Contributed by David Carrier / The National Gallery’s retrospective celebrating the centenary of Lucian Freud’s birth is first exhibition of his work in a museum of historical art. Freud himself was very familiar with The National Gallery. As the catalogue says, he thought of it “as a doctor to whom, as an artist, one turned for help.” With more than 60 paintings on display, we get a full picture of his career. Freud developed quickly. His early Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait) (1943) is masterful. The surrealism of The Painter’s Room (1944), with the red animal, is marvelously strange. Soon, as demonstrated in the splendidly expansive Interior at Paddington (1951), providing a glimpse out the window, he developed consummate skill in setting the scene for a portrait. Look also at Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) (1965), which features a fascinating odd pose looking from below, from a child’s perspective. The variety and virtuosity of these earlier works are astonishing, and he didn’t stop innovating. Two Men (1987–88) generates dynamism in setting one nude figure against his clothed companion, while Double Portrait (1985–86) juxtaposes man and dog.
At a certain point, though, a kind of claustrophobia sets in. The portraits of grand men (Jacob Rothschild, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, The Brigadier) and of the late queen (photographs not allowed!) with her wonderful hair but ghastly face, drew inordinate attention and visual interest on account of their subjects rather than his skills. As for the spread-legged female nudes, I fear that Linda Nochlin’s famously withering Artforum takedown – discussed in the catalogue, and briefly encapsulated in her phrase “belle peinture … deployed in the service of a trendy imagery of apparent sexual subversiveness” – was right about them. Freud did have a mystique. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he cultivated a grand social life from the start of his London art career in the 1940s. He was a very good painter, in many ways a superlative one. But perhaps he is not fully able to thrive in this grand setting, amid immortal Old Masters and modernists…
That, at any rate, was my first response to this show, which zoned in on its limitations. Then I went home and reread the catalogue, looked at the fine reproductions, and reflected a little. I realized that I had made a kind of category mistake. Misled by the historical context of “Lucian Freud: New Perspectives,” I treated Freud as another artist working in the Old Master tradition, like other figurative artists in The National Gallery. But that, I now saw, led to serious misunderstandings. Freud’s determined pursuit of portraiture as the vehicle of his art makes him, as much as the Minimalists or the adherents of arte povera, an authentic figure of late modernism. Just as we can’t legitimately complain that Agnes Martin doesn’t do history paintings or that Robert Ryman doesn’t make portraits, we should not criticize Freud –or, for that matter, Alice Neel – for a narrow range of subject.
It’s instructive to study Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) (1981–83), which in its self-conscious link to the Old Master tradition signals his concerns. What makes that impressive painting rare (so far as I know) in his oeuvre is its explicit identification of a historical connection. Like his London frenemy Francis Bacon, he tends to use narrowness or substantive constraint as a source of strength. The catalogue quotes Freud as looking at the past “to learn how to paint in the present.” That’s spot-on. What needs to be added, I think, is that the past masters taught him to paint very distinctively and to become himself. Narrowness in modernism can be a limitation or, as with Morandi, it can be a strength. For Freud, too, circumscribing content is potent insofar as it compels him to find fresh yet cohesive means of contextualization. In Standing by the Rags (1988–89), he uses roughly tossed sheets to frame a female nude. In Large Interior, Notting Hill (1988), he uses two figures in an interior to compose a positively Degas-esque narrative. And in various late nudes, he tests our capacity to read different renderings of flesh.
At this point in my reconsideration, I turned to literature, and a book seemingly very distant from Freud’s concerns. The original title of Jane Austen’s 1813 bildungsroman Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. The moral of her story, obvious once you get to the end of the novel, is that first impressions cannot always be trusted. Art writers, take heed. If at first art doesn’t speak to you, then it’s worth asking whether the problem is with the art or with you. Freud requires time and empathy to be understood. That would include exploring his amazing social life, as chronicled in the exhibition catalogue. Imagine what Austen would have thought about that.
“Lucian Freud: New Perspectives,” The National Gallery, London. October 1, 2022–January 22, 2023.
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, art critical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for Brooklyn Rail.