“Lucian Freud: New Perspectives” can be seen at the Museo Thyssen, Madrid, through June 18.
Lucian Freud talked a good picture. As with his friend Francis Bacon, it is hard to see Freud’s work without thinking of the life. It is as though the viewer is involuntarily wearing one of those rented headsets, and an uninvited voice is burbling on about Freud’s wives, Freud’s lovers, Freud’s children, Freud’s gambling, Freud’s tailoring, Freud giving Kate Moss a tattoo — anything, really, except Freud as a painter.
Freud, who was born in Berlin in 1922 and died in 2011 a fixture of English society and the auction house, is perhaps the most over-exposed painter of our time. This is ironic. Freud the painter was a stripper, slashing away at his subjects’ defenses, always looking for the greenish, rotten Rubens tone in the living flesh. Freud the man insisted on the privacy and control that he denied his subjects. Freud used the threat of lawyers to ward off inquiries about his private life. Like Bacon, he played a part in public, with his private parts to the fore; in his case as the difficult Don Juan, in Bacon’s the doomed gay drunk. Yet Freud, who repudiated the theories of his grandpa Sigmund, rejected the idea that the life shapes the art.
“Art derives from art,” Freud said. This is true, of course, except when it is not. A case in which art clearly did derive from life is Freud’s two-volume biography, which came out in 2019 and 2020. It was assembled by his Boswell, the art writer William Feaver, from two decades of telephone calls at odd hours in which Freud disburdened himself of his version of events. It is nonstop gossip, quite possibly full of half-truths, and one of the most enjoyable art biographies ever written.
“Lucian Freud: New Perspectives,” which began at London’s National Gallery and is now at the Museo Thyssen in Madrid, explores the only perspective left. The focus is on the work, not the life. This approach is impossible (the Freud publicity machine has already done its biographical work) but also instructive. The emphasis is on artistic influence, and that prompts the second question that always comes to mind when you look at a Freud: How good was he?
Would the English, the world champions of snobbery and anti-intellectualism, have acclaimed Freud, then and now, if his surname had been Jung or Adler, let alone Cohen? Freud was born famous. His architect father Ernst brought the family to Britain in 1933, after the rise to power of the century’s most significant watercolorist. He was ill-educated at a progressive boarding school where his fellow pupils called him “Jew Freud” and picked up artistic training as he went. In Paris, Cocteau called him “le petit Freud.”
Le grand Freud is the Freud of the 1960s. In an age of abstraction and screen printing, Freud sought to sustain the figurative style and the Grand Manner with plunging perspectives and thick brushwork. Freud’s early style is, by contrast, claustrophobic and finicky. The subjects of his portraits are trapped in a flat world, like specimens between glass. The paint is lightly applied in small accretions. The atmosphere is modishly surrealist. That must be why a red-striped zebra lunges through the window in The Painter’s Room (1944). Or is it the zebra’s head that was a gift from Freud’s lover Lorna Wishart, who was old enough to be his mother? (There really is no escaping the life.) This may be the moment to mention that when Freud broke up with Wishart, he slept with her son Michael but abandoned the affair because, Michael reported, Freud found its consummation “physically painful.”
Freud had a cruel eye. He studied his early subjects with cold and morbid curiosity. In Girl with a Kitten (1947), his first wife, Kitty Epstein (daughter of the sculptor Joseph), is so absorbed in her inner drama that she appears to be throttling a cat without realizing it. In Girl with Roses (1947-48), Kitty clutches a rose so tightly the thorns must be digging into her palms. She is bloodlessly pale, her eyes widened as though realizing something unpleasant, too late. Still in the language of flowers, Freud depicts himself as evasive but ever-so-dashing in Man with a Thistle (1946) and bold and intelligent in Self-Portrait with Hyacinth Pot (1948). He is also a bit guilty (Man at Night, 1947-48), if not remorseful and disappointed in himself and his lover (Hotel Bedroom, 1954).
Freud’s mature style is usually described as a turn from surrealism to realism. Perhaps it would be better to identify a persistent interest in unreality, or at least the uncertainty that lies in the space between people. Instead of projecting discomfort into his sitters, Freud began to draw it out of them, into the space between portraitist and sitter. This shift was accompanied by a loosening of the surface. Freud continued to accumulate details slowly (he liked to begin with the eyes, and sometimes added panels to a painting if it grew unexpectedly), and his eye was still cold. But the looser, thicker, and longer strokes of his brushwork now suggested a reaching toward sensuality and personality. The sleeping Pregnant Girl (1960-61) exudes warmth; the ambivalent father with the scarred face in A Man and his Daughter (1963-64) is in pain.
One of Freud’s English contemporaries, the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, identified the “transitional object,” often a doll or blanket, which calms an infant’s separation anxiety. Paint itself became Freud’s transitional object, the symbol between painter and subject. This put Freud firmly in control. His men are meaty and tough, his women sinewy and sleepy. For Reflection with Two Children (1965), Freud played father to the man. He positioned a mirror on the floor and painted himself as a giant towering contemptuously over his children. Winnicott would call this “subjective omnipotence.”
When Sigmund Freud and his household escaped from Vienna to London in 1938, they settled in a red-brick mansion on the lower slopes of Hampstead. His son Ernst helped buy the house. Lucian visited frequently before Sigmund’s death in 1939. His aunt Anna, the keeper of Sigmund’s flame, bought one of his first pictures, Palm Tree (1944). He depicted his mother Lucie, who wanted him to become a painter, more times than any other sitter. He drew one of his two brothers once and the other not at all. In 1977, Freud claimed that he had never been psychoanalyzed. In Feaver’s first volume, Freud mentions informal analysis as a teenager by Dr. Willi Hoffer, late of Vienna. Dr. Willi, a “great friend of aunt Anna,” asked if Lucian was gay and if he was circumcised like his father was (Lucian wasn’t). Nothing to see, as “New Perspectives” says.
The house is now the Freud Museum, complete with Sigmund’s couch, library, and ancient artifacts. Last year, while “New Perspectives” was at the National Gallery, “Lucian Freud: The Painter and His Family” was at the Freud Museum. This small but perfectly formed exhibition collected family photographs from the late 1930s and 1940s, including a short home movie in which Lucian performs somersaults in the garden for Sigmund’s entertainment, as well as portraits of Freud’s children and their families.
Again with the biography. Before he became an English gent, Lucian Freud was a German Jew. The early painting The Refugees (1941) depicts a family of new arrivals in Britain. Freud looks at these aliens through the eyes of the English.
Freud was disinclined to go too far beneath the surface. This is why the effort to view the work in isolation does him no favors, even though it gives a new perspective on the way he worked. He gives the impression of depth, but his larger works lack the structural foundations of the Old Masters. He was the perfect figurative painter in the age of surface images and celebrity. Every now and then, he strikes some note from the depths, despite himself, and it resounds in the cold space like the ping of a sonar.
Dominic Green is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Follow him on Twitter @drdominicgreen.