Finding unexpected tenderness in Freud's latest workby Roger Kimball / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
I have never been a fan of Lucian Freud’s painting. On the contrary, I have always found something distinctly repulsive about it.
I know that this is a minority view. Since emerging on the art scene in the mid-1940s, Freud has had an enthusiastic claque. Over the last 20 years, in particular, critics have fallen over themselves to praise his work. In 1982, Lawrence Gowing wrote an admiring monograph-thus certifying Freud’s reputation among the cognoscenti-and, more recently, Robert Hughes expatiated at length about Freud’s “Old Master” touch. The names of Vel?zquez and Rembrandt are regularly cited as precedents. With Freud, it is said, greatness once more walks among us. The fact that this greatness comes with a decided kink only increases its market value. Not for nothing is Lucian the grandson of Sigmund.
Freud’s paintings of naked people have garnered the most extravagant praise. “As the barriers are broken down,” one critic wrote in 1993, “these pictures as a group acquire some legacy of punk, clubland, drugs, and the generally non-achievement-bound spending of youth, with its mixed attraction to androgyny and eruptions of supremely gendered eroticism.”
“Eruptions of supremely gendered eroticism”? When critics erupt in such supremely pretentious absurdity, it is always a sign that an artist has ascended into the art world’s limelight. But Freud’s paintings of naked people represent the worst side of his oeuvre. (His still lifes have always had more to recommend them.) Freud paints people without their clothes not to reveal them, but to expose them. There is something aggressive and obscene about his handling of flesh. He emphasises the raw animality of his subjects, underscored by his pictures of naked people lying on a bed with a dog.
Kenneth Clark distinguished between “naked”-unclothed and thus liable to shame-and “nude”-unclothed and thus closer to the human ideal. Freud never paints nudes in Clark’s sense. Quite the reverse: he champions the brutish side of humanity. That is why Freud’s “supremely gendered eroticism” is decidedly unaphrodisiac. If there is something shocking about Freud’s pictures of naked people, it is not their eroticism but their blank fleshiness. Sex in these pictures is urgent, ineluctable, and thoroughly unsexy. Freud once said that “a life of absolute self-indulgence” was his “discipline.” His paintings of naked people are souvenirs.
In the Poetics, Aristotle speaks of “the example of good portrait painters, who reproduce the distinctive features of a man and,…