“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince,” wrote Lucian Freud. These attributes are on full show in the Lucian Freud Portraits retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The lavish fleshiness and lunar craters in Freud’s paintings of Leigh Bowery, astonish. A naked model viewed from a fierce perspective, disturbs. The erotically charged gaze of Freud’s beautiful first wife, Kitty Garman, seduces. The inner life of a nude made transparent, convinces.
Freud’s paintings exhibit a vision sharpened to a surgical fineness. He is able to peel away superficial accretions and reveal the human person in his vulnerable and sublime mortality. Freud gets under the skin and reveals the skull beneath. And all this is achieved through the simple act of looking.
Freud's artistic project was to train himself to look with a hawk-eye intensity. He would study his subjects for hours, days, months and sometimes, years on end. He locked the sitter in his sights. David Hockney, who had his portrait painted by Freud in 2002, remarks in the exhibition catalogue that “His (Freud’s) method of painting is very good because, being slow, you can talk...you get to know and watch the face doing many things...looking and peering...coming closer and closer...he has this energy...his portraits are as good as have been done by anybody...so layered, photographs can’t get near it.”
An artist friend of mine once told me that the average time that people take looking at a painting in a gallery is four seconds. He suggested that part of the reason for this was that the art of seeing in a concentrated fashion has been eroded by the constant assault of crass visual images. We find it increasingly difficult to look at those invisible presences beyond the clichés. At the same time, looking at another or being looked at in a way that is more than a superficial engagement can become threatening. We fear being exposed. We cover and hide our nakedness. The intense, shameless gaze that can look upon naked flesh with a loving intimacy is something that only lovers and artists can hope to achieve.
But Freud is more than a skilled draughtsman. His interest lies beyond accurate, technically accomplished recordings of his sitters’ features. Freud’s work possess a psychological acuity, an emotional temperature. It is this which makes his images so arresting. These paintings are as much works of autobiography as attempts to capture the subject. For Freud the disciplined effort of looking at a model delineates the contours, conscious or unconscious, of his own life. The gap between subject and artist thins to a gossamer. The artist, Frank Auerbach, remarks:
When I think of the work of Lucian Freud, I think of Lucian’s attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter he would come off the tightrope; he has no safety net of manner. Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style, he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs. I am never aware of the artistic paraphernalia. The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on the plate as a “composition”.
I saw the exhibition and, yes, I did buy the t-shirt. On the t-shirt are four words: astonish, disturb, seduce, convince. Freud does.