Saturday, 16 June 2012

Lucian Freud

‘Awesome. A truly brilliant artist. No question about it,’ my friend declared, cutting a wedge from the disc of camembert, matured, like my grandmother, to a nice state of putrefaction. He placed the wedge on a cheese biscuit.  On it he balanced a red grape and, opening his mouth so wide that a watermelon could have been pushed through it, he pushed the cheese and the biscuit and the grape through it. ‘Absolutely,’ he continued while chomping it down to a mash. ‘I challenge anyone to say differently.’ He looked truculently around the room to spot anyone who might have the temerity to challenge him.

We were sitting in my friend’s family room at night. His girl-friend had prepared what she described as a slow-cooked French rustic chicken cassoulet (it was quite good, actually). We had eaten it to the accompaniment of a Pinot Grigo, which my friend said he hoped was to my liking (it wasn’t) because it was rather costly (it wasn’t, really, as I knew that he had bought it from a supermarket which was selling it for half its price). The label on the bottle informed that the wine showed ‘enticing aroma of citrus fruit and pear drops. On the palate flavours of green apple, white peach and elderflower combined with a crisp refreshing finish’.  The wine had more than a hint of an aroma of citrus in the sense it was very acidic and, I suspected, it not only cleansed my palate it probably also cleansed away the enamel on the back of my teeth.

The girl-friend was slumped in an armchair. She had cooked the cassoulet in a slow cooker and she was now reading a magazine. The effort was wearing her down. 

On my friend, on the other hand, the dinner and the Pinot Grigo had the effect that was equivalent to pouring a can of Red Bull to a bowl of amphetamines. My friend at the best of times is frothing with so much energy you want to push a cushion to his face to calm him down.  I have often wondered how he and his girlfriend, so different in temperament, get on. They have been together for almost three years. My friend has always held an inflated view of his abilities which, years of mediocre jobs—he has no difficulty in bullshitting his way into crap jobs, but because he is so crap at them he rarely manages to hold on to them for more than a few years—shows no signs of reversing.  In addition he is always over-keen to start some or the other scheme and will not take any advice until bitter experience renders it imperative. He fancies himself as a connoisseur of finer things in life about which he talks and talks, rarely silent for more than an inhalation at a time. (In a party or social occasion he will drone on about some or the other exhibition he has been to in the previous six months  to the everlasting dismay of anyone who has the misfortune of being within his hearing distance. He does not seem to realise, or care, that no one is interested in the Dada paintings he saw.) His current girlfriend, by contrast, is slow. She does everything slowly. While eating, for example, her hand is suspended for so long in the air that you wonder whether paralysis has struck.  She speaks slowly with such long pauses between words you could do your shopping in ASDA and come back and she would be only be three fourth of the way in her sentences. And she whispers, which is doubly annoying. You have to make efforts to hear what she is saying; which most of the time is of no great importance. She is a receptionist at a veterinary surgery and is on a warning because she falls asleep while on duty. She has arms like ham and no one will call her a knock out in the looks department. (I have sometimes wondered about their sex life. The girl-friend has a disproportionately large bosom, which, I suppose, is handy if you like to hold on to something during lovemaking. However I can’t really see her being very vigorous in bedroom. Serviceable, if unenthusiastic, f**k, is my guess. If my friend’s preferences of position and speed are the same as they were years ago when we, as teenagers, used to exchange notes on the matter, he probably still bangs away with great gusto (though not for very long, falling comfortably short of the British average of eight minutes till ejaculation), while she lies on her back, breasts splayed under her armpits, I imagine, thinking about—I don’t know—evening’s washing. When I was first introduced to her I had mistaken her outwardly calm demeanour to inner serenity. Now I think that she is incapable of thinking.

But I digress. This post is not about the myriad character defects of my friend and his girlfriend or lurid speculations about their sex life (or not only about them). This post primarily is about Lucian Freud.

 ‘He is a genius,’  my friend informed me in a manner of a policeman reporting to his superiors a discovery he thought showed his great skills in ferreting out clues others with less discerning minds ignored.

My friend had visited the Lucian Freud retrospective which was held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and now he was filled with an all consuming desire to tell someone about what he chose to believe was a unique experience, although, if newspaper reports are to be believed, his ‘unique experience’ was shared by thousands of others.

