Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucien Freud's Studio Couches

Spelling is not necessarily an intelligence indicator.  Herman Melville was so lousy at it that his wife, then Ralph Waldo Emerson, had to go through various manuscripts and make words out of the messes he provided them.  But. . .what words!  Anybody who can write like that doesn't need to do anything but tap into whatever teeming well he is privy to and let her rip.  Let the literary technicians come back and clean everything up.

However, non-geniuses ought to look at the letters they often, rather casually, spill across the page.  It seems like a great many of them have either just learned of Lucien Freud's existence or have Melville's eye for letter sequence, but lack his protean gifts for expression.

If I've seen Lucien spelled "Lucian" once, I've seen it five times.  Get the name right, people!  It's your last bloody chance.

And so I segue into a fully expected turnaround in the life and art of our times.  Yes, Lucien Freud, another protean voice, has died and is reaping the rewards, in well-ordered prose and infantile sputtering, he richly deserves.  He almost singlehandedly brought figure painting back into the consciousness of art-lovers who were not only steering clear of human flesh, but of human incident and reality of any kind.  Freud - who is a grandson of the Grand Master of the Unconscious - is now considered the gold standard by which other painters of the figure are measured.  And, as such, it ain't a bad one.

Of course, there were deniers all along.  When the big show at the Metropolitan Museum introduced America to the breadth of Freud's genius, the curators were reluctant to call him a realist - as if realism were the baddest of bad words and no self-respecting curator might traffic in such language and retain the esteem of his or her fellows.

Art is long, but the art world moves slowly.

Yet Freud - a famously reclusive fellow - thrived in his work from the very beginning.

After studying at Cedric Morris' East Anglian School Of Painting and Drawing, he broke off into a surprising direction - as an egg tempera artist whose strangely biomorphic distortions made Francis Bacon's head, for example, look even bigger than it actually was.  Other victims of Freud's obsessive brush don't come off any better.  As Andrew Wyeth came of age through his father and the oil paint he was instructed to utilize, so Freud came into his own inside of a medium that was essentially hostile to his gifts.

But no matter.  It was important for him to get started.  And get started he did.

After having discovered oil, he quickly came into his own personality: the sooty palette of his tempera years came back, but it was slathered with texture.  The people were there, but they had a context: a bed, chair, or empty room.  Once Freud settled upon these very simple ingredients, he never looked back.  If anything, Freud looked fiercely forward.  And worked as hard as the guys who were carrying hods down the road.  No, harder: he could've quit anytime he wanted to.  Nor did he have any taskmaster besides himself.  Yet he could spend months on a single painting and realize that it was done only after it started to look like somebody else's.

Over the next fifty years, he amassed a body of work like no other - a oeuvre that fed on his reclusive energy, which addressed the conundrums and comforts of solitude.  Some might say he accumulated a freak's gallery of people and personalities.  And, to an extent, they're right.  His people are often scary-looking.  Who sits in a chair like that?  Somebody Freud summoned to his studio and said: "Don't move!"  Unlike Diane Arbus, who wanted to photograph freaks, Freud took a pop eye or withered flesh and distilled their humanity.  He wasn't afraid of what he might discover inside of a person as he or she sat and waited.  Or drifted off to sleep.  Or daydreamed audibly.

He managed to get at the soul's captivity inside of a body that has grown out of proportion and become a smothering presence.  He presumed to suggest that people need each other in spite of how difficult relationships can be.  He looked deeply within, but was also able to create a dazzling color-scape that was not gratuitously postmodern.  The bumps, bruises, and sores of the flesh have, in Freud, a formal counterpart.  He pushes the paint into wavy channels that dive into the hollows and perch defiantly on the raised areas, which has a tactile presence even in reproduction.

Much has been made of the 33.6 million sale.  I'm glad such a monstrously delightful thing happened during Freud's lifetime.  It lays to rest the notion that poor artists toil - without reumneration - in solitude.  Freud was most certainly alone, but he chose to be - and he was paid bloody well for it, thank you very much.

I'm not saying that Freud got all of this money.  Perhaps he got very little of it.  But he was very much alive when the sale occurred, and nobody will ever take that away from him.  Or from the rest of us, who do a fair amount of unremunerative toiling, but are no more fatalistic about it than we ought to be.

I have not seen Freud's work since 1994, when the Met brought him here while cautioning us against liking him for what he was.  Not a realist?  What was he then?  Were his figures just an excuse for a great backwash of formal proclivities?  If so, why didn't he just eliminate the figure and go with what the brush might do on its own?  Why was Freud insistent upon a human context when the market for his work was vigorous enough to snatch up everything he did?  When he was commissioned to paint Queen Elizabeth, it didn't really matter what he made of her - though what eventually became The Official Portrait disappointed almost everyone.  She was old, ugly, without royal gravitas, the works.  But what did people expect?  Did they think that Freud would actually do an official portrait?  Hadn't they ever looked at his work?

I don't think the portrait's much good.  It's uncharacteristically flat, psychologically neutral, and dullish in color, in spite of the queenly gewgaws that make a Van Dyck or Velasquez sing.  (On the other hand, it is a Lucien Freud and possesses many of his virtues - though they seem to be cut in half.)  Freud needed to pick his own models while staying out of the public spotlight.  He apparently had several studios, to which he would commute surreptitiously.  He had a phone somewhere, but not in any of these places.  Or only in one at a time.  If he wanted somebody to find him, he or she would.  Otherwise, the man kept to himself in order to achieve perfection-in-solitude - or as much perfection as any mortal creature has ever dared to want.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! But it is Lucian, with an a: