Lucian Freud's exhibitions

Modern Art. Artistic revolution. Disfiguration and abstraction. Figurisme. School of London. Freud's personal style

  • Enviado por: Andrea Rodés
  • Idioma: inglés
  • País: España España
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LUCIAN FREUD: Retrograde or Vanguardist?

The aim of this paper is to analyse and rethink the work of Lucian Freud, nowadays not only known as the grandson of the master of Psychoanalysis but also as a prestigious and consolidated contemporaneous British artist .

A visit to the “Lucian Freud” exhibition in Caixaforum (Barcelona) led me to choose this topic. This exhibition, which was originally shown at the Tate Modern in London , provides the spectator with the idea that, although the majority of the artists of the last half of the XX century have succumbed to Abstraction and Defigurative ideals, still some eternal preoccupations in the History of Art have remained to the present day. This is the case of the in-depth study of the Human body carried out by Lucian Freud in his paintings, and, as an immediate consequence, by all the artists belonging to the School of London.

Due to my lack of further knowledge in this period of the History of Modern Art and my insistent curiosity in this field, I have decided to conduct this first approach to the work of the still alive painter Lucian Freud, whose masterpieces displayed in Caixaforum have aesthetically pleased and impressed me considerably.

In order to facilitate its understanding, the report is divided into the following sections:

  • The Artistic Panorama in the 1960's

  • The School of London.

  • Lucian Freud. Personality and work.

  • Conclusions

  • The Artistic Panorama in the 1960's

  • In Hegel terms, Art should be always considered as a mirror of its contemporary society spirit. Whether we believe Hegel or not, the artistic panorama of the last half of the XX century was mainly influenced by two historical factors: Devastation and the Cold War. Therefore, not only will the artistic production not be able to escape from the psychological consequences of two World Wars but it will provide the means to manifest a wide range of feelings, including disagreement, sadness, fury or even indifference.

    At the same time, the spirit of the artistic revolution begun in the last decades of the XIX century was still alive. The art of the avant-gardes had been specially consolidated after the first world war, rooting movements like fauvism, cubism, futurism, dadaism and surrealism, which from the 1950's evolved to what is called the Post-war Modernism. This movement called on two basic tendencies related to abstraction: on the one hand, Art Informel ( partly rooted in surrealism) and Abstract Expressionism, the artists of which looked for the spontaneous expression of their deep consciousness and irrationality crystallised into chaotic and formless paintings. On the other hand, functionalism and constructivism of European avant-gardes give rise to Art Concret, in which abstraction is the outcome of a search for order, clarity, balance and objectivity.

    The reasons for this tendency to Disfiguration and abstraction in Post-war Modernism could be resumed as follows:

    • The observed violence and destructive capacity of the human being was understood as a loss of the “human dignity”. Therefore, the human figure was no longer interesting enough to be represented except in terms of childhood innocence.

    • Photography provoked not only a refusal to represent natural appearances and figurative art, but a continuous search for spontaneity.

    • As a reaction to the recent established mass society, artists felt challenged to produce unique masterpieces. To achieve uniqueness, the artistic production tended to explore the pure manipulation of paint in order to represent textures, tact, transparency or density.

    Therefore, Figurisme was continuously criticised to be not only a non-explorative, static and too academic movement, but also related to conservative thinking and frivolity. In fact it was said that body could no longer be “represented” but “presented” as a “part of a serial”, as a “one more piece” in this new mass society.

    Nevertheless, so revolutionary has the intention of the post-war modernists been that, in the end, scandal has been no longer reached. From the 1950's to present days, not only has the artistic situation accepted all kind of experimental action but the artist with no aim to rebel should have been defended sometime. Furthermore, Museums rediscovered the hidden art paintings of the XIX century , giving the opportunity to find both academic and modern paintings displayed next to each other in order to make people think by themselves and revise old topics and prejudices.

    It should be considered to what extent artistic freedom and tolerance have been carried to the edge because “we live in a pluralist world were frequently the more advanced, probably the more post-modern, could seem the more traditional and retrograde”. (J.Russell Teylor,1988, The Times). Undoubtedly Teylor was referring to the works of those courageous artists who broke up the abstract homogeneity. On the one hand, the French Nouveaux Réalistes , who incorporated real objects in the pictorial space. On the other hand, the School of London, re-introducing Figurisme.

