Lucien Freud: This Is What Incarnation Looks Like

"Girl With Eyes Closed (detail)" by Lucien Freud

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.

Lucien Freud
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.

Read Brett Busang’s full post.
See more of Lucien Freud’s work.

“Trade Secrets” of the Poor

"Her Garage" by Brett Busang

Artist Brett Busang is spending his summer in Memphis – prowling the streets and painting. His e-pistles read as something holy – feral and complete within themselves.

He’s away from D.C. and in the land of the Chickasaw this summer – in part – because his Mom, who lived there, died in May; she who instructed him in both The Life and The Word of an artist.

Below are a few excerpts from his e-mails:

Memphis is a city of poor people ringed by pockets of privilege. I’m most interested in the poor – who have treated me with kindness and courtesy. Yet as I study the habitat of folk who don’t dream of tomorrow, I wonder what on earth is going to become of us all? A local art maven, upon looking at my portfolio, said I hadn’t told the whole story yet. I wonder whether that’s even a valid criticism – in part because any story is ongoing, but also because one person can only do so much, given his temperament and preferences. I fully acknowledge that I’ve just scratched the surface, but I consider the effort of scratching eminently worthwhile. …

I wrote a much longer essay about being here in Memphis among the poor, who will not only be with us, they will begin – as we sidle up ever closer – to share “trade secrets”. At one time, there was stone soup, made with an actual stone or the sole of a shoe. (Boots furnished a better aroma, but no appreciable elevation in taste.) In the future, our nourishment will center on various forms of temporary empowerment and may involve stealing from the rich; giving comfort to our botton lines, particularly if they’ve withered-up a little; and ministering to the Fallen Mighty, whose numbers will visibly swell.

Such is my apocalyptic version of. . .the following weekend. (I can’t wait for upper-case History. The way things are going, we’ve got to get up to speed right now.)

To read more of Brett’s reflections, especially about his Mom, go to his blog Painting is Dead and So Can I.

Brett Busang: ‘Good Books Turn Our Thinking Along Grooves That Aren’t Well-Established’

"Water Oak" (Capitol Hill) by Brett Busang

My friend Brett recently sent me a note commenting on my book Who Killed Donte Manning? Brett’s an amazing artist. I’ve got one of his paintings at home and another hangs on loan in the Sojourners offices. It’s humbling to have someone reflect your work back to you and put it into their own intimate context. Thanks, Brett!

“You sure packed a lot into that little volume.  I found myself re-reading passages I did not grasp as perfectly as I might have.  The reason?  Like the richest of anything, they were multi-faceted and agreeably complex.

Good books turn our thinking along grooves that aren’t very well-established because they just haven’t been used.  I’m very grateful for the re-routing.

I’d also like to compliment you on the weaving-together of many strains: ancient history, holy scripture, urban planning, urban warfare, urban ritual.  A man prays in a “profane” space.  A little boy falls victim to a retaliatory shooting.  God is repudiated by men who want to centralize power.  Over time, power means military might – but also coffee, which is available in a “socially responsible” atmosphere that has nonetheless supplanted gardens.  Grown men groove to the gospel as they buff and shine their cars.  More importantly, the mother of a victim embraces the victim’s friends.  It’s good to be reminded of the momentary paradise most of us can grasp after an okay afternoon (or appalling shootout.)

I’m going to read it again tomorrow.  I think I missed too much the first time.

I spent the last week in a small Massachusetts town.  While there, I looked after a friend, made pencil drawings, and read about post-Katrina New Orleans.  I asked this friend to drive me along the Merrimac River, along which Thoreau had travelled as a young man.  I was utterly bewitched – and am glad I had to return shortly afterwards.  I would have otherwise made plans to move there.  Not a good idea.  I believe, like you, that age-old dramas are enacted in our “evil” cities and feel I should bear witness to at least some of them.  Not like you, of course – but in my more cowardly fashion.

Thanks for writing the book.  It provided a brand-new context for my own ruminations about half-hearted justice and wasted lives.  It invested seemingly fragmentary events with a sense of urgency.  And it charged the familiar with grace and meaning.”