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The Harshly Lit Darkness of Lucian Freud

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Lucian Freud, as presented in the gossipy new biography, Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Grieg, lived for 88 years entirely guilt-free, which is a remarkable bit of pathology in itself, but especially so for the grandson of the man who tagged guilt as the glue holding civilization together.

Freud, in Grieg’s account, was monumentally self-centered — compulsively doing whatever he wanted, with whomever he wanted, yet always managing to retain social and familial relationships (until he didn’t) through a spellbinding charisma and joie de vivre that often, though not entirely, masked an undertow of threat.

Grieg records a reminiscence from Victor Chandler, Freud’s favorite bookie, “who once boldly questioned Lucian about his role as a parent” (Freud recognized 14 children by six women, all but two born out of wedlock, while rumors claim that he fathered as many as 40):

I asked him if he ever felt any guilt about his behaviour towards his children, hardly seeing them. He said “None at all.” We talked about guilt and conscience and he said he felt no guilt about what he had done, even though he must have done a lot of damage to many of them. God knows how many there were.

If, as the author states, “Lucian simply never examined his conscience,” it is the one revelation about Freud’s life to be found in this widely disparaged book (whose subtitle is the tabloid-worthy The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter) that sheds some light, however fleeting, on his problematic art.

As I noted in a review of Freud’s drawings last year at Aquavella Galleries on the Upper East Side, the artist’s 1993-1994 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was “possibly the dreariest exhibition I’d ever seen there.”

Despite his “pictorial candor and stark naturalism” accentuated by “boldly delineated forms [that] create an abstract structure built from powerful interlocking shapes […] the dearth of color and the aggregation of maculate, pummeled flesh eventually rolled up into a mass of undifferentiated bleakness. The paintings gathered dust before my eyes.”

In 1930, when his beloved grandson Lucian was 7, Sigmund Freud published Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he defined guilt as “the expression of the conflict of ambivalence, the eternal struggle between Eros and the destructive or death instincts”:

This conflict is engendered as soon as man is confronted with the task of living with his fellows […] Since culture obeys an inner erotic impulse which bids it bind mankind into a closely-knit mass, it can achieve this aim only by means of its vigilance in fomenting an ever-increasing sense of guilt.

Whether Lucian was afflicted with some sort of narcissistic personality disorder or was simply monstrously selfish, this passage would imply that for all the frank sexuality of his art and sexual adventurism in his life, his absence of guilt cut him off from culture’s “inner erotic impulse which bids it bind mankind into a closely-knit mass.”

This idea suggests another way of looking at the most striking formal feature of Freud’s paintings, namely their harsh, often frontal lighting. While the stark white glare reflecting off the skin of his models is what Freud, a meticulously observational painter, undoubtedly experienced in the Spartan conditions of his Paddington studio, it is also an impenetrable projection of his subject’s exterior existence.

True, Freud delighted in painting the blue veins pulsing beneath the skin, but for the most part, that is as deep as his portrayals get. In Breakfast with Lucian, Grieg discusses “Some Thoughts on Painting,” an essay Freud wrote for the July 1954 issue of Encounter, a literary magazine edited by Stephen Spender (with whom he later had a falling-out). Despite the intervening half-century since the essay’s publication, Freud tells Grieg that his “views had barely altered.” Grieg writes:

He believed the human body was the most profound subject and he pursued a ruthless process of observation, using the forensic exactitude of a scientist dissecting an animal in a laboratory.

Compare Freud’s attitude, and use of light, to that of Alice Neel, another artist who painted her friends and family well into her 80s. While never exact likenesses, even at times verging on caricature, Neel’s portraits unveil the essence of her subjects in colors that glow with a soft inner light.

Freud uses light as a barrier between himself and his models, a tool of exposure that goes only one way. Although Neel was 22 years older than Freud and died 27 years earlier, her pictures continue to feel fresh, alive and contemporary. Freud’s — despite their graphic authority and brawny brushwork — look embalmed. Neel connects; Freud doesn’t. He was an undeniably powerful painter, but he never quite joined the human race.

Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter by Geordie Grieg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is available from St. Mark’s Bookshop, the Strand Bookstore and other independent booksellers.

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