Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a partiality for painting living things – people, animals and plants. Although there is no dearth of cloth, furniture and domestic interiors, these were hardly ever the subject of a Freud painting. He had a fascination for the way organic matter grows and degrades.
Herbarium collects paintings and drawings of plants by Freud, starting in his teenage years in the 1930s and ending a few years before his death. The drawings, pastels, paintings and etchings encompass the subjects of fruit, domestic plants, trees and bushes, with or without human companions. This attractive clothbound hardback includes two essays on Freud’s art of plants and a selection of illustrations, many with commentaries.
On the Greek island of Poros – holidaying with John Craxton in 1946 – Freud created a self-portrait with a thistle. The spiky sparse form of the leaf matched the psychological tension visible in Freud’s tense expression. There is a echoing of the psychology of sitters in the choice of plant attribute in a class of pathetic fallacy, when natural matches and amplifies the mood of the narrator or subject. When staying in Jamaica with Ruth and Ian Fleming, Freud painted a number of pictures of banana plants. Freud was responding to the proximity of a plant that was – in British terms – exotic. Freud took the opportunity of access to stretch himself in terms of subject matter. In later years, Freud did not travel much outside London and such fruitful encounters became less common.
The early Freud style was naïve, with exaggerations, flashes of precision and invented juxtaposition of real elements. Bold stylisation in line ink drawings – developed to suit the demands of book and magazine illustration – developed in the mid-1940s. Sprigs of plants (gorse, fig, thistle) were isolated enough to make an impact yet undemanding in terms of time and suited his preference for linearity. When fruit appeared, they took up relatively little space on the picture surfaces, surrounded by plain space. Drawings in pencil on tinted paper were tinted with chalk and pastel. In the late 1940s Freud developed the potential of plants as a foil or amplifier of human emotions by including them in portraits and self-portraits. This was accompanied by greater realism.
[Image: Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington (1951), oil on canvas, 60×45 in. (152.4×114.3 cm), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Image]
This approach culminated in Interior at Paddington (1951), a portrait of future photographer Harry Diamond. It became an icon of post-war austerity and pictorial existentialism, layered with detachment, abandonment, anxiety and decay. The later Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8) is just as striking but cannot help but be more affected, using montage and abstract filling achieve its impact.
His small still-lifes of highly perishable fruit are not bagatelles but necessarily constrained by the fast decay of the subject. Whereas Freud would spend months painting people, he could not command time to halt to allow him to paint buttercups or strawberries at his leisure. His plant paintings have an intensity that turns them into plant portraits. It is something of a relief to enjoy Freud’s perspicacity and meticulousness without the psychological harshness of his portraits. One wishes he had painted more plant and animal pictures – perhaps even a few more townscapes – over his career. Another attraction of Freud’s plant paintings is that his habitual mannerist distortions are less distracting (or less noticeable) in these than his anatomy exaggerations in his figure pictures. The viewer with a botanist, farmer or gardener’s trained eye is less attuned to discerning minor distortions in plants than the average viewer is sensitive to the slightly elongated forearm or outsize forehead.
We can see Freud trying out ways of painting unusual subjects in a handful of canvases before dropping the subject entirely from his repertoire. (The lemons of 1946, for example.) That is not to say that lessons learned go unapplied in later paintings of different subjects. Certainly Freud showed that he liked working in intense colours that one does not find in the unclothed figure, as a form of break. Working in these strong non-human colours in plant pictures did presage passages of paintwork describing strongly coloured clothing. Other plants – such as yucca, zimmerlinde and buddleias – became recurrent subjects. Friends recall that the artist had definite preferences in plants and allowed his garden to become overgrown so that he paint surrounded by foliage. It is telling that Freud took on the challenge of painting such disordered, changing and dense foliage rather than regulating it, which would have made the task of painting it easier. In 2006, Freud completed his final plant painting, which was of his garden. Included in a corner – almost indiscernible – was the grave marker of his beloved whippet Pluto, forming an incidental memento mori.
The artist’s method of painting the motif over a blank ground then filling the background meant that sometimes when he stopped a painting incomplete it left the motif crisp and floating free from surroundings. This seems to have become a deliberate effect cultivated by the artist, especially apparent in his murals of cyclamen, which seem to been left a freestanding forms without contextual interpolation. In some canvases (Cyclamen (1960), Plant Fragment (1970)) the plants stand out crisp, bright and solid against a scuffed and inchoate primer ground.
[Image: Lucian Freud, Two Plants (1977–80), oil on canvas, 59×47 1⁄4 in (150×120 cm), Tate, London. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images
]In a handful of paintings and etchings Freud completely filled picture planes with foliage (Two Plants (1977-80), Garden, Notting Hill (1997)). Taking on such dense, patterned surfaces must have proved highly taxing in terms of concentration and stamina – with little respite from repeated forms and limited colours. Non-artists perhaps do not realise the great demands that these tasks pose to artists. It must have been only a minor release for Freud to know that he could create shortcuts by inventing and omitting with a fair degree of latitude in these pictures in a way that he could not in a picture of more commonplace and recognisable objects with regular geometry or anatomy. Two Plants almost drove him “round the bend. […] When I took one tiny leaf, and changed it, it affected all other areas of it, and so on.”[i]
Giovanni Aloi is a knowledgeable companion, having written previously on botany and art. He outlines the history of botanical art and the significance of plants in symbolism in art. He discusses the significance plants had for Freud the artist. His intelligent commentary and familiarity with Freud’s life and output is well judged and reliable. Herbarium is sure to bring pleasure to Freud fans and aficionados of realist (and Expressionist) art and is warmly recommended.
Giovanni Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, Prestel, 5 September 2019, 176pp, 100 col. illus., cloth hardback, £39.99/$60, ISBN 978 3 7913 8533 4
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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