7 Jan 2011

Lucien Freud and painting

I have always found the painting of Lucien Freud very impressive, but, often, equally hard to look at. I suppose it is a case of "warts and all", where reality, or, in a way, a form of hyper-reality, comes so close to your face that it becomes almost painful. Whilst there seems to be a form of humanity in the look that Rembrandt casts on his sujects, with the possible exception of himself, for whom he is quite pitiless, Lucien Freud maintains more than a little distance from his sujects. By distance, I mean emotional distance, because he could hardly get much closer in terms of physical looking.

There was an extensive show of his work recently in Paris, where I live, but I did not go to see it, largely because of my growing phobia of the crowds that uselessly throng to major exhibitions. I will hold back this topic of crowds and exhibitons for a later article, as I have a few things to say about it, some of which may well be taken as "elitist", whatever that means. The theme of the exhibition was Freud and his studio, which was a good idea given the importance of the place and the time he must have spent there. This excellent photo shows a model sitting in front of a painting of Freud with the model. The walls are "decorated" with smears of paint that he worked off his brush to adjust and test colour and volume, I suppose.

I did take the opportunity of the temporary limelight shed on this remarkable painter to acquire a tiny volume produced by the Centre Pompidou and entitled "Lucien Freud: Quelques réflexions sur le peinture", or, in English, "Some thoughts on painting". In fact the origin of this very interesting little book is an interview he gave to the English literary review Encounter in 1954, at a time when his work was being shown at the Venice Biennale show. The book intelligently publishes bilingual versions of his text, together with postface comments by Cécile Debray. Since 1954, Freud has said practically nothing about painting, holding that his works should speak for themselves, which is fair enough. In any event, I found what he says in the article most enlightening and very true, not only for his own work, but in general. Here are a few extracts: 

"My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice. Because of this, painting is the only art in which the intuitive qualities of the artist may be more valuable to him than actual knowledge or intelligence."

I think that musicians and poets would have a good case for disputing the last statement, but the rest is perfect.

"A painter's tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what it is suitable for him to do in art. Only through a complete understanding of his tastes can he free himself of any tendancy to look at things with an eye to the way he can make them fit in with a ready-made conception. Unless this understanding is constantly alive, he will begin to see life simply as material for his particular line of art"

Damien Hirst and all the other current pretenders, are you listening out there?

"Painters who deny themselves the representation of life and limit their language to purely abstract forms are depriving themselves of the possibility of provoking more than an aesthetic emotion."

I think this is a bit too "pro domo" as an argument. I personally have experienced more than just aesthetic emotion when looking at the work of, say, Mark Rothko.

"A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure. The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not depends entirely on what it is in itself, what is there to be seen."

He hits a few nails square on the head in the above passage.

Above is one of Freud's many self-portraits. I cannot think of many painters, other then Rembrandt, who have painted themselves so regularly.

"Painters who use life itself as their subject-matter, working with the suject in front of them, or constantly in mind, do so in order to translate life into art almost literally, as it were.....it is this very knowledge of life which can give art complete independance from life, an independence that is necessary because the picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own..."


  1. Have some thoughts about “chefs-coq” who speak a lot about their work, or about winemakers who think themselves poets or philosophers. Never met one who could “self-cook” himself, let alone “auto-vinify”, though.
    Ford Coppola, on the other hand, could perhaps combine the skills.

  2. Yes Luc, I tend to agree in general, but one of the points I tried to make in this article is that here is someone who never usually speaks about his work, and yet once he did, and there was no need to say any more. This is fine for me. Furthermore, what he says is so totally free of bullshit and absconce theory, so obviously based on pure experience, that it really makes sense when you look at his painting.