Essays by James Hyman

Lucian Freud: What the Critics Said

Lucian Freud: What the Critics Said


"Lucian Freud: Recent Work", Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 14 March, 1992; Reina Sophia, Madrid, 6 April to 13 June, 1992.

The exhibition of Lucian Freud's recent work broke attendance records at the Whitechapel Gallery in the autumn, but the media seemed more obsessed with the painter's persona than his palette.

James Hyman reviewed for Tate the Freudian analysis


In a photograph of Lucien Freud taken almost half a century ago the artist sits in a large leather armchair in a room filled with pictures. He is wearing a striped pullover that matches the head of a zebra he is stroking. The image appeared in 1948 in both John Lehmann's fashionable Penguin New Writing and in Harpers Bazaar. Here was an artist at home in the twin worlds of high culture and high society. Little seems to have changed since then: it is still the image of Freud that dominates his appearance in the press. A full-length naked self-portrait attracted more comment than any other painting in the Whitechapel show and was reproduced in no fewer than seven pieces in the British press (Guardian, Independent, Morning Star, New Statesman, Spectator, Art Review, Time Out). And it was Freud's life not his art that dominated all the major features: British Vogue gave eight pages to "Lucian Freud's Women"; Vanity Fair followed in similar vein with "The Naked and the Id" and the Mail (Femail, in fact) devoted three pages to the question "Is this Britain's greatest lover?" Surprisingly, broadsheet arts pages and glossy publications differed little in their approach, a feature that has been encouraged by the predominance of writing by long-time friends who emphasise the reclusive nature of the artist while celebrating the author's own privileged access.

Such pieces are rarely critical, usually provide new gossip and are always adulatory.
William Feaver, for example, argued that "he may be the greatest living painter of people" in a piece entitled "Body Language" in the Observer and followed up with another laudatory article which proclaimed: "How blessed to be painted by Lucien Freud." In the Independent on Sunday, Bruce Bernard concluded that "his show will be the one-man show of the 199os" and Daniel Farson contributed at least three articles that reflected a long association with Freud and a fascination with Francis Bacon. This was complemented by Modem Painters, which commissioned short essays by some of Freud's models that promised much but went as far as the photographer Harry Diamond recalling that "he demanded punctuality, which is not my custom - although I try not to be late".

Unfortunately those closest to the artist do not always best serve his cause. Perhaps because of this predominance of articles by friends, the emphasis is on anecdote rather than analysis. "Considering his fame," wrote Tim Hilton, also in the Independent on Sunday, "Freud is a painter who has attracted little art criticism. The monographs on his career read as though their authors had been mesmerised."

Hero or anti-hero?
To many, Freud is a hero who keeps tradition alive, renews painting and revitalises the figure. In the Spectator, Giles Auty argued that "in an age in which skill-based artistic media are increasingly spurned and marginalised, he demonstrates the continuing and unlimited potential and relevance of oil paint as a means of expression." Using Freud as a cosh with which to batter any would-be modernist, Bruce Bernard suggested that "to post-Cézanne figurative artists, he offers something too potent, idiosyncratic and literally inimitable to foster any sense of fellow feeling, and to the self-appointed avant-garde, those from Goldsmith's College... he threatens to keep alive a tradition which they hoped was long dead."

Others, though, charge Freud with misogyny, pessimism and coldness, and criticise him for a failure to give his forms either substance or life. In the Guardian James Hall tried to enliven a tender painting of two women peacefully asleep by proclaiming it to be "the scene of a crime. A sex crime. A drugs crime. Some kind of violent crime. Why else would two women be laid out cold like this?" And Paul Johnson confessed in the Mail that he "long(ed) for the day when Britain will find a `greatest living painter' who loves and celebrates life, who brings us beauty and glory, who makes our hearts sing and reminds us how good it is to be alive."

The extent to which Freud's life directs interpretation is nowhere more evident than in reaction to his nudes, with the assumption that they form part of some sexual merry-go-round; an autobiography of conquest. The Evening Standard's Brian Sewell suggested that the men are "rather better painted and more scrupulously observed than the women for whom we suppose Freud lusts." But the knowledge that many of these naked women are the artist's daughters has also led to more disturbing claims. As Jeff Sawtell recognised in the Morning Star, "the charges levelled range from accusations of misogyny and incestuous patriarchy to assertions that it is evidence of his innate homosexuality or a phallic celebration of male heterosexuality."

This latest exhibition suggests that the presentation of Freud has now not only spilled over from the gossip columns to the arts pages, but has seeped into the gallery. There, as in print, it is Freud's own image, which dominates, both through his naked self-portrait and the emphasis on his progeny -human as well as painted. With so many works selected, the quality may have been uneven and the hanging crowded, but the pervasive message of the show seemed to lie not in individual works but in the overall impression of the artist's fecundity. William Packer in the Financial Times celebrated the virility of a man "in full creative flow well into old age" and Richard Cork wrote in The Times that "at the age of 71, Freud is at the peak of his power and painting by far the finest images of his long career.

Not since Picasso has the image of the male artist as prodigious creator been so strong, nor the equation between sex and painting so explicit.

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