The exhibition of Lucian Freud’s paintings which has already been shown in Washington and Paris, and which moves on to Berlin in the spring, has been amplified at its current London showing with some works on paper – a foretaste of an exhibition devoted to Freud prints and drawings which will open in May at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and will then travel to four other British venues and on to three museums in the United States of America.* Much of this article arises from conversations which I have had with the artist whilst writing on the early drawings and since seeing the Hay ward exhibition.

The group of drawings at the beginning of the exhibition at the Hay ward dates front the Forties – drawings of tense wide-eyed people, the acutest of them Lucian Freud himself, as well as of isolated plants, dislocated dead animals and oddly located stuffed animals. Only after the succeeding rooms of paintings are further groups of drawings, together with some etchings, to be found in the part upstairs devoted to the work of recent years. At the smaller Oxford exhibition, the change in Freud’s career will be all the more apparent he did, after all, give up drawing for many years – but so will the continuities in his work, more so than could possibly be the case in an exhibition primarily concerned with his paintings.

Most immediately striking will be the similarity of presentation in the placing of images on the paper, between, for example, the Self-Portrait of 1943, the famous Christian Bérard (to be shown only in facsimile) and the more recent portraits of lord Goodman (etched and drawn) – all of them with pillows, but only pillows, behind the figure. Less obviously noticeable will be how the nudes in recent drawings and etchings, spread out on beds and viewed from disorientating angles, are anticipated in the way a teddy bear lies, opened up upon a child’s basket in the early pen drawing of Juliet Moore asleep. Equally, the stiff folds of the leather coat in the drawing (based on a self-portrait) of 1943 are distinguished with the same short parallel strokes that are frequently employed for the exciting fringes of sharp shadow in the etchings – these lines are ‘like cats’fur electrified’ (to adapt a simile used by Ruskin to describe a type of German drawing he disliked).

Among the drawings in the first room at the London exhibition there are as many plants and animals as people, partly, Freud explains, because he had great difficulty in getting people to sit for him (possibly, he reflects, as a result of the intensity with which he asked them). Looking at the claws and scaly legs of his upturned poultry (drawn when staying in the house of a doctor in Little Shelford, near Cambridge, during the – war the birds were sent for autopsy to the doctor by people suspicious of poisoning by neighbours) and at the spiky plants, one may recognise various formal preferences and even some imagery shared by other artists at that period – by Sutherland, of course, but also by Craxton, Minton and Ayrton. However, Freud was not at all tempted by the British pastoral subjects which accompanied the thorns and knife-blade leaves of the native British artists – the stooks, ruined towers, sickle moons, parish churches and shepherds of Samuel Palmer, whose art Freud never admired – to say nothing of the more Mediterranean mythology then so popular, although Freud did travel to Greece.

He could never be mistaken for a ‘neoromantic’ artist, nor is much of his work rural. There is, it is true, the landscape drawing, Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit of 1943 – a view from a hotel window: but Freud does not sweep all the elements together into a decorative dance (as Ayrton, for instance, did in his Welsh landscape drawings of the mid-Forties) – they are wittily related, uneasily balanced.

This landscape drawing is worth recalling in front of two later paintings in the exhibition, Wasteground with houses, Paddington, (1970-72) – the second and larger of his two versions of this subject; the other is reproduced in Lawrence Gowing’s Freud monograph – and Factory in North London (1972), which are also window views and have the same apparently arbitrary framing. It is typical of Freud, who abhors rhymes and easy patterns in composition, that he permits neither the horizontals nor the verticals of the sills, lintels, stack-pipes, walls and roofs to line up with the edges of the canvas. He starts painting in or near the centre of the canvas and likes the imagery to ‘force itself to the edge’. He believes that all great paintings need every millimetre of the surface, and it is significant that he sometimes has strips of canvas added to accommodate the pressure outwards of the painting as it grows.

Freud’s delight in the idiosyncrasies of the chipped flint boulders in the wall in the Drumnadrochit drawing is no different from that with which he scrutinises the broken glass bedded in the cement top of the wall in the front of one urban landscape and the thirty or so chimneys on the skyline in the other. These are good illustrations of his determination to make the familiar look unfamiliar, more specific, more distinct in personality, as he puts it. Freud planned to put figures in both these city-scapes: a cyclist was eliminated from behind the fence in the Wasteground, Paddington because it threw things out spatially, and his attempts to include a woman who worked in the factory on its steps were frustrated by her fury at the proposal. He wants to put in the people who really use, or belong to, the places portrayed, but getting the relationship right is difficult and there are other obvious problems which arise from his slow methods of working. The rubbish in the waste ground was a problem too: newly-dumped mattresses had to be kicked out of the way, and once a tramp, observing the artist’s concern at the changes he might make to the mess, muttered in a public school accent about the possible profit to be obtained by threatening disruption. The wasteground is not presented by Freud as metaphor or social comment; and indeed it does not suggest decay but an odd sort of life, attractive for its lack of pretension and freedom from human interference.

The rust on the metal, and the stains on the stucco and stock brick of buildings in these paintings, and still more the efflorescence on the raw plaster of his studio wall evident in the Large Interior Wall (after Watteau) and in other paintings, or the discoloration of sink enamel and the variegation of copper pipes as seen in another recent canvas are recorded by Freud with the same care he bestows on melanin blotches on old or middle-aged skin. Indeed, all the basic elements from which Freud’s interiors are composed – floorboards, sinks and old sofas – are things which have a special character for him. The morocco leather of which a favourite sofa was composed is something he speaks of with the same enthusiasm as he speaks of certain plants or animals. The burst sofa has some of the character of the exposed and naked human on it. It is reminiscent, too, of that feeling for liner found not only in the Wasteground but also in Freud’s painting of studio rags. It has its own life. Turner was a great painter of litter: the people in some of his foregrounds are a sort of litter, and so are the odd still-lifes he disposed there (it is a feature that Ruskin attributed to a child hood spent near Covent Garden). Freud has discerned this in his beautiful drawing of some dead fish – mostly flat fish – scattered upon the sand in Turner’s Sun rising through vapour. Litter, by definition, is not arranged, and Freud is afraid of arranging his subjects. For this reason he got his model to place the flowers in the still-life, Buttercups of 1968. And he never poses a model.

Freud speaks with special admiration of Chardin’s Skate, which is for him one of the greatest paintings. He is himself a painter of animals, or rather of animals and plants. One of the finches he kept in Paris in the Forties is the subject of an early etching, and a pet rat was more recently painted, held by a nude man – its beady eye recalls that of the pigeon held by a boy in an early drawing. He likes all animals – he excepts the house fly – including those, such as snakes, which are generally feared. Girl with a kitten and Girl with a white dog are among his best-known early works and two of his most successful recent paintings, entitled, significantly. Double Portrait and Triple Portrait, in fact show only one girl, with a single whippet in the former and a brace of whippets in the latter. As for the plants, it is notable how they compete with the people beside them – most obviously, the potted palm (one of Freud’s earliest and most prized possessions) with the man in a raincoat in Interior in Paddington of 1951, but also in Interior with plant, reflection listening (self portrait) of 1967/68 (where the reflection, after numerous attempts with a mirror, was captured in a window pane) or the Large Interior, Paddington of 1968/69. One could not claim that Freud’s humans are conceived of as plants – at least not always (there are certainly affinities between the early portrait drawings of women and those of plants) – but his humans are surely animals.

