Freud's Portraits

I recently had the pleasure of witnessing almost 100 portrait paintings by Lucian Freud at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (the only US venue). These are some of the most candid and accomplished paintings I have ever seen. In a world so dominated by mass media, it’s refreshing to see the patient and persistent observations of a person over such a long period of time. Rather than copying the stopped-time look of photography, his thick paintings show evidence of a changing mind wrestling with raw material.

The portraits themselves are not overly rendered nor composed. Rather, they seem to be pursuing a quality that is uncomfortable. The layout of poses are awkward in ways that seem rough and even create a sense of animation. Each body feels newly discovered, never painted in a uniform way. In the monograph documenting his first American Retrospective, Robert Hughes quotes Freud explaining this sense of discovery for each portrait:

When I look at a body, it gives me choices of what to put in a painting; what will suit me and what won’t won’t. There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as just being so.

I was excited to see how each portrait was made in a completely different way. Part of the viewing pleasure is sharing his surprise for how each likeness emerges. While he uses his brush like a chisel, he doesn’t have a formula for how to paint a portrait. Each head, each body is different. The flesh seems overlays bone in new ways with each pose.

The same sense of discovery is also present in his etchings. The thick series of lines going around contours reflect a history of different decisions in the past, as well as a calculated use of weight in the present. The repetitive line hatching creates patterns that are brush-like, sometimes chiseling form and other times pushing it back with a transparent shadow.

Philip Van Keuren, Professor of Art at SMU, once described Freud’s copperplate line work as “a shower of etched lines that look not unlike metal filings pushed and pulled in a magnetic field.” I love that. While it can’t be labelled as a “system,” there is definitely a structured way of working. While the bodies are lazy, the lines are polarized with energy.

This type of painting & drawing, where a subjective observation is exercised over such a long period of time, is more like poetry than other visual media (like photography). There is no apparatus, nothing is “captured.” It is all translated and re-formed by hand, piece by piece. In doing so, a subjective view is created that is both very personal and familiar at the same time.

In re-reading many of the essays about Freud, I was happy to find that Robert Hughes highlighted a counterpart in English erotic poetry around the same time as Freud’s early portraits. Even though I don’t find Freud’s paintings erotic, they do possess a similar narrative of descriptive intimacy which is wholly different from a photograph:

Turn on your side and bear the day to me
Beloved, sceptre-struck, immured
In the glass wall of sleep. Slowly
Uncloud the borealis of your eye
And show your iceberg secrets, your midnight prizes
To the green-eyed world and to me. Sin
Coils upward into thin air when you awaken
An again morning announces amnesty over
The serpent-kingdomed bed …

George Baker (Collected Poems 1930-1955)