4 February-22 March
Tate Gallery, Liverpool.
In Woman with a Butterfly Jersey (1990-91), one of a number of new paintings that get their first British showing as part of the Freud Retrospective at the Liverpool Tate, the artist depicts a model he last painted 30 years ago. She appears serene and dignified. The tone is gentle and respectful, and the paint has a delicate softness. Pastel butterflies transmute into a dancing line of charcoal bats. In Seated Nude, again from 1990-91, there is no such refinement or playfulness. An uncomfortable painting, it brilliantly conveys what it feels like to itch. As we gaze upon the woman's body, touch takes over from sight and we encounter the scratchy coarseness of her skin. As we feel our way, the viewpoint changes and the contours blur.
These two pictures demonstrate the range of Freud's recent paintings. But they do more than this: they not only denote a new confidence but mark a new direction. As this latest retrospective reveals, the 1980s now have the character of a transitional period in Freud's work: they witnessed an increasing expansiveness and paved the way for an emerging late style.
The processes involved can best be understood by considering the way that Freud's most recent paintings relate to his earlier work. Herbert Read's well-worn description of Freud as `the Ingres of existentialism' provides one jumping-off point. Recent paintings are distanced from Ingres as never before, with Freud's grip on contour and line relaxing to allow for more painterly qualities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Naked Portrait on a Sofa (1989-91), where the juiciness of the sofa is given the grandeur of a Soutine landscape. As for existentialism, it seems altogether out pf fashion these days; but it does remain a useful means of addressing the evolution of Freud's painting.
The casualness with which `existentialism' is usually invoked has turned it into the vaguest of clichés, and even Herbert Read's own meaning remains elusive. Perhaps Read's coupling was intended as a neat way of identifying Freud both with German thought (Heidegger, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) and French visual culture. Or perhaps both existentialism and Ingres were allusions to the French Culture that then dominated. In England existentialism was always a confusion of sources and ideas. Its popular perception as a credo of ugliness and gloom was a misrepresentation Jean Paul Sartre tried; and failed, to counter as early as the late 1940s - the period in which Freud was dividing his time between Paris and London.
In one of his first English language publications, Existentialism and Humanism (1948), a defence of his position, Sartre is refreshingly keen to differentiate between a passive `quietism of despair' and an active response to anguish. His understanding of humanism revolves around the idea of personal transcendence centred on the belief that man is `self-surpassing and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing'. Man, himself, is at the heart and centre of his transcendence. . and is all the time outside of himself; it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist.'
The positive qualities Sartre identifies with transcendence encourage a reading of Freud's paintings that penetrates the tattered cloak of despair, a reading that helps one understand both their internal consistencies and the way in which there has recently been a displacement of much of their earlier content.
In Freud's painting, `self-surpassing' takes place on two levels. First, in relation to the artist's embodiment within the picture. Second, in terms of ambition, Freud has frequently inserted himself into his pictures in ways that are literal, though oblique (the presence of the artist's coat, shoes, brushes, pestle and mortar etc). Lately, though, there has been a shift. The presence of the rags on which Freud cleaned his brushes in paintings of the mid `80s, which reached its apotheosis in the Tate's Standing by the Rags, ran the risk of becoming an absurdly over-blown mannerism. But in recent paintings the whole image takes on a self-referential function.
This takes place through the connections Freud sets up with his own earlier paintings. We witness a surpassing of their size and complexity, especially through the use of multi-figure compositions, an attempt to transcend the achievements of earlier painters, including Rodin, Courbet, Watteau, Rembrandt, and Velazquez, and a belief in the possibility of a heroic late style. We sense, too, a self-consciousness to all this, and our awareness of the artist's presence is reinforced by attention-seeking self-inscription (the scabbiness of increasingly assertive surfaces, the use of light over dark to accentuate the final brush marks).
The Tate show includes drawings of the `40s and paintings of the `50s in which much of the charge results from the tension between stylishness and raw emotion. But in paintings made during and since the `80s these qualities are displaced by more complementary features, most notably the combination of bravura handling and increased scale. In other words, certain formal qualities have moved centre stage to become, in themselves, part of each picture's content. The early work encourages us to look closely, to move up to the picture: only then is it possible to digest the wealth of information. In paintings of the last decade such scrutiny is again encouraged, but the experience is quite different. As we move closer, the painting breaks down. Instead of being rewarded by an intensification of the subject's presence, we are made aware of the artist's application of paint. As the paint becomes thicker and more insistent, so it smothers the subject.
