The skin we live in

Lucian Freud dismantled the established conventions of portrait painting
January 25, 2012
“Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995)

Lucian Freud PortraitsNational Portrait Gallery, 9th February-27th May, Tel: 0844 248 5033

A parent on bedside watch might have had the notion. A certain kind of photographer, too—the kind obsessed, for instance, by isolated fragments and strange magnifications. But among established portrait painters, the idea that the soles of a woman’s feet might testify to her person as eloquently and forcefully as her face feels unique to Lucian Freud.

The picture I’m thinking of is “Annabel Sleeping,” a portrait Freud made of one of his grown daughters in the late 1980s. It shows a woman, lying asleep on a bed, wearing a sky-blue dressing gown.

What makes it unusual, as a portrait, (and Freud thought of almost all of his pictures of people—and animals, too—as portraits) is that the subject is completely turned away from us. Not only are we not shown her face, we can’t even see the shape of her head. The closest we get is a spray of unkempt dark brown hair emerging from behind foetally hunched shoulders. The only parts of her body that are actually exposed are her ankles, her toes, and soles of her feet.

These last, however, convey everything. Intimacy above all, but also a kind of brute physicality. Freud’s handling of paint—an accretion of ridged and dimpled pigments, with sparing use of oil—is such that his subjects could scarcely be more palpable, more awkwardly or inelegantly there. The soft yellow centre of one arch is wrinkled, as if the foot were pleasurably flexed. The other foot is all bony, bulbous forms and thick impasto—not an appendage you could squeeze into high heels; more like a lumpy sausage, held together by elastic and somewhat capricious forces.

We are not in the realm of metaphor here. These feet have sculptural heft. They are not so much representations as new objects in the world. You can feel the press of one on the other, sense the humid stickiness between them. They have a consciousness all their own, a level of nervous awareness from which Annabel’s eyes and face, were they open and in play, could only distract us.

Freud, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (the first big show since his death last year) revolutionised our idea of portraiture from within. Ostensibly traditional (he used oil paints, worked from live models, constructed recognisable images of recognisable people), his work quietly dismantled almost every premise of portraiture as it has been traditionally understood.

Depicting people at their most vulnerable and exposed, Freud severed the connection between portraiture and social status—a connection upon which the National Portrait Gallery itself was founded. Painting them repeatedly dead-eyed or asleep, he broke with the idea that the success of a portrait should somehow be a function of psychological insight. He disdained symbols, attributes, and storytelling. And he rejected sentimental expectations that the eyes be “a window to the soul,” and so forth. “I used to leave the face to the last,” as he once explained. “I wanted the expression to be in the body. The head must be just another limb.”

Given all this, one might have expected his art to peddle ideas instead—or at least to have something grand to say about the human condition. And yes, certainly, Freud’s portraits do insist on our animal nature, and on our mortal condition. But this side of his work is often exaggerated by those who want to see him as a kind of expressionist, heightening our awareness of death and futility by accentuating the ugly, weary, and otherwise strained aspects of our earthly existence.

Freud was not an expressionist. And he was not—at least not after his work reached its maturity in the 1950s and 1960s—given to morbidity or romanticised melancholy. Rather, he was interested in the life in our bodies: the surging and pulsing of fluids beneath skin; the mobile intersections of bone, muscle, tendon, and fat; the indefatigable beating of hearts; the rhythmic expansion of the ribcage. “One of the most exciting things is seeing through the skin, to the blood and veins and markings,” he said.

Against the idea that he was obsessed with ageing and death is the reality that he painted children and young adults with special sensitivity and palpable pleasure, and that these works—the portraits, for instance, of the baby “Fred,” the 1952 painting of his impossibly young-looking second wife, Caroline Blackwood, the cast of five youths playing dress-up in the masterpiece, “Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau),” or the brilliant 2002 head portrait of his granddaughter Frances Costelloe—are easily as persuasive as the images of craggy old men and women approaching the end of their life.

But Freud was also deeply aware of the fade-out of the lifespan. He was moved by that same sense you get in painters as diverse as Titian, Turner, and Twombly of the body, and life itself, involved in a viscerally charged leave-taking—a drifting off, accompanied by bodily twitches and random dreams, into unconsciousness or death. It’s an interest that comes across in so many of his pictures, but especially in “Double Portrait,” a mid-1980s picture which shows Freud’s lover asleep beside his whippet, Pluto, and the massive 1995 painting called “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping."

Apart from a relatively small number of fascinating and freewheeling interviews, Freud’s only published statement about his art was “Some Thoughts on Painting,” first published in the magazine Encounter, in 1954. In it, he wrote about his wish to “intensify reality,” about aesthetic taste as an outgrowth of obsession, about the importance of intuition, of instinct, and of the painter’s own personal avidity: “Self-indulgence,” he wrote, with his characteristic blend of insight and perversity, is “the discipline through which he [the painter] discards what is inessential to him.”

“A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure,” he continued. “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.”