In a form of common speech, of which Freud himself would never be guilty, humans are ‘animals’ when they are crude or violent; Freud’s humans are animals because he portrays them without the pretensions and the disguises of their social existence; though they may be very alert or entirely relaxed, they are not self-conscious. His interest in the naked as a subject in art is, of course, related to this. Robert Hughes, in the passionate and polemical introduction to the catalogue of the London exhibition, quotes Degas, as reported by George Moore, on the subject of his female nudes: ‘I show them deprived of their airs and graces, reduced to the level of animals cleaning themselves.’ The reference is undoubtedly apposite. And yet I am not convinced that ‘reduced is appropriate for Freud’s attitude (or, indeed, for Degas’s). One might add that what interested Degas was always the nude in movement, as when washing or drying. Such action does not interest Freud; moreover Freud’s nudes, unlike Degas’s, are not anonymous, even if their identity is unknown to us. Freud is concerned to get as close as possible to individuals; and what may seem to be a loss of dignity can be the pre-condition for his regard.

The London exhibition contains a painting of a nude woman made by Freud before he discovered himself as a painter of the naked. Sleeping Nude of 1950 is from a private collection in Canada, and Freud was apprehensive about seeing it again after more than thirty years. It is painted on the grey ground used in several paintings of this period. The woman is asleep with a grey blanket covering her legs, a large steel fireplace and grey wall behind her and is apparently tightly pressed up to the bed she lies on – a similar spatial concentration is found in Hotel Bedroom of 1954. He remarked that the woman wasn’t an animal, and that he felt this painting might be too ‘arty’, that the suspense and mystery might appear devised, rather than extrated from a real situation. (In fact, having seen it, he did not find it bad at all.) Freud distrusts a certain type of invention in art. Interior in Paddington of 1951 may look like an illustration to a thriller, but the air of menace was something Freud discovered in the situation – in the character of the room, of the plant, and of the man uneasily standing in the former beside the latter.

Freud is aware of the special significance of this painting, at the time the most ambitious of his works. The large canvas was presented to him by the Arts Council, which gave similar ones to 59 other British artists with a proposal to exhibit the five best paintings at the Festival of Britain – the five chosen were awarded £500 each and their work presented to provincial galleries. Freud had an idea of what he could do, but knew he needed a year to concentrate on it. Kenneth Clark, to whom he appealed for help, happened then to be selling some of his collection, and cheques came to Freud from Partridge’s and another West End art dealer. As a gesture of thanks Freud gave Clark a small painting on copper of the roots of the palm in the large canvas.

The idea of painting on copper came to Freud from the experience of etching: abandoned plates were lying around. (It cannot have been a coincidence that the popularity of this support among European artists in the late 16th century corresponded with the dramatic increase in reproductive print-making.) Freud’s paintings on copper were small and detailed, and, given his restless life at this period, easier for him to concentrate on than a large composition. Much has been made of the miniaturist character of the technique in these works: critic after critic writes about how meticulous and how Flemish the details are, and how every hair on the heads is painted – which of course it is not. The handling is in fact very varied and the degree of finish by no means uniform.

Even in reproduction the pencil underdrawing and several revisions to the contour of the cheek are visible in the famous Head of Francis Bacon, and one can clearly see how the tiny lines animating the grey shadows on the face are not drawn with the point of a brush but are pushed through the paint by stiff bristles revealing the paler paint below. This is a way of painting frequently found in his subsequent works, in the garments worn by his mother, for example, or the wall behind the flowers in Buttercups.

In the paintings of heads hung together at the London exhibition, gradual but dramatic changes can be charted. At first there is a magnification of the type of handling found in such portraits as that of Bacon; but by the early Sixties the portraits are on an entirely new scale, with the heads themselves often larger than life-size. Freud was then painting standing up, often at night, and with new boldness. The entire paint surface – swelling cheek or glowing forehead against the undulations of the button-back leather sofa – consists of exhilarating broad brushstrokes colliding, or swerving and halting to avoid colliding. Freud cites the Sleeping Head of 1962 as a crucial painting: it was made at ‘lightning speed’ (by Freud’s standards – in fact, it took two weeks) after a frustrating absence from oil paint occasioned by a holiday in Greece with his children.

