Painter in the Flesh

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

Eye of the hawk: Lucian Freud was a profoundly confrontational artist, assaulting his subjects in paint.

When Lucian Freud, who died on July 20 at 88, was starting out as a painter in the late 1940s, he would bring sparrow hawks, bought in a pet store, back to his London house. "I was always excited by birds," he said. "If you touch wild birds, it's a marvelous feeling." It's no surprise, then, that he bonded with avian predators. Anyone who came near Freud felt fixed by the targeted stare of the hawk, with narrowed eyes surveying you from each side of the bony beak. There was always something of the hunter in him. When he wasn't stroking his hawks, he would walk down to the Grand Union Canal to shoot rats with a Luger. Which isn't to say that the Freudian swoop was just in search of aesthetic quarry. In figure after figure, clothed or nude, year after year, Freud reconstituted flesh, often in mountainous abundance, rather than stripping it to the bone.

The quest for resemblance Freud despised as a confession of imaginative poverty, not least because it presupposed some essentialist notion of appearance, at odds with the physical reality of character. This is what he meant when he said that his paintings were not to be thought of as likenesses but rather as reconstitutions of his subjects--a refleshing in meaty paint. Sometimes this involved painterly hyperbole. To look at Bruce Bernard's or David Dawson's photographs of some of his most famous subjects posing for the artist is to realize that Freud couldn't resist piling yet more heft on the already colossal breasts of Sue Tilley in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, or to add a little more kneaded dough to the cheeks and chins of Her Majesty. But then, for Freud, "character"--or rather, presence--could never be disembodied from its physical casing, and to suppose otherwise was sentimental delusion. To say that limbs, heads, and torsos were all there were for him is to say a lot. To bring them into a second life in paint, to catch the force of how they displaced the air, light, and furniture about them, and even the materials on which they were pressed, was a heroic vocation. It's a commonplace to remark how out of sync Lucian Freud was with the fashion waves of contemporary art. To recite the comings and goings of abstract expressionism, pop art, and conceptualism is to catalog all the things he wasn't. But then, as he often implied, that was their problem, not his.

For an artist who came into his own through the material density of his paint, the chiseled linearity of his early work comes as a shock. Many of the figures he painted in his 20s feature stylized bug eyes, as though widened in response to his own penetratingly hawkish stare. Often the women--his successive wives, Kitty Epstein and Caroline Blackwood--are treated as doll-like naifs, with neurotically haunted expressions fixed on their faces, clutching flowers. In Girl With Roses, Kitty, dressed in a black sweater with green stripes, has a broken bloom beside a hand on the lap of her velvet skirt while with the other hand she grasps a lethally thorny stalk. Changing wives made no difference. Caroline--the Girl With White Dog--offers one milk-white breast from a fleecy dressing gown of ghastly cabbage green, as if interceding with the painter to let her off lightly. In these early works, Freud has already found one of the themes that most excited him: the implied presence (even when unseen) of the dominating paint-lord: impassive, heartless, fixated on nothing but the work itself. In one particularly self-dramatizing work, Hotel Bedroom, Freud paints himself darkly silhouetted against an open window staring pitilessly at the haggard, pallid face of Caroline lying on a pillow, hair matted, a hand pressed so hard to a cheek that the indentations are visible. …