Now it is true that I won’t be able to recognize good art if it jumped on me from behind and kicked me in the arse. (I’d like to think that I am not an art-snob, but the reality is I’m just ignorant. I should like to think that if I made the effort I could do it; how difficult could it be? I have seen others doing it, so it couldn’t be very difficult.) So, I was not in a position to contradict my friend when he spewed out his learned views about Lucian Freud’s inventiveness and inquisitiveness, and how his style changed over the years. Apparently his early paintings were two dimensional, but of great clarity, on par with those of Jan Van Eyck, which, my friend begged me to consider, was very high praise.

‘I’ll show you what I mean,’ my friend said. He pulled out his lap-top and googled ‘images of Lucian Freud’s paintings’. He enlarged one of the images. 

‘See what I mean?’ he asked with the ecstasy of a Taliban on the eve of a suicidal attack on an American outpost in Afghanistan. ‘This is a painting, by the way, of Freud’s first wife, Kitty Gorman. Its title is “A Girl with A White Dog”. Look at her eyes. That is where the genius of Lucian Freud lies. You are immediately drawn to those eyes. There is something hypnotic about them. Yet, the eyes convey an inner anxiety, an inner turmoil. This is not a woman who is at her ease.’ (Do you see what I mean when I said earlier that it can’t be that difficult to be an art critic? All you need to possess is the skill to talk non-stop tripe. And in England, if you can speak with a posh accent, you are off to a good start. But perhaps I am oversimplifying. My friend talks crap non-stop and no one so far has employed him as an art-critic.)

‘May be she is not at her ease because she is conscious that one of her breasts is hanging out,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable if I was going to be painted with my breast on display, especially if it was not very shapely. It would make me feel uneasy.’

‘Is that all you can see in this painting?’ My friend asked.

I had to confess that it was the tit and not the eyes expressing inner turmoil that immediately caught my attention.

‘What else can you see?’ my friend asked.

‘Well,’ I said carefully, ‘I am no art critic, but the pose of the woman strikes me as artificial. She covers her left breast with her hand when it is already covered by her dress. She ought to be covering her right breast which has popped out, don’t you think?’

‘Do you see anything other than breasts? And I mean see,’ my friend cocked his head sideways and looked at me with an expression that conveyed pity and contempt.

‘The dog looks kind of cute,’ I said. ‘Perhaps the title of the painting should be “A White Dog with A Girl” and not “A Girl with A White Dog.”

‘Let me show you another painting,’ my friend said.

‘Oh God! Do you have to?’

My friend enlarged another image on his laptop. 

It showed an obese woman, naked, sleeping on a sofa. One of her arms was draped over the backrest of the sofa while the other hand was below one of her enormous breasts. Her massive gut hung dropsically over her crotch from under which her pudenda, dotted with black stubble, was just about visible.

‘What do you think?’ my friend asked.

‘Did Lucian Freud paint people with clothes on?’ I asked.

‘He did, but his specialty was nudes. Although he preferred to call them naked portraits rather than nudes.’

‘He felt that the word ‘nude’ implied an object whereas these were people,’ my friend said.

‘I see.’

‘So what do you think?’

‘I think,’ I said, looking at the rolls of fat Freud had depicted in a manner that demanded attention, ‘that clothes were the biggest invention of man. ‘Also’, I continued, looking at the computer image, ‘if that woman does not wake up any time soon, her right hand is going to turn gangrenous with all the weight above it.’

‘Do you want to know what it is called?’

‘Not really.’

‘It is titled “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”.’

‘Is that supposed to be deeply meaningful? Am I missing anything here?’ I asked.

‘Look,’ my friend said. ‘Look how realistic it is. The overweight benefit supervisor—so life-like’.

‘Firstly, calling this woman overweight is a bit like saying that the chicken in black bean sauce from your local Chinese takeaway is a bit salty. Secondly, you can’t say with absolute certainty that it is life-like unless you have seen the benefit officer in person. As God intended. Have you?’

‘It is immaterial. It is not necessary,’ my friend said. ‘You don’t have to be so literal.’ And he took Lord’s name in vain. ‘Freud’s paintings are brutal. They are not for the faint-hearted. If you want to look at something pretty buy a picture post-card.’

