Lucian Freud: Museum of Modern Art/Marlborough Graphics

By Kuspit, Donald | Artforum International, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Lucian Freud: Museum of Modern Art/Marlborough Graphics


Kuspit, Donald, Artforum International


Among Lucian Freud's earliest works, from the 1940s, are etchings that, while intimate, feel charged with a rough emotional urgency. The atmosphere recurs in etchings from the 1980s and later, as well as in his oils from the '60s onward. As an emerging painter, Freud was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon's disruptive (and as some theorists would have it, scatological) smear and, just as crucially, by Bacon's sense of the innate perversity of being human. Like Bacon, Freud succeeds in turning his models' bodies into a kind of painterly residue, recognizably human but still grossly material.

In contrast to a recent exhibition at Marlborough Graphics, which focused on the etchings Freud made from the 1980s through the present day (sixteen were featured, the earliest dated 1984, the latest 2006), a concurrent show at the Museum of Modern Art dealt with the entire range of his etchings, comparing them with a select group of paintings--tamer than we've come to expect from Freud--that deal with the same themes and were made at the same time.

If, as his grandfather Sigmund Freud stated, "one of the principal functions of our thinking [is] to master the material of the external world psychically," then Lucian Freud seems obsessed with doing so materially. This seems the point of his depictions of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, two obese models whom he has often painted: As the body is stretched to its quantitative limits, it becomes absurdly material. Freud (Lucian, that is) is fascinated with fleshy abundance, but also, if less consciously, with the fact that such weight makes it difficult to maintain the "erect posture" that his grandfather said separated human beings from their "earlier animal existence." This is perhaps why "Big Sue" and many of Lucian Freud's other models are often shown supine, their animal parts--genitals--exposed, implicitly the emotional (and sometimes literal) center of the picture.

Freud's figures are unmistakably sexual beings and his faces, however ostensibly civilized, seem haunted by a discontented animality, as in Head of an Irishman, 1999 (shown at MOMA) and The New Yorker, 2006 (included in the MOMA and Marlborough shows). …

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