There are times when circumstances prevent an accurate view of living artists. Mostly this is due to the necessity of allowing time to elapse between creation of art and its assessment. Sometimes it is to do with the critical atmosphere of a period or an artist engineering a false impression of his work. Critics’ ranking games can turn artists into figureheads or sticks with which to beat bogeymen. It is a rare writer on art who does not have a favourite living artist.
If an artist is well known enough the cult of personality can almost occlude the art. A peculiarity of the received truths about Lucian Freud is that most are untrue (or at least no longer true). “He is a recluse.” Never has a recluse been so often spotted at expensive restaurants, night clubs and exclusive art events. For someone so private we are remarkably well supplied with anecdotes about his life and opinions. “He rarely grants interviews,” yet you will find a number of books and magazines including interviews. His one-hour televised interview recorded in the late 1980s seems to have been overlooked. He “remains aloof from the art market” yet he exhibits internationally with commercial art dealers. He co-operates with curators and uses his old-master status to take full advantage of opportunities open to few other painters (exhibiting in the Wallace Collection, for example). Few artists would refuse these temptations and Freud is no different. “He is rarely photographed.” This last was actually true up to the 1970s but since then whole coffee-table books of photographs of the artist in his studio have been published.
The most pervasive myth is that Freud is a realist and that his realism that has been becoming progressively more acute. The early paintings employed a naïve style (enlarged eyes and oversize heads) which was soon replaced a more straightforward approach. At this time Freud was most engaged with realism. It was only a brief interlude. In the early 1960s new traits emerged: elongated figures and floorboards zooming away in one-point perspective. The painter began to emphasise the high viewpoint from the late 1960s. (These tendencies became stomach-sinking features of many student entries for the BP Portrait Award, demonstrating how Freud has been taken as a model for aspiring realists.) There was a phase in the 1980s when the paint surface became clotted and granular, which we were told was a by-product of Freud’s perfectionism and extended periods of reworking. Why then did this vanish within ten years? Did Freud solve a problem, drop a mannerism or find an effect counterproductive? The enlarged feet, attenuated limbs and undersize heads of subjects have persisted for years and undermine otherwise persuasive depictions. His mannerisms have ossified into the Freud Style.
Distortions do not detract from Degas’s art; they reintroduce us to the human form in a startling way. With Freud’s art one gets a feeling these are unintended deficiencies he finds uncorrectable. Degas wanted the artificial and to add an accent of nature to it. Freud starts from life and finds his paintings deviating, becoming wayward beneath his brush. In itself this is a curious phenomenon; it does not accord with the view of the painter as a realist. Freud’s deviations seem unintentional; they are certainly distracting. To admire Freud for an attribute, pitiless realism, he does not possess diminishes his actual achievements. Is Freud being cast as a realist only in order to be used by writers to disparage other artists? The painter now less of a realist than he was in 1955.
None of these falsehoods are entirely the painter’s fault. However, he does exert a high degree of influence over the critics close to him and is responsible for engineering an “authorised version”. Every artist has this right and some exercise it more than Freud. However, it should not go unchallenged.
For years he did not reveal the identities of his sitters. Now they are frequently named in titles. Many sitters are famous. When it comes to celebrity, Freud has more in common with Warhol than Vermeer, which is not a criticism, just something that goes unremarked upon too often by critics who think of him as a modern Velázquez. The irony is that far from being a Velázquez, Freud is a court painter the way Picasso was – painting subjects at his own court.
One distinctive feature is Freud’s enduring trouble with composition. Often paintings are started only for the painter to have the canvas extended in order for him to compensate for his initial mistake. For an artist who actually sketches his work in charcoal on the canvas before he starts, these lapses are startling. Degas was a predecessor who extended grounds after starting work. If one studies Degas’s pastels it becomes apparent that the majority of these extensions are to expand the space around figures, allowing more air into the pictures, not to accommodate central motifs. In Freud’s case it is almost invariably because substantial parts of subjects are lopped off by the support edge. It is reasonable to argue that repositioning the ground around a motif is equivalent to moving that motif on the ground. What that does not do is explain why a painter might be having such serious and persistent problems tackling relatively simple compositions. That major alterations to his canvases are treated by his advocates as merely anecdotal asides rather than diagnosed as the symptom of an underlying problem tells us all we need to know about the standards Freud’s art is held to. Numerous sheets where he has drawn in pastel over etchings, extending a forehead cropped by a plate edge, are exercises in compensation compared to Degas’s nuancing of monotypes with pastel.
