Friday, July 29, 2011

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud died a week ago. His death surprised me, somehow. I'm not entirely sure why I thought he'd live forever--maybe it's because his last name always had him pegged as someone who came after something else long gone. Maybe because his paintings did not age that much compared to other artists. His nudes, especially, do not date.

Like a lot of people, I have been a little drunk on Freud's paint and palette from looking at his paintings so much since his death. It's the nudes that want my attention.

There has been a lot of intelligent commentary on his paintings of the human body, but there still seems to be a sense at times that his paintings of large people were grotesque. Some of the more pointed phrases from obits and tributes:
  • "showing off the human figure in all its gorgeous, swollen, egregious fleshiness" (Independent)
  • "The flesh [of Freud's nudes] was mottled, lumpy and, in the case of his 1990s portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery and the phenomenally obese civil servant Sue Tilley, shockingly abundant." (New York Times)
  • "Almost all of us carry an image of a 'Freud' around in our minds – a gracelessly posed, grossly sagging woman, perhaps, or a face sculpted in paint that appears to fold and puff like a cauliflower ear." (Telegraph)
  • "Astonishment, even disgust, often greeted Lucian Freud’s paintings when they first appeared. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping a mountainous friend lay snoozing on a sofa, one blubbery breast cupped in a hand, revelling in rolls of fat like a beached whale." (Economist)

I don't know much about how Freud's paintings of large people were received in their time, but I can believe that they shocked then. I can see that they still shock now.

I do not think of Freud as a fat person painter. He's not Jenny Saville or Botero. I think he painted the human body (and other animals) with complete integrity, in the sense that his view of things was whole and consistent from one subject to another, whatever their size. Other than one painting--Evening in the Studio (1993)--I don't see anything that particularly editorializes in the way he has his fat subjects posed, and even then I'd argue he does the exact same with smaller models, in works like Painter and Model (1987) and The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005) (also featuring clothed/unclothed models). All his subjects are under the same eye, including himself at times.

The man really did paint what he saw as he saw it: veins, fat, skeletal structure, hair, flopping breasts and genitals, muscle mass, skin; most of his models lying, leaning, splayed, pitched over, bent, draped, slumped. Pushed or fallen over. Not many stand.

He famously said:
I'm really interested in people as animals. Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more, and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.
In the same show catalog from which that quote comes it was also written:
In the sense that they are at their most animal-like when resting or sleeping, those who sit for Freud trust him to bring out the animal in them.
I think his paintings of fat people shock only because of the subject matter and the fact that he chose to paint them--and because we are still shocked by images of fat nudes--not because of how he painted them. We're all animals in his work: all fleshy, hairy, mortal, pulled on by gravity and age, doing the hard work of being still as time passes.


  1. Thank you for this post. I never heard of the artist, but now I want to buy a book of his paintings. Amazing stuff.

  2. Lovely post. And thanks for all the Freud images.

  3. I've always loved Freuds artistic honesty about bodies. And his palette of creams, beiges, yellows, browns.

  4. Long time ago I have seen a book with his paintings. And I like most his BBW. He was a very good painter old school.