I looked in the direction of my friend’s girlfriend. She seemed comatose.  Her skirt had risen way above her knees. I looked at what was on display: her knees. They seemed huge and smooth and white from where I was sitting. I remembered a Kingsley Amis novel (but could not remember its title) in which the narrator compares women’s breasts to well shaped knees (or the other way round; I couldn't be certain; I read the novel many years ago). Looking at my friend’s girl-friend’s knees I thought that that Amis had made a very astute observation, as he did on so many other subjects (including but not limited to female anatomy) in his excellent novels. In certain light and from a certain angle, I concluded, the girlfriend’s knees could look like breasts (without the nipples, obviously). I wondered what Lucian Freud’s grandfather would have made of this observation and what it would have indicated to him about the state of my unconscious, although, strictly speaking, it ought to be Kingsley Amis’s unconscious, as I had merely remembered an observation from his novel. (But, I wondered, why did I remember that particular observation?)

Lucian Freud and his younger brother Clement shared, in addition to ancestry (and a lifelong dislike for each other), an irreverent view of their world-famous grandfather’s theory of mind and psychosexual development. Clement Freud once famously declared that he had not read anything written by Sigmund Freud. Lucian Freud, too, was, in private, scathing of Freud’s theories. However both of them apparently had warm, personal memories of the father of psychoanalysis. It is said that during the sittings of his subjects (it took him up to 12 to 18 months to complete a painting) Lucian Freud regaled them with personal anecdotes of Sigmund Freud.

But back to Lucian Freud’s paintings. After I escaped from my friend’s clutches, I went on the net and looked at many of the images of Freud’s paintings. 

Now I know that looking at an image on the computer is not the same as watching an actual painting, but it seems to me that Freud’s later paintings border on the grotesque. Every foible of the body, every defect of flesh, is exaggerated. None of the subjects looks happy. Or healthy. It is almost as if Freud held his subjects in withering contempt and through the ferocious strokes of his paintbrush tried to annihilate them.

In his long life Lucian Freud fathered several children from various relationships. I read in WikiPedia that there were a total of 14 children that he acknowledged as his own. The eldest, at the time of Freud’s death (at the age of 88) last year, was in her sixties, while the youngest was in his twenties. It is also generally acknowledged that beyond genes Freud contributed very little towards the upbringing of his children. One of his daughters, in an article in the Guardian a few years ago, observed wryly that three of his fourteen children were born in the same year. 

A number of his daughters posed for him naked in their adult years and claimed in interviews and articles in the newspapers that that was the only way to get to know their famous father. 

All of this assumes some interest (beyond salaciousness) only because of Freud’s famous ancestry. One wonders (again) what his grandfather would have made of all this. (It would appear that sexual promiscuity ran in the Freud family. Lucian Freud’s uncle Jean-Martin—Sigmund Freud’s eldest son, named after the French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot with whom Freud worked in Paris before he turned his attention to the human mind,—was a serial philanderer. Jean-Martin Freud (who, years later, published a memoir of his father, which apparently is the source of many of Freud biographies), had a series of affairs, including one with a patient of Freud. His marriage broke up around the time the Freud family fled Vienna on the eve of the Second World War. Jean-Martin, a very successful lawyer in Vienna, came to England with his son (he could not resurrect his career and ended up running a tourist shop next to Buckingham Palace); the wife went to first France and then to the USA with their daughter.)

Lucian Freud must be a great artist if the art critics, who ought to know what they are talking about, think he was a great painter. Certainly in his later years Freud achieved a cult status (no doubt enhanced by his reputation for being a recluse, and stories of his rampant libido).

(Lucian Freud in his studio, in 2005, with naked sculptor Alexandra Willimas-Wynn, the daughter of a baronet, who, at the time was rumoured to have been romantically involved with then 82-year old Freud)

Freud’s paintings fetched astronomical prices in recent years. The painting of the obese benefit supervisor (done in 1995), for example, was sold for more than 30 million pounds in 2008 (bought by Roamn Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea football club,—a real classy man), making Freud, at that time the highest selling living artist. When he died last year, he was said to be worth £ 125 million; and I read recently that his will was for £96 millions, beating the £11 millions in Francis Bacon’s will easily to a second position.

(Lucian Freud with Francis Bacon in happier times. The two had a fallout, later, and, at the time of Bacon's death in 1992, they were not on talking terms)

Lucian Freud was one of the eight grandchildren of Sigmund Freud, and, as per general consensus, the most talented. His was one of the most remarkable and interesting lives lived in the twentieth century. I however still did not wish to visit the exhibition of his paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It would probably have depressed me and filled me with despair for the human condition. I am a picture postcard man. I should buy my ‘art’ from Homebase.