'The Picture of Lucian Freud'
November 7, 2007


Isn't it ironic that postwar art has traded one Freud for another. The very influence that Sigmund once exerted in the 1950s, his grandson Lucian, now in his mid-80s, might claim today. John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Lisa Yuskavage, Tracy Emin: All are among the younger artists who look to Lucian's analysis of the body just as many Abstract Expressionists once drew on Sigmund's dissection of the mind.

In his new monograph on the artist, "Lucian Freud" (Rizzoli, 488 pages, $135), billed by the publisher as the most comprehensive survey of Lucian to date, William Feaver writes, "There's an easy assumption that, metaphorically speaking if not by actual bequest, Lu the Painter inherited the couch of his renowned grandfather." An easy assumption, yes, but an overworked one. Mr. Feaver, a British art critic and painter who has organized several Freud exhibitions, fortunately knows better than to spend much time on the Sigmund-Lucian comparison. Instead, his book hints at more interesting terrain. Although it is not an argument made explicitly in the book (a somewhat tongue-tied, soft appreciation), Mr. Feaver offers up nearly 400 reproductions, four interviews with the artist, and an introductory essay that suggests a different conclusion: The secret of Lucian's success may not be his Sigmundness. It may instead be his Englishness.

Born to Jewish parents in Berlin in 1922, Lucian escaped with his family to England in 1933. He did not look back. He never dilated on the Jewish identity that first sent him abroad — "Being Jewish?" Mr. Freud remarked to Leigh Bowery, the corpulent performance artist who became one of his favorite subjects, "I never think about it, yet it's a part of me" — he gave up on Germany — "Hitler's attitude to the Jews persuaded my father to bring us to London, the place I prefer in every way to anywhere I've been" — and, finally, he wanted little to do with Sigmund: "I think [psychoanalysis is] unsuited to the lifespan," he told Mr. Feaver, somewhat elliptically. "I feel very guarded about it but I'm fairly ignorant about it."

What replaced all this was an adopted national canon. Sure, boiling things down to national style may be reductive, but Mr. Freud clearly set about performing that reduction himself. The process began in boarding school, where Lucian worked to rid himself of Teutonic mannerisms. "When I came to England first I could only do German Gothic handwriting," says Mr. Freud. Mr. Feaver continues: "The spikiness lapsed and he developed a rounded, laboured, but not inelegant script of his own, each word treated as a novelty, written as though drawn."

The same transition can be seen through his early artwork. Despite little formal training, Lucian displayed an immense talent for draftsmanship. Although less well known than his paintings, his etchings remain a high point of his oeuvre (a subject that will be examined in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art starting in December). Ink drawings, such as "Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit" (1943), likewise became crystalline interpretations of the visible world.

Yet his paintings through the 1940s still shout "Weimar." The bug-eyed portraits of the period, though accomplished, betray an expressionist manner. Mr. Feaver writes how this led to the "assumption (he took it as an accusation) that he was a Germanic sort of artist, carrying on willy-nilly in prewar, pre-Hitler, 'Neue Sachlichkeit' style."

Well, up to a point, he was. In the mid-1950s, however, the manner matured. Suddenly we see the signature style, the splotchy red-yellow-green brushwork that he would apply, for the rest of his career, to his analysis of human flesh.

The 19th-century British painter Benjamin Haydon once remarked:

The explanation of the propensity of the English people to portrait painting is to be found in their relish for a Fact. Let a man do the grandest things . . . yet the English people would prefer his portrait to a painting of the great deed.

The likeness they can judge of; his existence is a Fact. But the truth of the picture of his deeds they cannot judge of, for they have no imagination.

If Mr. Freud was not born with English sensibility, he developed one in paint. And he found ready success in the "honesty" of these fleshy facts. It comes as no surprise that one of Mr. Feaver's interviews with Mr. Freud concerns Lucian's appreciation of John Constable. This interest began when Mr. Freud was "living in Dedham, in the Constable country. I'd seen the little painting of the tree trunk, close-up, in the V&A, and I thought what a good idea." Mr. Freud continues: "I mean, this is so English isn't it?"

But of course, beyond the interest in fact, Mr. Freud's most famous paintings are English for more tabloid reasons, too. Oscar Wilde once said, "The English public, as a mass, takes no interest in a work of art until it is told that the work in question is immoral." As is underscored by Mr. Feaver's book, Mr. Freud's shortcoming is that he can abandon English fact for mere English sensationalism.

In 1964, Mr. Freud was dismissed from a teaching job for assigning his students to paint naked self-portraits that would be "something really shameless, you know." Thereafter, the subject in his own work became evermore shameless and grotesque. Enter Leigh Bowery and "Big Sue," Mr. Freud's obese painter's models. Enter taboo. For one painting he positioned his half-naked, pre-pubescent daughter Isobel on the floor beside a houseplant ("Large Interior, Paddington," 1968-69). He also featured a man, the photographer David Dawson, breastfeeding a baby as Francis Wyndham reads Flaubert's letters ("Large Interior, Notting Hill," 1998).

The slow rise of British art, which tracked the demise of the New York School and the dying influence of the French avant-garde, has privileged Mr. Freud as the embodiment of English style. Unfortunately, he inhabits the best and worst attributes of what England can offer up in paint. His champions point to John Constable. But Mr. Freud is rather more Dorian Gray.