Lucian Freud

Nicholas Penny

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.

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[*] Lucian Freud: Paintings, the catalogue of the Hayward exhibition, with an essay by Robert Hughes, is published by Thames and Hudson in hardback and by the South Bank Centre and Thames and Hudson in paperback (135pp., £24 and £14.00, 1 February, 0 500 09179 X and 0 86355 055 X). Lucian Freud: Works on Paper by Nicholas Penny and Robert Flynn Johnson, which is also the catalogue of the Ashmolean exhibition, is published by Thames and Hudson (127 pp., £20, 1 February, 0 500 09185 4).