In early March of this year I went to Europe to see my father who, at 94, had decided he could no longer live alone and was moving into a home with full-time care. I flew into Paris and spent two days walking in that bitterly cold city before catching trains to London and on to Glasgow. I wrote this piece while looking out of the window as the train hurtled up the middle of England.
London was uninspiring, raining and cold, puddles on the broken pavements. It didn’t seem very easy to find anything. I hadn’t minded getting lost in Paris, that had seemed fair enough, part of the pleasure of the thing, but in London just trying to find my way out of the Tube seemed to present untold difficulties, never mind that it cost seven pounds for a return fare of only four stops. It was Sunday and the entire Victoria line was closed for repairs. Every few minutes a polite woman’s voice would warn us of delays here or there in tones with the ring of death to them. This is what I imagine the announcements would sound like in a concentration camp. No yelling, spitting, cursing, just implacable, immutable, interminable; drilling down mercilessly. Nothing on the other end.
I was on my way to see the Lucien Freud retrospective at the National Gallery, it was a large part of the reason why I’d come this way. I had arranged a four hour stopover and by some stroke of fortune, despite my ineptness in failing to book, there were still tickets to the twelve midday entry. To kill time I went over to the always reliable Pret a Manger for a sandwich and a coffee, then took a damp stroll down to look at Nelson’s Monument in Trafalgar Square, that wonderful spire with its four enormous brass lions at the base, promising a national strength which seems, in this age, both misguided and quaint. In one portion of the square someone had built a sharp-sided aluminium structure, like a cast-off from a transformers movie which was, in fact, a three-dimensional realisation of the weirdly complex and incomprehensible Olympic logo, with digital countdowns all over it. This piece of tat was beside the fourth plinth which for several years now has been home to all sorts of expressions of art. Today it was carrying a golden boy riding a cut-out rocking horse that seemed obscure at best, aligned in some way to the clumsiness of the logo.
I was there to see the Freud, though, and once in front of the paintings all the despair that grips me when I return to Britain in winter fell away. Here were works from the 1940s right through to last year when he died. The grasp of the man everywhere evident, the early promise that is almost precocious giving way to these strange paintings in their earth tones that dominate the work for the rest of his life. In the 1950s he did a couple of nudes of the same model, ‘Naked woman’ and ‘Naked woman sleeping’ which had been hung side by side. The skin tones, as always with Freud, are curious, unattractive even, but they work to express the emotions beneath the surface, so that in the first – the young woman awake and exposed to the artist’s eye – there is revealed without any apparent device her fear of how she looks, I mean she is splayed out there on the bed, but there is a taughtness around the belly or the chest which gives it away, whereas in the next one, when she is asleep, her body is delivered up to the artist without restraint.
naked girl 1966
naked girl asleep 2 1968
In a picture a little further along the wall the woman’s breasts are palpable in the most honest sense of the word, they are physically there, the nipple promiscuous, almost pornographic, though the pose is so much more demure than for many of the others. In these early paintings the paint is laid flat on the canvas, which is to say Freud is happy for us to see the brushstrokes but the pictures remain defiantly two-dimensional – which, I suppose, heightens their paradoxical fleshiness. In the later paintings he began to use more and more physical paint, including a kind of stippling which, when viewed close up, appears like a kind of eczema on the subjects’ skin (Freud is never interested, it seems, in painting beauty, it is something else about the human condition he wants to capture). In these later pictures the paint sits out from the canvas, built up and up on layers that seem to have been applied like plaster. if you go close to the massive ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ (from the famous series of the fat lady Sue Tilly; the painting is enormous, as is its subject) you can see the way the paint has been built up around her hands and her thighs. It seems doubtful, from this close, that it could look like anything, but back away across the room and there she is in all her glory.
man with feather (self-portrait) 1943
Strangely, there is, also, in the earlier paintings, a juxtaposition between the subject and the background. On the sitters’ faces this remarkable level of expressiveness is granted with apparently simple broad brush strokes, what might almost be lines carved with a palette knife, whereas their clothes or a chair are painted with exquisite detail, every curlicue of the Paisley pattern rendered. In the picture of ‘Two Irishmen, W11,’ there are the men, one standing, one sitting, both in suits, in an empty room, but the whole left hand top side of the painting gives us the view out of the window of, clearly, London W11, painted with photographic detail. Later, reading about this painting I discover that Freud insisted his models remain standing the whole time he painted the background, otherwise, he said, there would be no balance.
Many of the pictures are self-portraits. He is no kinder to himself than any of his other subjects and it’s curious to watch how his depiction of himself changes as he grows older, and to compare that to the photographs which show a man of frightening aspect, glowering eyebrows, working in a paint-and-rag-strewn room – I mean literally, the brush-cleanings of decades pasted on the walls. This is the problem with catalogue books, the final self-portrait is one of the smaller paintings in the exhibition and yet it is displayed in the book the same size as Sue Tilly. This last self-portrait an extreme example of the stippling I mentioned before, the bridge of his nose a coruscation of tiny stabs of paint, an attack on his own image.
self-portrait, reflection 2002
I should probably mention that the exhibition was more than simply crowded, fifty to one hundred people allowed in every half hour, it was difficult to get a clear view of anything. I kept wondering what the women looking at these paintings thought about the way the subjects were rendered, their painful vulnerability, the uncomfortable colours so remote from the normal depiction of women in our culture, but then, in the later pictures, there are lots of men also, equally naked and revealed, with their penises as carefully portrayed as any parts of the women, and it doesn’t disturb me… what did happen, though, was that, on the tube back to Euston, no longer complaining about Britain, I started to notice how honest the paintings are, what had seemed often grotesque in Freud was actually just representative.