An artist who had studied figure painting in a conventional manner might be less prone to these tendencies – or would at least work harder to curb them. Freud studied only briefly at Goldsmiths College and Central School (sources differ on this) and was greatly influenced by his teacher at East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Morris was a self-taught naïve artist. There is little to distinguish between Freud’s approach in his earliest paintings and Morris’s own. The naïve style allows an artist at the very beginning of his career to make finished works of art, circumventing the trial and error that characterises the usual trajectory of a student striving for naturalism. The naïve approach prioritises making complete statements. It cloaks deficiencies of a practitioner. That is not what the naïve style is for but what it effectively does. Facilitated by his ability to produce finished pictures before his apprenticeship was over, Freud had an attentive and appreciative public from his teenage years, lauded by distinguished mentors (Francis Bacon, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender and Christian Bérard). While his peers were formulating their languages, Freud was feted and selling work.
This is not to denigrate Freud’s accomplishments. He is a dedicated artist. He is, considering the prolonged gestations of his pictures, a prolific artist. He created some of the best figure paintings of the second half of the Twentieth Century, admittedly a thin field. His Reflection (Self-portrait) (1985) is one of the best of all self-portraits of any century. It is unsparing, full of presence and power, painted with energy and economy. Had he been in competition with a really talented and committed realist he would likely have painted many more comparable pictures. Stamina is in itself admirable but greatness rests on more than one outstanding trait.
The prerequisite for being a great artist is more than painting some good paintings (and the occasional wonderful one). It demands consistency. He is a hit-and-miss artist partly because he has never been subjected to the competition and companionship of a cohort of talented realists. A number of works should never have left the studio. Balthus, with all his limitations, painted only when he had something to paint and never let a bad work out of his studio. Balthus was a model of integrity and discipline. Consider Vermeer, who is in part highly regarded because, in his less than 40 extant paintings, he hardly ever put a foot wrong. He had a magical combination of brilliance and originality allied to a consistency which is absent only in his pre-mature works and wavered in only a handful of late paintings. Whether this high standard in surviving work was due to Vermeer’s slow rate of production or to depredation (or a touch of both) we cannot now tell.
Freud’s late self-portraits (Self-portrait: Reflection (2002) and The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-5)) are painfully poor. The modelling is deficient and the physiognomy wayward. In one of his stronger paintings, Lying by the Rags (1989-90), Freud captures well the model’s weight pushing out the backs of her thighs. Observation and recording are in confluence. It is a wonderfully well-judged work, vivid and visually engaging. In the late self-portraits that sense of volume and weight has gone. However, this is not to imply Freud is worsening; he is as erratic as he has always been. In that respect alone he is consistent. The point is that only the most peculiar of artists could be capable of the 1985 self-portrait and have considered the later paintings adequate. Could none of his acquaintances criticise the canvases whilst they were in the studio? Freud is a poor editor of his own work and no dealer or curator has the stature or courage to do the editing for him. Why does he make so much of his variable output public?
The painter, for all his talk about “not wanting to repeat himself” compositionally, seems incapable of not perpetuating his errors and mannerisms. Quite beyond the contingent problems of the picture at hand, the best painters seek to correct themselves. Freud’s early success as a naïve artist may have suggested to him that he need not be subject to the same constraints and apprenticeship most painters are. His painting has changed but not evolved.
Though an artist cannot be blamed for the distortions of his advocates, he must be held accountable for his own shortcomings. If proponents of Freud’s art suggest he is an upholder of figurative standards stretching back to Rubens (whatever that means), why has his art not been subjected to comparable scrutiny? It could be because realism has a somewhat degraded status today and that painting from life is now an activity marginal to most practising artists. There are plenty of reasons not to tackle life painting, that anachronistic spur that juts so awkwardly from the main body of contemporary art. It is much easier for critics to discuss issues related to Conceptual and video art than it is to analyse the art. Has it been tacitly accepted that Freud is a realist mainly because there are no realists of stature working today who would show him to be the Mannerist he is? Has this blind spot developed because of a dearth of astute criticism on Freud?
Freud is not in the mould of a Sixteenth-Century Mannerist, who distorts knowingly and systematically to highlight the artificiality of practise and to oppose the restraint and order of Classicism, but is an artist unwittingly at the mercy of his technical deficiencies, which distort his attempt to paint realistically. He is closer to Alberto Giacometti than to Parmigianino, and should be looked at not next to Rubens and Watteau but Stanley Spencer, Marlene Dumas, Odd Nerdrum and Jean Rustin. Then we might be able to see what Freud does and not what his proponents claim he does.
Written December 2008, published in THE JACKDAW, March 2009