All this chimes with his later claim that the more he knew about his sitters, the more he felt free to invent for himself. It’s the painting, in other words, that matters—not whether it successfully reminds us of the person who sat for it.

I once asked Freud what he thought makes a great portrait. It was no different, he affirmed, to what makes any great painting: “It’s to do with the feeling of individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific. Painting things as symbols and rhetoric and so on doesn’t interest me. I think the most boring thing you can say about a work of art is that it’s timeless. That induces a kind of panic in me. It’s almost like political speech—it doesn’t apply to anyone.”


Near the end of his life, Freud looked back on “Some Thoughts on Painting.” “Re-reading it,” he said, “I find that I left out the vital element without which painting can’t exist: PAINT. Paint in relation to a painter’s nature. One thing more important than the person in the painting is the picture.”

Freud’s use of paint was always changing. It changed in the mid-1950s—around the same time as he formulated “Some Thoughts on Painting”—as he shifted away from a painstakingly detailed, thinly painted, linear style into a slightly looser, but still smooth idiom, wherein faces were constructed by extracting separate shapes then welding them back together (“When you look at the forms,” he once said, “it is clear that some of them want to be liberated.”)

After abruptly ceasing to draw, feeling that the hard-won linear habits he had developed since childhood were holding back his painting, he began using broader brushstrokes and thicker paint in the 1960s. In works like “Naked Child Laughing,” “John Deakin,” and a small self-portrait you can feel his developing interest in the correlations between flesh and juicier, freer, more viscous applications of paint. (Francis Bacon was a major influence at the time).

Again in the 1980s, the paint thickens, jutting out from the surfaces of his pictures, and taking on almost sculptural volumes (though not nearly as much as in the work of his closest friend and confidant, Frank Auerbach). More and more, Freud leaves grainy, scumbled deposits of paint on the surface of his pictures. They silt up passages of smoothly swishing paint, adding texture and surface incident to the creamy expanse of a woman’s thigh or a velvety patch of dog fur.

In the 1990s and 2000s, he takes this still further, introducing layers of painted reinforcement. A spiky quality that goes beyond mere representation appears in many of his best pictures. As with late Rembrandt, the paint is applied in ways that disrupt or interfere with the viewer’s easy access to the image. Something extra is conveyed—an awkwardness, but also a sense of deepening interest, thickening emotion, urgency.

You see this in Freud’s extraordinary series of paintings of Sue Tilley, a benefits supervisor, and of Leigh Bowery, a performance artist, both of them physically huge, with acres of deliquescing flesh. And you see it, too, in Freud’s electrifying, full-body, naked self-portrait, “Painter Working, Reflection” of 1992-93. Here the part of the artist’s neck that should really be lost in shadow beneath his chin is built up so thickly that it stands out further from the picture’s surface than any other part of his body. None of this comes across, of course, in photographs.

In all Freud’s work from the 1960s onwards, qualities that we usually sense through touch—weight, pressure, humidity, texture, temperature—are increasingly made available to us through sight. All this churns up settled habits of seeing, engages our own bodies, and helps account for the incredible sense of involvement one feels in front of his greatest paintings.

Freud was a gambler, and this sense of involvement is the product not just of skill but of risk. This is worth insisting on, if only because intimacy itself is a function of risk—of how much both parties in any given relationship are willing to reveal of themselves in any given moment, without falling back on safe habits or self-deceiving stories.

Freud gambled everything on every painting, which partly explains his fairly high rate of failures (that, and what the critic John Russell, a close friend and author of some of the most perceptive pieces on Freud, called his “almost total lack of natural talent”). He painted brushstroke by brushstroke, without a programme, and he detested the idea of “freewheeling.”

“Painting is such an immediate concern that all else fails, seems remote, compared with the actual difficulties of paint, making it do what you want it to do,” he said. He wanted every mark to be connected to a feeling. And it is this sense of passionate improvisation, encompassing insights obtained not only by months of intense scrutiny but by the briefest glance, that gives his work such visceral impact.

In so many of his paintings, it is the details, all the idiosyncrasies, that stay in your mind. The man’s splayed fingers that resemble the ridged and blasted landscapes of Afghanistan. The polka-dotted handkerchief that pops up out from the pocket of the diminutive, grey-suited man as he sinks into a vast sofa. The paisley pattern that arbitrarily cuts out on the shroud-like dress of the painter’s mother, who rests her dead-eyed head on a pillow. And always the foreheads—bulging, pressurized, pulsing with blood and thoughts behind hard-pressed bone and taut skin.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of feeling you have to leave out,” Freud said. There is in his work a quality of truth-telling that is somehow at odds with its veneer of fidelity to appearances. What made Freud so great as a portraitist was that, even as he scrutinised his sitters so intently over such long periods of time, he powerfully registered what was, finally, unknowable about them. “When you find things very moving,” he once said, “the desire to find out more lessens rather. Rather like when in love with someone you don’t want to meet the parents.”