  • The School of London.

  • As mentioned above, a group of artists manifested their interest around the exploration of the human body and figurative painting . It is in bohemian London of the 1960's where these artists emerge and consolidate as an informal movement. Despite the strong personality and particularities of each member, they seemed to share numerous artistic ideas and purposes and liked to hold political conversations whether around a drink in the Colony Room or tasting the seafood delicatessen offered at Wheeler's, in the Soho.

    Basically, the School of London was comprised of Francis Bacon, who was the soul of the group, Lucian Freud, and R.B. Kitaj. Also included are Franck Auerbach and M.Andrews.

    Although Kitaj was the first to declare themselves as a school in 1976 to differentiate their work from dominant Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, it should be said that they basically differentiate by the distinct interpretation given to the same historical facts and interests. Probably, the artists of the School of London interpreted the situation like Michelangelo used to do: “Everything that is worth to say, can be said with images”.

    At a glance these are some of the common features shared by the artists of the School:

          • High interest for figurative painting: the centre of their work is the human figure and body representation.

          • Except Bacon, all of them have a solid academic background, coming from the best schools.

          • Undeterred investigators and persistent students of the History of Art, they could be frequently found at the National Gallery observing the work of the old masters. Poussin, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Van Gogh were among their favourites, whose technique and style was accurately studied in order to develop new proposals and visions. Furthermore, there appears to be a profound influence of surrealism, whose artists also tended to explore and apply the classical techniques to their imaginative compositions.

          • Consolidation of physiology, criminology and the invasion of cinema and photography boosted their interest in anatomy and the search for alternatives to figure representation.

          • Although none of these artists was originally from London, they were not only emotionally attached to the city but also involved in the same circle of friends, relatives and models. The London atmosphere of the 60's is timidly reflected in almost all their work throughout precise details in the figure clothes, furniture, window landscapes….

          • The majority of them - except Andrews- tend to studio painting. Therefore, their works usually include models in closed scenarios which are part of their London-located studios.

          • The sincerest human orientation could be observed in their works. Affected by the consequences of the Second World War, suffering and atrocity would be constantly sought after in the most depressed suburbs of London in order to reflect them in their paintings. Therefore, the human figure will be never represented in terms of “honour” but in terms of emotional capture.

  • Lucian Freud. Personality and work.

  • In spite of the influences of the School of London, Lucian Freud has maintained a certain independency in terms of personality and style. It is time then to focus this report on the work of Lucian Freud.

    Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, but emigrated to England when he was only 10 years old. He has lived in London ever since, where he attended the Central School of Arts and Design. In 1942 he moved to Paddington for 30 years: the neighbourhood and its marginal conditions captivated him.

    From a wide point of view, the whole of his work could be considered a portrait. In words of Lucian Freud: “there is no better thing than painting what you are thinking and looking at all the time, the way your life goes…” . The fact of considering these words allow us to understand to what extent have models been important in his work, as models represented real images which could be directly observed by the artist.

    Early works insisted in precision and care while painting human faces. Probably influenced by the Noveaux Réalistes and the Renaissance Nordic painters, figures become outlined to extreme using thin and high defined contours. This first style using sable brush produced cold portraits with big and protruding eyes calling to artificiality, as we see in “Woman with a tulip” (1945). The brush here seems to be left in the innocent hands of a child, resulting in faces that could be lightly referred to Modigliani's mask-style ones.

    However, in the late 50's , Freud's style changed considerably to a more vivant and daring one. This change was probably due to Francis Bacon's influence, who insisted in the expressionistic qualities of paint. Therefore, Freud developed a more virtuous impasto style using clean paintbrushes for the first time. Luminosity and volume timidly began to appear in Freud's work ( “A woman painter”, 1954) . Bacon also induced him to explore other painting techniques, like mixing oil and acrylic paint at the same time. Therefore, while acrylics were used to represent spaces and artificial backgrounds (Freud was fascinated by the effects of artificial light), oil painting helped to express the luminosity of flesh. In spite of such a new agiler and virtuous brush stroke, Freud developed an extremely slow studio-painting technique, where models were obliged to pose for weeks or months in the old Chesterfield divan of the artist. In fact, Freud's working sessions could be considered the closest to his grandfather's therapies.

    Despite the existing friendship between Bacon and Freud, Lucian Freud managed to consolidate his own style. On the one hand, Bacon's tendency to locate his figures in abstract scenarios hardly attracted Freud in any sense. On the contrary , Lucian insisted in providing a familiar atmosphere to his paintings, where models can be found in his easy recognisable studio. On the other hand, Lucian's persistence for using real and close-related models is absolutely opposed to his friend's habitudes.

    Responding to the characteristic human orientation of the School, Freud persecuted the expression of the emotions on a piece of canvas. Such was his accuracy capturing the model's feelings that the artist is said to have an outstanding ability to predict future emotions. Observing the anxiety and sadness reflected in the “Portrait of John Minton” (1952) it seems that Freud anticipated Minton's suicide five years after. In “The painter's mother” (1989), Freud also attains to anticipate her mother's death a few months after due to the serenity and tiredness reflected in the lying body of the old woman, wrapped in the traditional mortuary white tunic.

    While exploring alternatives to photography and, at the same time, influenced by cinema, the aim of Freud's paintings turned into capturing a “piece of life”. Excluding whatever the model was doing before and her immediate intentions, the artist is only interested in a precise moment of the model's life. In addition, Freud tried to combat the particular feeling of eternity which tends to appear when contemplating a portrait or a photography. Therefore, Lucian was called not only to represent his models in the canvas, but to provide the spectator with a brief story of them, causing the sensation that the moment represented is not forever but is going to terminate suddenly. Observing “Naked girl”(1966), it could be said that despite the relaxed and calm atmosphere, the spectator can foretell that the model will probably stand up soon due to the uncomfortable position in which she is laying. Resuming, Freud has talked about the "urgency" of his paintings, where the subjects are alive but trapped in suspended movement .

    In conclusion, Freud's awareness that every subject has a short story to tell leads him to bring out the whole life they are in through his figurative work. Therefore, his aim is to simply record the self-contained story of his models' lives, away from the sole achievement of esthetical pleasure . Looking carefully at his work “Sleeping by the Lion carpet” (1996) it could be observed that Freud seeks to portray a moment of tranquillity during that life, reflecting the boring essence of a museum vigilant.

    This isolation of a moment, and its shortcomings as a stylistic device, are also apparent in his not figurative pieces. Although in “The large Garden, Notting Hill Gate” the mass of flowers and plant represented seem also to contain their own story, this painting does not carry the same emotional weight as his figures.

    His approach to the human body reveals that Freud dislikes mystification. As he puts it, "I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

    As it was mentioned before, the School of London maintained a human approach to his work; too affected by the human devastating capacity, they refused to honour the human figure, so models are portrayed as survivors. This could explain Freud's preference for grotesque models; as he says: "My models come in human guise". Attracted by marginality in the London suburbs, he exalts the ordinariness of their models in order to catch their deepest primitive humanity.

    It is in the 1970's when Freud's portraits undertook a new radical change: clothes disappear from our views . Influenced by contemporary existentialist ideas, Freud initiated a new period dedicated exclusively to painting nude figures.

    Sartre's Existentialism affirmed that human consciousness is self-intentioned. Therefore, the sense of human existence is acquired under each subject's responsibility. Lucian translates this reclaim for Individuality in his naked portraits, transforming the flesh in a potent tool to capture personality. In Freud's own words, his aim now was to “paint like flesh”. His work “Painter and model” (1986) could be considered an allegory to “paint like flesh”, as the spectator contemplates how the woman's dress is stained of paint everywhere and flesh seems to transpire paint.

    Another strong influence comes from Victor Frankel's book: “Man's search for meaning”. Frankel was a survivor of the Holocaust who reach the conclusion that when man has nothing else to lose but his naked existence, it would be only his will to create himself new challenging life objectives what could save him from death. In “Reflection: painter working” (1993), the painter exposes himself naked, wearing shoes and holding the palette. While shoes refer to the survivors of the Holocaust, his nakedness and painter attributes express both the author's reclaim of individuality and meaning of his life.

    Could be all this considered as an explanation for these visual violence and lack of prettiness in Freud's portraits? Maybe. But the artist was aiming to reproduce an individuality in terms of his eyes, with no interferences, naked. Clothes will always belong to the subject's biography, as they can be used as a reference in time. Therefore, Freud was obliged to steal and hide the clothes from the painting in order to express freely whatever he could observe in the subject. Fortunately, his models agreed that points of view can diverse when observing another. The large paintings around the naked figure of Leigh Bowery, the model affirmed that it was thanks to Freud that he managed to know himself profoundly, without any interferences: “you get a different sense of yourself”.

