Painter Lucien Freud, grandson of Sigmund, died last week. I haven’t been familiar with his work — though when I saw his portrait of Queen Elizabeth I remembered seeing it before. My friend artist Brett Busang wrote an insightful tribute to Freud over at Painting is Dead and So Can I. Below is an excerpt:
Over the next fifty years, [Lucien Freud] amassed a body of work like no other – aoeuvre 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.
Freud’s female nudes are glorious, fleshy. This is what incarnation looks like. Below is a poem by John Updike titled “Lucien Freud.” It pushes the way Freud viewed the body — gross and mysterious.
by John Updike
Yes, the body is a hideous thing,
the feet and genitals especially,
the human face not far behind. Blue veins
make snakes on the backs of hands, and mar
the marbled glassy massiveness of thighs.
Such clotted weight’s worth seeing after centuries
(Pygmalion to Canova) of the nude
as spirit’s outer form, a white flame: Psyche.
How wonderfully St. Gaudens’ slim Diana
stands balanced on one foot, in air, moon-cool,
forever! But no, flesh drags us down,
its mottled earth the painter’s avid ground,
earth innocently ugly, sound asleep,
poor nakedness, sunk angel, sack of phlegm.