In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Schiele, Fashion...Feminism? | Main | Salingaros on Deconstruction »

March 31, 2003

Lucian Freud on Tape


After months of shilly-shallying, I finally took a few hours, drove downtown to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, plunked down my eight bucks and saw the Lucian Freud retrospective. As an experiment, I took along a tape recorder and mumbled notes into it. Since I clearly ended up looking even more eccentric than I normally do at an art exhibit, I’ve decided that I’m entitled to skip trying to write up something and just share some of my incredibly insightful on-the-spot comments:

Freud’s early work is intriguing, off-beat, modestly original etc., etc., but it doesn’t look like highly saleable art. I wonder how he paid the bills during, say, the first ten years of his career? Family money? Rich girlfriends?
L. Freud, Woman with a Daffodil, 1945; L. Freud, Girl by the Sea, 1956

Okay, okay, I’ve got to confess: I do wonder how good the likenesses in Freud’s portraits really are.

L. Freud, Head of the Big Man, 1975

The reclining figures seem to have been an attempt to extend his treatment of flesh into space, as opposed to his early portraits, which are just three-dimensionally modeled heads against a blank ground.

L. Freud, John Deakin, 1963-4; L. Freud, Naked Girl Asleep, 1968

Idea for a piece: From the Famous Painter’s School, Lucian Freud shows you how to paint a reclining nude!


The funny thing is, along with his distortions, he achieves some marvelous anatomical drawing and modeling.

L. Freud, Guy and Speck, 1980-1

I understood Lucian is a rather slow worker. I’m fascinated that he can get the damn dog to lie still for so long.

L. Freud, Double Portrait, 1985-6 (Detail)

“Leigh Bowery Seated,” 1990, makes you wonder if Freud was looking at Jusepe de Ribera. The painting must be 8 feet, maybe 10 feet high. The figure is well over life size. He’s sitting, looking directly up at you, which gives the sense that you’re interrogating him. Ribera’s paintings often show saints being worked over by a gang of highly amused thugs, and convey the insinuation that you—the viewer—are among the rotten scum enjoying the spectacle. Freud’s painting has a little of this complicit cruelty.


Freud has, in his own way, resuscitated the heroic nude.


His stuff of the last ten years or so feels like history painting with no “overt” history. I guess we supply the history. He’s giving us hints, of course. There’s an extremely long-haired guy in one picture who looks like Jesus being mocked, all he needs is a crown of thorns. (Umm, let’s see, the painting is called “Freddy Standing.”)

L. Freud, Freddy Standing, 2001; M. Caravaggio, Ecce Homo

The painting “And the Bridegroom” could just as easily be titled “Samson and Delilah.”

L. Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993 (Detail); A. Van Dyck, Samson and Delilah, 1630-2

“Sunny Morning, Eight Legs” could be “St. Paul on the Road to Damascus Holding a Dog” (although the two legs sticking out from under the bed might have confused the faithful.)

L. Freud, Sunny Morning, Eight Legs, 1997; Michelangelo, Conversion of St. Paul, 1542-50 (Detail)

“Painter Working, Reflection” could easily be “John the Baptist Preaching.”

L. Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, ?; A. Rodin, John the Baptist Preaching, 1878

These big history-paintings-without-history feel quite different than anything else I’ve seen in the contemporary figurative arena. It feels natural in them for Freud to be treating the nude on a monumental scale, whereas in most other recent painting I’ve seen it strikes me as more of a stunt. Is it because he has enough of a narrative going to take the curse of self-consciousness off? Admittedly, his narratives are pretty enigmatic. Still, as a non-Catholic, my relationship to the religious meanings in big Baroque altarpieces is pretty similar to my relationship to Freud’s enigmatic narratives—not very strong. In both cases they seem to give me permission to look at large scale, closely observed human figures without feeling like a voyeur. Well, not much of a voyeur, anyway.

L. Freud, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996; F. Boucher, The Toilet of Venus, 1751

“Sleeping by the Lion Carpet,” 1996, actually looks a bit rococo—the cool colors and, of course, the effect of a painted tapestry. Who’d have thought old Lucian could manage Boucher?


In “Two Brothers from Ulster,” 2001, he obviously needed a little more space over the head of one of the brothers, so he tacked on a piece of panel or canvas, so as a result he ends up with a “shaped canvas.” Very funny.

L. Freud, Two Brothers From Ulster, 2001

“Flora with Blue Toenails.” My god what a picture. It reminds me of Renoir and his obsession with female nudes whose skins “took the light.” The light in the picture is from directly behind the painter; the shadow of his head is visible in the painting. I wonder how much time Lucian spends playing around with his set-up before he starts painting? That’s the invisible part of representational painting.

L. Freud, Flora with Blue Toe Nails, 2000-1

In what I think is a self portrait, both the backround and the face are beginning to look a bit Ab-Ex. That’s an interesting direction. The background is broken brushstrokes in a reddish-brown-black-white combination: it looks like something by Mark Tobey.