    Freud refused to work with professional models, as he considered his nudity as an hypocrisy. After too many posing sessions, the professional's skin had become an artificial cloth.

    Paradoxically, the way Freud treats naked figures gives the spectator both a feeling of reality and mystery. Naked figures are anonymous and dissociated but at the same time they become so close due to our uncomfortable proximity to the model, as we are inside the studio. Consequently, the painter lets the observer break into the model's intimacy, leaving him in a very special vulnerable position.

    On the contrary, dressed figures appear to be less intimate. Observing “Two Irishmen in W11” (1984), figures seem tensed and cautious, and their eyes seem to escape from the spectator's sight, as trapped in an embarrassing or difficult situation.

    While portraying himself, Freud used the same principles as before, as shown in “Reflection, portrait” (1981). Nevertheless, he affirms that a self-portrait is a difficult challenge for an artist, as it is found at the same time the model busied, the viewer viewed and the mirror intervening. Therefore, a portrait could be only considered as a visual reflection of himself; individuality needs from other people's point of view to be defined and contrasted.

    In conclusion, the whole of Freud's work could be partially considered as the antithesis of Sigmund's psychoanalysis. On the one hand he used his painting as a means to represent the model's psychology, but, on the other hand, he was no longer interested in exploring the reason for each subjects' psychology.

  • Conclusions

  • During the last decades, Freud has not only consolidated his style but has reached an absolute domination of the technique, maintaining a continuous discipline in his palette. With heavy brush strokes and thick layers of paint, he has been able to approach the nakedness of the human figures, letting them express themselves through the flesh. They are identifiably flesh-and-blood characters, caught in natural but uncomfortable poses, represented in the eyes of the painter, who makes no effort to smooth over any detail of our bodies (veins, fatness, wrinkles are clearly visible) but focuses on showing the vulnerability and strength found at the same time in every human being.

    In addition, Lucian Freud's personal style has led some critics to classify his work as réaliste. However, I personally agree with those who affirm that his paintings are far from Réalisme; observing any of his human figures it could be said that Freud was not an expert in anatomy, as bodies seem to be made only of flesh, forgetting the bones. Furthermore, flesh is explored to the limits, adopting an independence from the rest of the body. Not only does flesh speak on her own but it becomes human, personalised. Simply, flesh adopts such an extremely human face that it can't let us think of reality.

    Secondly, his absolute dominion of the technique has led Lucian Freud to be catalogued as “the Ingres of existentialism” (Herbert Read). Using techniques of the XIX century he successfully managed to represent the anguishes and afflictions of the XX century. As Freud, Ingres insisted on the need for discipline and absolute precision while persecuting naturalisme of the forms. Nevertheless, Freud is not searching for the esthetical perfection but using his technique to achieve perfection in portraying anxiety and other human feelings with a remarkable human sensibility. The evolution in his paintings could be compared to the evolution of the Flemish painters, who were among Lucian Freud's favourites. It seems clear that while his earlier works could remind us of the detailed and luminous portraits of Van Eyck, his later style stays closer to Rembrandt's impasto portraits or the palpable nudes of Rubens.

    To sum up, Lucian Freud's absolute control of the technique and meticulous style have made Figurisme his best means of expression. Far from social Réalisme, his aim has been to revalue the immediate present through the representation of the human figure, in times when the artistic panorama was completely opposite ( Pop Art, Minimalisme...). In fact, his work could be understood as a revelation to the vacuity of much of contemporary art, which refuses to acknowledge the stories that every human being has to tell. To the Andy Warhol's self-definition of his work: "They are exactly as they seem; there is nothing behind them", Freud replied: "I want there to be everything behind mine".

  • Consulted Bibliography

    • From London. Catalogue of the exhibition, 1995. Fundació Caixa Catalunya. The British Council. Scottish National Gallery of Art.

    • A Story of Art. GOMBRICH, Ernst. 16th edition. 1995

    • Guide on the Lucian Freud exhibition. Tate Britain, by William Feaver.

    • Personal Notes on “The milieu of Lucian Freud” Seminar. Caixaforum. November - December 2002.

    Lucian Freud : Retrograde or Vanguardist? - 8

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