Freud is most often discussed in terms of his recognition of the otherness of the object (most persuasively by Lawrence Gowing). The evidence includes Freud's meticulous attention to detail and the way in which figures are outlined. But in recent paintings there are signs that Freud is letting go, that he is worrying less. We can chart this development by comparing work from the beginning and end of the `80s. In Naked Portrait (1980-81), the handling of paint is becoming more expansive, yet there is a pedantic attention to detail. For example, in painting the thumb and forefinger of the woman's right hand Freud even includes finger nails complete with cuticle. However, by 1990-91 and Seated Nude, there is a new sense of release. Freud at last lets go of such details. This has coincided with a period in which the artist's mark-making has become increasingly assertive. The balance between sitter and artist has subtly altered.
Freud sets up two different relationships: one between sitter and setting, the other between sitter and artist. Freud's attitude to the former echoes Giacometti's celebrated dream in which `there was no relation between objects: they were separated by measureless chasms of nothingness. The experience terrifies Giacometti, who awakes in a cold sweat. Freud disturbs in a similar way, with careful contours breaking up the unity of the picture space. Figures are isolated from their setting. Heads seem to expand, pressing themselves against their constraining frames, and nudes become bodies that writhe awkwardly. Integration is denied and identity diminished.
We can define these figures neither by their clothing nor their environment: clothing is removed, and the territory is firmly that of the artist. The sitters are misfits. Within a painting, changes in viewpoint and perspective leave them floating free or basking stranded. We are encouraged to consider the person both as someone particular and as something more representative. In Head of Leigh Bowery (1991), the man's bald pate and fleshy face are universalised as Freud bestows on them the chubby innocence of a baby; pierced cheeks become dimples.
Above all, this allows space for the artist's own presence to push forward. In the glowing Naked Man on a Bed (1989-90), exaggerated foreshortening thrusts the reclining figure towards the artist. The man's feet and legs appear massive and his genitals seem huge, with their size exaggerated by the reduced hand that rests beside them. But we are made aware not just of the model's presence but also the closeness of the artist. Flesh is painted as though handled, and such intimacy does much to account for the viewer's discomfort.
So where does this place the viewer? Freud's recent self-portraits highlight the problem. We are never allowed to feel that we are observing the artist, as we do, for example, when we spy Vermeer at work in his studio. Instead, Freud makes it clear that what is shown cannot be our view. The specificity of the title (Reflection) Self Portrait (1983-85) provides a clue. We may be familiar with the faces of those around us; what we are less familiar with, given the asymmetry of the face, is a person's reflection in a mirror, literally their self-image. Freud's self portraits make us painfully aware of this discrepancy, hence their powerful sense of closure and our awkward feeling of intrusion.
Representational painting most frequently implies equivalence between the roles of artist and viewer, a relationship in which the viewer assumes the supposed position of the artist. In Freud's painting this possibility is reduced. There is no such interchangeability and no emotional space for us to enter the room.
It would be wrong, though, to discuss the intimacy of Freud's paintings, their emotional intensity and the closeness of the model as the result of the artist's empathy. What does exist, except in certain exceptional cases, such as the peaceful Sleeping Head (1979-81), the rhythmic Woman in a Butterfly Jersey and the tame Head of a Man (1991), is almost the reverse. In addressing the figure, Freud seems less worried by the sitter's own personality than by the simple fact of their existence. His latest paintings are less about psychology than the sitter's `will to be'. Indeed, with each passing year the distance between Lucian and his grandfather Sigmund grows.
Nor is Freud an expressionist. His self-inscription is not dependent on emotional outpourings. His projection is not of this sort, and his vision is neither consistent nor all-enveloping. This helps account for the dislocation that often occurs between limbs, organs and joints, or between figure and bed, chair or floor. In fact, Freud's vision is remarkably specific. Variations in handling draw attention to the body itself. In Naked Portrait, Profile (1982-83), the woman's thighs and hips appear smooth and tender, her face and upper torso rough and worn; variations in handling seem based on those parts of the body that are normally revealed (weather-beaten) and those that are concealed (delicate).
Crucially, what Freud is now doing draws us away from the head (mind, emotions, personality). This may seem a surprising observation given the way that paint so often accumulates on the face. Yet the effect of this uninviting congestion is to draw attention elsewhere. Naked portraits are becoming naked bodies. In the Tate's Standing by the Rags we are encouraged to scan the figure. Floorboards shoot off into the distance emphasising the way in which the woman is pushed towards the picture plane. As our eyes scan down her body the blood drains from upper torso to feet. In Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989-91), the model twists awkwardly, presenting her body to us; her head breaks up into a congealed Sickert-like tissue of colour, and we are encouraged to look elsewhere. As the tempo ups in Freud's most recent paintings, the artist pushes forward as never before, stumbling into the limelight. But now the stakes are higher. As the painter comes forward, there is a danger that each sitter may become an emptied vessel, and each body a tabula rasa on which Freud scrawls his signature, his writing growing ever bolder.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH