Magazine article The Spectator

What Is He Up To?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Is He Up To?

Article excerpt

What is Lucian Freud up to? We know, of course, that he is among the most celebrated painters alive. He may well also be - though, naturally opinions are divided - among the greatest (there are other candidates, Jasper Johns and Balthus among them, but not many). The small display which he has just mounted at the Tate Gallery is a remarkable manifestation of continuing creative power and audacity in an artist now in his mid-Seventies. There are surprises, new departures, some magnificent paintings, some nearmisses. But as a whole, there is no doubt about it, this is a tour de force. Indeed, it is all the more so because it is presented almost casually - not a show, but a `showing', just a few recent works, and of those, not all the best. In a typically grand, dandyish gesture, Freud has omitted perhaps the most spectacular paintings he has executed in the past few years, those of the mountainous model known as Big Sue.

Among the new pictures that are on show, some are unexpectedly small - the much publicised view of the pregnant Jerry Hall is no larger than a postcard some unexpectedly audacious, as is `Sunday Morning -- Eight Legs', with its unexpected and inexplicable pair of knees protruding from beneath the bed on which a dog and naked man lie. Freud is reminding us what a formidable artistic figure he remains, letting us know what he's doing while we wait for the next major exhibition. But, to repeat, what is he really up to?

For all the torrent of words spilt on the subject of Lucian Freud, his private life, his character, his celebrity, his models, there is remarkably little that satisfactorily explains what it is he does, and why it is so good. I myself have had several shots at doing so, without ever feeling that I'd really got it right. So here goes again.

Let's begin with what he isn't doing. There is a feeling that Freud might be called a realist, which is understandable since his work often seems quite astonishingly real. But I don't think the word quite captures what Lucian Freud's paintings achieve, and it also has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he is culpably oldfashioned. `Very 19th century, it's Courbet, totally,' was the verdict a leading member of the avant-garde once delivered to me. Conversely, and equally mistakenly, Freud is sometimes seen as the upholder of an embattled academic orthodoxy.

In reality, I would guess, Freud is not after realism so much as something more difficult and elusive: capturing life itself. That is, in a way, an old-fashioned ambition, dating back, as it does to Pygmalion, if not to Lascaux. But it's also an eternal one, and clearly the aim of all the most powerful figurative painters of the past century and more - Cezanne, and Giacometti included (with whom Freud has much more in common than with Courbet).

The world of Courbet - marvellous painter though he was - is a predictable, four-square, rationalistic affair. Nineteenth-century realists failed to perceive what a slippery, problematic matter reality is. But if one really looks at Lucian Freud's paintings, one sees that they aren't like that at all. Instead of being reassuringly foursquare, the spacing in Freud's paintings is stewed, split, slipping and sliding this way and that. Look at the way the floor in the portrait of Bella, for example, tilts and shoots towards the viewer, how her feet, proportionately, are almost as colossal as those of a Giacometti figure. Or observe how the lines of the junction between floor and wall, if projected through the body of 'Ib Reading' would not meet up. …

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