Writer Sammy Mendel considers the legacy of one of Britain’s most famous artists: Lucien Freud.
‘Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.’ — John Berger
The nude is present throughout art history: it was treated most radically, perhaps, in Titian’s gigantic nudes, and Manet’s subversive grouping of a naked woman and two clothed men in Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe. Both were, in a sense, the most “nude” that a portrait could get, both in Titian’s bulging forms and Manet’s placing of the nude in a modern, and even public setting. One can see their influence throughout Freud’s work, from the naked man and clothed woman in Painter and Model of 1987 to the hugely obese Benefits Supervisor Sleeping of a decade later.
…he devoted his life to depicting nakedness…
Significantly, Freud preferred the term ‘naked portrait’ to ‘nude’, and the common thread of his retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was that although Freud was influenced by the great painters of nudes such as Manet and Titian, he devoted his life to depicting nakedness, not nudity. The exhibition was divided into the fragile, hare-eyed portraits of his youth, painted sitting and with soft sable brushes, and the raw, abattoir-toned palette of his later period, painted standing using stiff hog’s hair brushes.
It’s interesting to compare his early Girl With A Kitten to Man and Dog: David and Eli of his later period. In Girl With A Kitten, a clothed girl holds up a kitten, so that we see no more than her head and hand: the eyes of both girl and kitten dominate the painting, as with most of Freud’s paintings at that time. In Man and Dog, the naked man lies on a bed holding one of Freud’s beloved whippets. The dog is asleep, the man looking away – the head is treated like another limb, with less paint devoted to the eyes than the man’s nipple.
…Hockney seems somehow exposed…
Throughout the later paintings, Freud’s emphasis is on the body itself, which he attempted to approach with a sort of scientific rigour, describing himself as a biologist. David Hockney, the subject of a portrait displayed here, said that when sitting for Freud, ‘he wanted you to talk so he could watch how your face moved’. Although the painting only depicts Hockney’s head and shoulders, in the florid hues of Hockney’s skin, the bowed head and the bald patch, Hockney seems somehow exposed. Freud worked hard at revealing what people wanted to conceal: another model said, ‘I tried at one point keeping my chin up, because I could tell he was interested in the jowl that appeared under my chin.’
Freud’s crowning achievement is to get an objective distance to the human form that no other artist achieved, and in so doing show their nakedness as a fact of life. There are no beautiful people in his portraits, and everyone from Kate Moss to the Queen is depicted in the same fleshy tones, which up close one can see is bold combinations of purple, green, yellow, red, blue. They live and breathe: they age and die, every model unique and yet somehow the same – instead of prancing about in some contrived myth they lie there, bored, uninterested in engaging us and for that reason rewarding our attention: the complex, bold, human nakedness of Freud’s mature years that will be his enduring legacy.