Lucian Freud, who died Thursday in London at the age of 88, was the most artist-like of artists. He was a larger-than-life bohemian who spent hard, drank hard, screwed hard, and painted even harder. You can almost feel the chaos in his life in the chaos of his canvases. In the mess of Freud’s studio, obese models’ slatherings of fat got rendered in slatherings of paint. That life and those slatherings led him to count among the greatest British artists of the 20th century.
That’s always going to count as a backhanded compliment. For much of the 20th century, British art managed to sit out some of the most radical trends in Europe and America. While the leading minds in Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and New York were following up on the cubism of Picasso, the abstraction of Malevich and the conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp, many British artists were still thrashing out the legacy of Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner.
A few years ago, when some of the world’s greatest art historians put together a 700-page survey called Art Since 1900, Freud got mentioned once, barely in passing.
But I think there is true excellence in Freud, only it has to be understood in terms of how well he played the iffy British hand he was dealt. He didn’t simply ignore the conservatism around him in England; he took it on, as part of what his art was about. The florid brushwork of a Constable gets hypertrophied in Freud, into a kind of gross exaggeration of what unleashed paint can do. Gainsborough’s great portraits, with their mix of close observation and extreme stylishness, are almost lampooned in Freud’s people-pictures. Freud’s portraits are stylish to the point of caricature–they are all-Freud, all-the-time–and push close observation to the edge of absurdity. Freud was famous for demanding hundreds of hours with his models, but I don’t think that was because he needed all those hours in order to capture a likeness. (Plenty of great portraits have come out of a few minutes’ meeting.) He needed them because his art was all about taking the procedures of his British precursors and pumping them up ‘til they burst. Freud’s portraits don’t look any more like his sitters than anyone else’s do, or capture their souls any better. But they do register the sheer, absurd effort of sustained looking as well as any picture ever could. His portraits don’t describe, in measured tones, what a particular person is actually like. They scream flesh, and duration, and labor, and looking and paint–all the ingredients of traditional British art, made to serve no purpose other than to let Freud’s paintings trump all the British pictures that came before his.
Maybe they needed to do that because Freud himself was hardly a true Limey. He was Sigmund Freud’s grandson, born in Berlin into a German-speaking family that fled Hitler in 1933, taking shelter in England when the painter was 11. Like so many people transplanted at just that in-between age, Freud could neither ignore the new culture he was thrown into nor merge with it seamlessly. Freud’s Britishness would always be a matter of conflict and negotiation, and that’s what we see played out in his art, as something closer to a full-bore battle.
Many people, including myself, have been bothered by how Freud pandered to some of the hoariest clichés about what art and artists can be. Pace Freud, artists do not have to be hard-living, half-mad or broke to make fine, authentic work. Portraiture does not have to be about revealing every sitter’s deepest, darkest inner self. Flesh is not the only and ultimate subject for painting, and you don’t have to take someone’s clothes off to understand who they are. And the least interesting thing about a great work of art ought to be the life and habits of the person who made it–which are precisely the subjects that seem of greatest interest to so many Freud lovers.
But as I consider Freud’s pictures and life, now that the man who crafted them is gone, their clichés start seeming so extreme, so overdetermined, that I can’t help feeling they are the true subjects that his pictures grappled with.