With greater impasto, Freud was able to give his paint the feel of flesh, as his adored Chardin gave his paint the feel of crusts and copper, meat and milk. Freud became a painter whose chief subject was the naked portrait. The decisive painting of this type for him (but not his earliest) was the one he made of a girl on a Turkish sofa in 1966 (illustrated in Gowing’s book as plates 103 and 104), after which he ‘felt he was away’. There are numerous paintings of female models in the exhibition which one could cite in this connection. There is also the 1964 painting of cyclamens, their fleshy pink petals contrasted with their dark green leaves – just as at this date a head or body may be placed against a dark sofa – but with a further contrast provided by the broadly swept grey and white of the sink (the broad straight-sided type known as a Belfast, much painted by Freud) and by bare canvas marked only by the traces of preliminary charcoal sketches. Freud has made many paintings – including a mural – of cyclamens, which he finds a particularly difficult subject as well as – or, rather, therefore an appealing one.

In abandoning drawing in these years, Freud was influenced by the example of Francis Bacon in whose paintings he found an urgency which he associated with the avoidance of drawing. Contrary to claims which have sometimes been made, he has never imitated Bacon’s ‘special effects’ – the smudge and the spatter – nor Bacon’s imagery. Something of the twisted form of Freud’s own body, as it is foreshortened in his Reflection with two children (self-portrait) of 1965 – painted looking down at a glass placed on the studio floor, which is tilted only slightly – and the way his body is consequently coalesced with the lamp (a lamp with a reflector, not a bare bulb, Freud points out, irritated by the repeated assertion that he paints by the latter) is reminiscent of the swirling distortions of Bacon, who, incidentally, frequently painted Freud in this decade (in 1964 with light bulb as a prop). The idea of reflection is much enhanced in this painting by the grey background which has been made smooth as slate with a palette knife – something also found in the Portrait of Michael Andrews and June of the same period – but this also enhances by contrast the effects of the slashes and swirls of impasto in the highlights of the flesh. The image as always seems physically close to us, whereas Bacon’s images are phantasmagoric. The idea of the painting with its different scale for the children came, Freud tells me, from the famous tomb of the dwarf Seneb and his family in the Cairo museum, which he has never seen but has admired in reproduction.

Such a head as this Self-Portrait has an extraordinary mobile plasticity found also, perhaps in its most remarkable form, in the pencil drawing of his father of 1970 and in the etchings of heads – especially those of Lawrence Gowing and the artist’s mother of 1982, which are the first etchings he had made since the Forties. There are reminiscences here of some of Rodin’s work, above all of the head of the Balzac. Turning back for contrast to the small portrait of Francis Bacon, one is surprised to discover the beginnings of a characteristic rhythm in the swellings of the brow which have an almost independent vitality. The devastating candour, the consistent integrity and the consequent indelicacy or Freud’s painting make the Hayward exhibition an exhausting as well as an exciting experience. His materials are essentially those which he established two decades ago, but his paintings still constantly surprise, both as images and in their handling. The density and roughness of paint in the self-portrait in profile of 1981-82, for instance, is different from that in any earlier portrait. It is impossible to understand how it achieves its effect. We remember the eye regarding us sideways with the alertness of an animal watching its prey, but the pupil is hardly darker than the neighbouring shadow. Some of the brushwork around the mouth seems as puzzling, when closely examined, as those slashes of paint in the late portraits by Frans Hals, so admired by Freud. Although it is called Reflection. Self-portrait, Freud was anxious to remove from this painting any evidence of the two mirrors with which it was made. Six out of seven of his self-portraits are abandoned – and for every decisive stroke visible on the surface many others have been sandpapered down. The ferocious expression on the artist’s face suggests his suspicion of every accidental effect which this sort of painting entails, his concentration on the risks involved, his determination to eliminate any self-esteem from the way he looks at himself and everything inessential from his art.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences