Grisly Reflections

Updated: Apr 16

Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits, Museum of Fine Art, Boston (March - May 2020)


This week has presented one of contrasting perspectives which are in some strange way unified by their very extremes: if Céline Sciamma's ravishing dedication to the evisceration of the male-gaze in her film Portrait de la jeune fille en feu brought a feeling of relief from the corrupting relentlessness of how women are captured in cinema, then this retrospective of Lucian Freud's self-portraits is the male-gaze so explicitly presented there seems to be a degree to which its very forthrightness and honesty is refreshingly empowering. In the same way, the purest erotica attains its cogency not by insidiously clinging to the coat tails of another genre but by proclaiming its intention outright, by fully owning its currency to stir and excite. At least Freud never hid his true intentions and by being upfront about his motives, both artist and subject could fully negotiate the true terms of their interaction.


There are other similarities. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is also about a painter painting a subject, but it captures the truism that when a painter paints what is really being painted is of course predominantly the painter themselves. Can the artist ever totally eradicate autobiography? Sciamma's film uses the metaphor of mirrors to suggest the reality of artistic self-reflection and it struck me as immediately comparative when I read at this exhibition that Freud painted not from photographs of himself but entirely from mirrors too. Many of the paintings in fact include the word "reflection" in their titles. What is the artist reflecting on in a self-portrait? In many cases, the artist studies their glare in the mirror as an act of truth-telling. Several will realise there the immediacy of their own impending mortality: to capture what they see in a mirror is to confront the startled urgency of this realisation which cannot be so justly replicated in a photograph. The best self-portraits are devoid of hubris. They do not make a case for the artist in perpetuity but record a statement of demise. They observe a reconciliation with fate.


Confronted with Freud's paintings of himself, I immediately became aware of how essentially knowing he was of his own corporeal temporality, even as an adolescent, which is why, consequently, perhaps conscious of death so early on, he was able to capture life so truthfully: stripped and peeled of much of what is a presentation of fake exterior beauty Freud seems to literally "get under the skin" of life itself. With Freud, the tendency to flatter and pad the subject and viewer's delusion regarding human attractiveness as a protection against the truth of common ordinariness was something he seems to have actively resisted. An obvious example of this grating honesty can be found in his highly controversial (and many would say arrogantly unflattering) depiction of Queen Elizabeth II (2000) or the remarkable series of portraits of Leigh Bowery (such as Leigh Bowery, Seated, 1990 and Naked Man, Back View, 1991) and Sue Tilley (Benefits Supervisor Resting 1994 and Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995). There is an honest humanism in his work, never a sense of the clean, the pure, the made-up, the superficial. As such with Freud our failings are often our biggest achievements, our short-comings sometimes our most commendable attributes. Even a portrait of the model Kate Moss strips her of her own highly crafted glamour and grounds her true beauty in her slightly awkward plainness.


He also captures the feral and animalistic in us all: for me personally, I came to love Freud earlier on because of the inclusion of the sitter's pets in so many of his portraits. The way dogs, particularly, are arranged in easy languid intimacy with their masters, often asleep together, creates a feeling of the more common affiliations between man and animal than the pretensions which separate us: that elemental sameness in our most primal dispositions. It was interesting and a little disappointing to realise that none of his own self-portraits in this show included any animals even though his passion for all things equine was well known: this was a man who chose to sleep in the stables with the horses throughout his boyhood and adolescence rather than in dormitories with the other boys at boarding school. This is a man who skipped classes to endlessly groom and tend their shimmering coats. Freud's horse portraits are where his real straining for something approaching visual aesthetic beauty is to be found, not in his human subjects.


To the show then. Two early self-portraits, Man with a Feather, 1943, and Man with a Thistle, 1946, display a rigid disquiet in the artist's maturing sensibilities. Their distorted proportions capture Freud's early interest in the surreal relationship between subject and a disparate collection of attendant objects which seems to defy or evade meaning. The symmetrical attributes in these two paintings, the linear and square proportionality of the framing of the background building in Man with a Feather and the box-like centering used in Man with a Thistle are absent from later work where they are instead liberated into a freer and less uptight mentality. Here Freud seems startled, aghast even as he contemplates his own reality. As such these two early self-portraits do capture something of the denigrating self-regard which characterises all of Freud's introspective propensities.


Man with a Feather, 1943


Man with a Thistle, 1946


Hotel Bedroom, 1954, Reflection with Two Children, 1965 and Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening 1967 situate the artist in discord and unease within his own domestic life. The dispassionate glower on his face in all three works casts him as something of a distant and aloof interloper in his very own world. He seems to distort the clarity of his own regard for the immediacy of what surrounds him; it is akin to an act of intentional agency-stripping. Hotel Bedroom is a startling and powerful work: the narrowness of the frame creates vast distance between the foregrounded head of the woman (his second wife Caroline Blackwood) and himself, a mere shadow in the background, almost villainous in posture. The depiction of his hands in his pockets suggest a coldness which the dark and forbidding tone accentuate. The bare stretch of wall against which the bed is positioned add to the starkness and concrete crudity of the painting's impersonal rhetoric. Blackwood's face is far from at ease and instead she seems rapt in deep and profound contemplation. The perspective of the painting - the artist looking down on the bed - establishes a trope which Freud uses time and again in his portraiture and it raises questions about the dynamics of power and submission which rest between painter and subject in his work: rarely are they observed level to his own eye.


Hotel Bedroom 1954


Reflection with Two Children is likewise dislocated but here he does look down on himself as he observes his figure in a mirror. We see the edge of the mirror but two of his children are outside of this construction entirely: they are exclusive of and not included in the narcissist's own mirror-gazing. Instead they stand by the wayside, looking bemused and discarded. The disconcerting height of the mirrored view distorts Freud's facial features while we almost have the feeling he may come crashing into the mirror at any moment and we are left with a sense of discomfort. Interior with Plant, meanwhile, focuses on the symbolic act of filtering or self-mediating which Freud seemed preoccupied with: the plant is an object of domesticity which denies focal clarity and precision to the artist which peers out from a small corner and attempts to listen to something which may be suggestive of the very act of screening which the plant ascribes. These earlier works together expose a telling contradiction to Freud's artistic integrity: while the subject is exposed so openly, laterally, nakedly, vulnerably, he chooses himself to adopt various masks and visual deceits which seem to clothe, shield and obscure him from the same levels of intensive scrutiny.


Reflection with Two Children, 1965


Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening, 1967


In Freud's later style he does develop a more benign naturalism and situates his subject in an environment which does not overtly signify subconscious tension but instead incorporates the inanimate into an associated energy with what is animatedly being captured. Freud used to insist that his sitters would be present even if he was only painting background details and critics have before noted how the presence of the human or animal subject influences the feel or tone of the light qualities of the surrounds. In addition, he seems at last to have come to terms with the reality of his own presence in the lives of his subjects or, additionally, to be seeing his subjects in relation to his own sense of true self, regardless of the implications of this personal interjection. For this reason, Flora with Blue Toenails, 2000, is one of the most remarkable and captivating paintings in the exhibition.

Flora with Blue Toenails, 2000


Freud gazes down over the uncomfortably sprawled Flora and intrusively scrutinises her with a burning intensity so erotically blatant that the shadow of his own head encroaches towards her exposed and vulnerable body. However, I do not think this is as entirely as disquieting as it first appears to be. Here, as with all of his portraiture, the issue of the "male-gaze" might become thematically problematic except that there is such a sense of proprietariness about Freud's intentions as an artist in pursuit of the totality of the artistic image that both subject and artist seem to have replaced a flagrant predation by instead brokering a mutual acceptance of each one's relation to the other. In other words, by including and acknowledging himself as the onlooker, the voyeur, the gazer, by admitting to the erotics of his intention, Flora in turn elides into a state of openness and transparency with him. The otherwise singular focus of the lone and insular naked subject instead becomes a consensual coupling, a pairing, a union. It is arguably true that in all of Freud's work there are shadows, hints and echoes of his own presence in the room, sometimes projected onto the animals he includes. His own concentration of iron-cast energy somehow appears to both foreshadow and overshadow his subject: it is that stern autobiographical intrusion mentioned earlier. In a way, while he strips his subjects bare for the sense of the life which radiates through their skin, he is simultaneously stripping himself naked too in their (and subsequently our) presence. Notwithstanding the organic naturalism which he captures, framed by the texture of the linens and wooden screen, there is as usual something disarming in Flora's expression as she pointedly stares away from what stares at her. This is either a sign of painful self-consciousness or total flippant ease, depending on how you view Freud's entire mission and intent.


One of the final portraits is Self-Portrait, Reflection, 2002. Here the artist captures himself as a melancholic figure in front of a studio wall which contains the cumulative markings of his paintbrush over time. They are the theatrical asides to his large and complicated body of work. There is a haggard dishevelment to Freud which testifies to a life-long devotion to his craft, while his mop of hair blends into the mesh of paint behind him and almost becomes an extension of it. While admitting to the frailties and degeneration of growing old, the furious cluster of colours and smears of paint point to a stubborn determinism to continue working and seeing well beyond the acceptance of his imminent physical decline. Freud was in his eighties at this point but still worked 365 days a year for the next nine or so years. Somehow, every one of those working days which has past seems marked on the drawn and grizzled surface of his face but while the artist's life takes its physical toil, the work continues to stack up behind him in all its messy and raw depictions and accumulations. The gesture of his left hand which grips a scarf which is strung noose-like around his neck incorporates a touching note of emotional vulnerability for a man who gambled so much on an artistic vision centered on exploring the permanence of inner truths rather than the outer shallowness of transient beauty.

Self-Portrait, Reflection, 2002


All images courtesy of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

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