Magazine article The Spectator

Looking Hard

Magazine article The Spectator

Looking Hard

Article excerpt


Lucian Freud

(Tate Britain, till 22 September)

Half the point in painting a picture, Lucian Freud has remarked, is that you don't know how it is going to turn out. Indeed, he went on, he sometimes thinks 'that if painters did know what was going to happen they wouldn't bother actually to do it'. What applies to each individual picture is also true of the full, grand sweep of an artistic career such as Freud's - which we can now see laid out before us in the magnificent retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain. It is a series of steps, sometimes even jumps, into the unknown.

That might seem a strange reading of an oeuvre such as Freud's, which has been devoted from quite early on to doing just one thing. While he was still in his twenties, he found the self-imposed discipline that suited his own unique temperament, and he has stuck to it for over half a century. The overwhelming majority of Freud's works are pictures of people, usually in the setting of his studio (the rest being more occasional studies of still life, animals and urban landscape). Nothing is invented, although from time to time something that is actually in front of his eyes is omitted.

This rigour is one of the things that Freud has in common with modernism. It is his own version of the celebrated maxim, 'Less is more'. But, his detractors have sometimes alleged, it has led to repetition: an unending sequence of portraits and nudes (or, as Freud prefers to call them, naked portraits). But as the exhibition demonstrates - indeed as only a retrospective such as this can show - Freud's work is in reality full of variety and change. It is true that he always paints people in bare rooms only in the banal sense that Mondrian always painted squares and lines. In both cases, it is the endlessly diverse way in which they are painted that counts.

The first few rooms of the show hint at one of Freud's secrets: while his method is remorselessly objective, his temperament is quirky, quicksilver, fantastic. His work of the mid-Forties is dusted with a light feeling of the surreal - though Freud, one of life's non-joiners, was never a signed-up Surrealist.

The zebra's head that appears through the window in 'The Painter's Room' (1943), he points out, really existed, albeit stuffed - so this is not a dream or fantasy. But, on the other hand, it could not possibly have been as gigantic as it appears, relative to the other objects in the picture. Nor could the eyes of 'Girl in a White Dress' (1947) and 'Girl with Roses' (1947-8) and other sitters in works of that period have been quite so enormous as they are portrayed.

A little later, in the early 1950s, Freud's approach became minutely - astonishingly - precise and objective, as can be seen in paintings such as 'Girl in Bed' (1952) or 'Girl with a White Dog' (1950-1). But the sense remained of looking so hard that one goes beyond normal, casual consciousness into a zone beyond. Indeed, that sensation is fundamental to the effect of Freud's art to this day.

The quirkiness of Freud's sensibility continues to break out in recent works such as 'Sunny Morning - Eight Legs' (1997), a straightforward painting of a reclining man and a dog, except that inexplicably an extra pair of naked male legs protrude from beneath the bed they are lying on.

A number of paintings from the last few years - 'After Cezanne', for example, and 'Two Brothers from Ulster' - have developed protrusions from the oblong of the canvas as the artist has worked on them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.