L. Freud, Reflection, Self Portrait, 2002; M. Tobey, ?

You know, all in all, this is pretty amazing stuff.

I also took a quick tour through the other galleries on my way out. To my surprise, going through this museum is quite liberating. The whole oppressive aura of Late Modern Art high seriousness seems to have evaporated; the feeling from most of this stuff is much looser, more goofy.

I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of all this stuff, but I’ll try to get some over the next few days.



posted by Friedrich at March 31, 2003


Thanks for the on-scener. "His stuff of the last ten years or so feels like history painting with no “overt” history. I guess we supply the history" -- perfecto. That's the feeling of it, immense importance and gravity, but about what?

I'm happy to acknowledge that Freud's a big, important presence, and I do my best to wrestle with my reactions to his work from time to time, as an art fan should. Still, I can't get past one thing, and I wonder what you make of it. Impressive as the paintings are, they're kinda repulsive. Or at least I find them kind of repulsive. Emptiness, anguish -- and the celebrated flesh hangs like it's dead. It all strikes me, on a probably dumb level, as virtuosic but cruel, art at the expense of life, or something.

But I imagine I'm missing something. Care to enlighten?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 31, 2003 10:38 PM

I don't think you're wrong; I think a good deal of cruelty is sliding around in Freud's work, particularly his early work. Moreover, despite his English art school education, his temperament is clearly Expressionistic. Do you have the same reaction to German Expressionists and Neue Sachlichkeit painters? Moreover, it appears to me that his reactions to women, at least as a young man, were significantly more hostile than his reactions to men; I certainly wouldn't have volunteered to be his wife or girlfriend! (But I'd hardly volunteer to be a woman in Picasso's life, for that matter.) What I find interesting in him, I suppose, is the fact that he--unlike, say, Schiele, who of course died young--stayed the course, and somehow forced his jumpy expressionist mind to keep looking, to keep trying to be objective, to get beyond the sollipsism of his youthful self. I think it would be an exaggeration to say that he's found his way back to classicism, but--like one of his obvious idols, Rembrandt--he has somehow managed to incorporate a lot of classical juice into a native Romantic sensibility.

I would also really recommend that you try to see this show, or other ones, because things like scale are quite important in Freud's late paintings--they really begin to approach some of the feeling towards the "heroic" figure that I associate with the Baroque (another fleshy era!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 1, 2003 12:18 AM

I agree about seeing the show. "The Benefits Supervisor" definitely has to be seen in the flesh. (I'm assuming this is the same Freud retrospective I saw in London last summer, there can't be many of them around and I saw all the pictures Freidrich writes about).

I don't think they are cruel or ugly or anything like that, at all. I think they are very beautiful, in an entirely honest and emphatically physically real kind of way. He makes the canvases almost three dimensional; you want to grab the flesh, walk into the world, look through the windows and so on.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on April 1, 2003 12:12 PM

Hmm, well "cruel" was probably poorly chosen, so let's cancel that. I'm happy to acknowledge that he's important, brilliant, significant, etc. I just find 1) that his art makes me wince and cower, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, although I can't imagine living with a Freud on my wall, and that 2) there's a kind of super-focused morgue-inspection quality to his work that I never see discussed as such. I mean, it's fine if a painting is gruesome. But I'm perplexed: why don't people discuss his paintings as such? Perhaps I'm alone in finding them to be yucko. On the other hand, look at the thumbnail pairings you've given us above. Looking at the Freuds, I hear the buzz and crackle of flourescent lights; I sense loneliness and decay and waste and rot; I'm reminded of what I see when I stare at a mole or a blackhead in the mirror for too long. Alice's comment, though, leaves me wondering if English people experience these paintings very differently than I do. Perhaps -- is it because of the weather? -- greenish skin, bare lightbulbs, pasty/fishy/collapsing flesh, maybe they strike the English as kinda homey and sweet and pleasant. The Marmite effect?

Anyway, no interest in psychologizing Freud, or in putting down the importance of his work. Just curious whether you have any ideas about why the hyperintense yucko quality of his work never seems to get discussed. Or maybe it does and I just haven't run into those discussions?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2003 9:04 PM


Great article. Your writing on the Arts is visceral and intellectually fulfilling. I was curious as to your creative outlet (in addition to this site?)


Posted by: Mark Penland on April 2, 2003 1:38 AM

As the Matisse-Picasso show draws the multitudes to MoMA QNS, one might stop to reflect, in the wake of Michael's question, on the similarly symbiotic relationship between Freud and Bacon. They're both into artificial light, gruesome surface, etc. Although I think there's also a more generally English/British tradition going on here too: not just Freud but all the London School (Auerbach, Kossoff, maybe even the displaced Yank Kitaj) as well as more recent artists such as Hirst (never happier than when in a morgue) and, of course, Jenny Savile. You can even look at the conceptualist impasto of someone like Julie Roberts and draw a definite connection there, if you're so inclined.

Posted by: Felix on April 3, 2003 1:05 PM

Oh, and as for the early stuff (which I think is the best, and which is certainly going for huge sums at auction these days) I think it's definitely saleable, although of course Freud had money of his own, not least royalties from his grandfather's books.

Posted by: Felix on April 3, 2003 1:08 PM

Well, I was under the impression that the criticism of Freud's work as harsh, ugly, or any of a similar bunch of wince-producing responses, were quite widespread, and that very often viewers changed those opinions over time. But, I dunno.

Anyway, I'm interested in your suggestion that Englishness might produce a different way of looking at Freud, because I do think he is very much an English, and specifically a London, painter. There is a kind of (and all I can do is launch into description here and hope it amounts to some kind of meaning) bleak, grey, bare, subtle, drained, blatant, uncovered, dry, basic, nakedness to the people Freud paints, in my eyes at any rate. (How useful was that? Not very. Difficult stuff, this art criticism.) And I think London and England are like that too. One only has to think of the weather.

I think if Freud makes you wince and cower, maybe living with a painting would lead to some kind of change: maybe after a while, you might find that you no longer felt at all repelled, had seen something genuinely beautiful in the oddity and stark physical courage of Freud and his sitters. They may not be glamour models, but that's because they are human beings (?)

Sorry this is so vague and straw-clutchy, still, good exercise for me :-)

Posted by: Alice Bachini on April 3, 2003 6:53 PM

I saw the Freud show twice in Los Angeles. As a failed painter, found myself trying to get into the paintings, pick them apart. The only other experience that I've had in that way were looking at Rembrandt, van Gogh and Velazquez. Would have liked to have looked at Rubens's work closer (oh those Catholic monumentalists!), but they were hanging too high up in the cathedral in Antwerp.

Freud's work left me utterly breathless. His earlier pieces are so wonderfully narrative, psychological, subjective, and so very different from his later stuff. It's interesting to see in his earlier work how directly he communicates or translates his subject matter: his visual cues are obvious but effective--big eyes, the juxtaposition of menacing or ambiguous expressions on his subjects's faces with simple, pretty elements like a flower or bed. Then as his skill level increases along with his confidence, the connection between his medium and his subject become more subtle, more ineffable, more directly linked to the actual act of painting.

The pieces of his mother lying down are amazing. I think that he must have gone over the dried, completed passages of his mother's paisley dress with a thick varnish, thus covering that amazing detailing with pure texture--brushstrokes without color--but I'm not sure. Whatever, if you look closely, it just seems kind of impossible. There is such an unbreakable connection between his medium, his skill and his subjects, as if every piece of energy invested in each of these aspects is working towards the same goal.

As far as the 'yucko' or 'morbid' quality of his work goes, I can only say that I find his work so...real (sorry, lack of any more explicit word.) Naked people, on the whole, and IN REAL LIFE, are not often the most pleasant thing to look at, especially as compared with the popular images. There is texture and a certain ugly luminosity to human skin; we have blemishes, hair, disproportionate bodies and odd facial expressions. I am reminded in a conceptual manner of the films of Cassavates, who would film these long sequences of action and interaction between his characters, then go back after editing and lay down the vocal tracks. The scenes look (obviously, consciously) dubbed, and there is an obvious disjuncture between their visible speech and the words that the viewer hears, but the ultimate effect is almost hyper-real. It is a situation wherein the extreme limit of the medium actually pushes me to a very direct, visceral and subjective space. That's how I feel about Freud; his work feels hyper-real, and it makes me want to see everything around me more keenly. At first, I was confused by the MoCA label of Freud as 'The world's greatest living realist,' I always thought of realism in relation to J-F Millet or Gustave Courbet, as in showing subject matter drawn from reality (as opposed to an ideal--posed or imagined), but after experiencing it in person, the label makes sense to me. Don't know if I'd want ALL of his works on my wall, but I would not mind the 'blue toenails' one or maybe one of those lovely etchings...

(Needless to say, Freud's my hero. I discovered him in my art school days just when I was becoming resigned to the whole 'death of painting' message that everyone was ramming down my throat and wincing through such post-modernist, post-painting, 'painterly' statements as Greenaway's 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.'
Since the show, I've been drawing portraits of friends and finding infinite inspiration in the process of seeing and looking at the Subject. I've had a few unforgettable art experiences in life and this one ranks right with them, maybe at the top of the list, something to tell any future progeny about. My life feels a bit more complete with the memory of it firmly filed away upstairs.)

PS Anyone else see that guy walking through the show--alone on a Tuesday afternoon--carrying on a conversation on his cell phone the entire time? Why bother?

Posted by: max on May 22, 2003 1:50 AM

This is all very interesting - from an English perspective. I am doing a dissertation at the moment and found these range of opinions very usesful! However I am trying to find some constructive criticism about him, and have been very unsuccessful. People so often retort that there is so much criticism about him, but where do I find this??!!! You would think that being such a notorious, famous painter there would be numerous amounts of criticism but there just isn't. If any one could help me out, please e-mail me at Thanks

Posted by: Flora on October 22, 2003 3:16 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?