Arietiís term -- than Freudís unhealthy figures do.
Helga represents the conscious margin of freedom and autonomy that Arieti says makes us human rather than animals, while Freudís animal-like, peculiarly unconscious Ė- not just un-self-conscious but somnambulistic -- figures, represent the determinisms -- emotional as well as physical -- that otherwise rule us and deaden our spirit, thus depriving us of the ego strength clearly visible in Helga. It is also worth noting that Freud keeps changing models, suggesting the unstable character of his object relations, which is perhaps why his models seem inadequate as persons, while Wyeth is securely and deeply attached to Helga, which is why she seems more like a person than an object.
† (1) Max J. Friedländer, Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life: Their Origin and Development (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), p. 232. All subsequent quotations from Friedländer are from this book.
† (2) D. W. Winnicott, "The Location of Cultural Experience" , Playing and Reality (New York: Methuen and Tavistock, 1982), p. 99
† (3) John Rickman, "On the Nature of Ugliness and the Creative Impulse" , Selected Contributions to Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Karnac Books, 2003), p. 73
† (4) Michael Balint, "Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art" (1952), Problems of Human Pleasure and Behavior (London: Maresfield Library, 1987), p. 119. All subsequent quotations from Balint are from this essay.
††(5) Anthony Julius, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) shows just how anti-semitic Eliot was as both person and poet.
† (6) Donald L. Nathanson, ed., The Many Faces of Shame (New York and London: Guilford, 1987), pp. 134-35 (summary of Tomkinsís ideas).
† (7) Quoted in ibid., p. 30
This essay was originally presented as the Flora Levy Lecture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2004. It has been revised from the original presentation.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.