Skin Problems

Expression through portraits


in Archive


As I walked along Charing Cross Road in London the other week, the skies were clear and the temperature felt more June than March. The crowds in Trafalgar Square were dressed for the weather, baring skin that hadn’t seen the sun in many months. I should have been relieved with the spring air. I should have shed my rain-resistant jacket and enjoyed the sun, too. But I was much more attentive to the exposed flesh around me, to the blemishes and rashes, the discoloration and mutations of skin tones of those I passed. A young woman’s arm was blossoming a small purple and hazel, clover-shaped bruise near her shoulder. An attractive man’s razor burn ran along the side of his neck,   a contrast to the smooth sliver of a red and blue tattoo that crawled beneath his shirt sleeve. The thin, nearly luminescent skin of an old man showed clearly the veins snaking beneath. A woman’s palms, pink and peeling, were marked by small half-circle cuts that almost disappeared when she entered the shade.

  • “Lucian Freud Portraits.” Through May 27. National Portrait Gallery, London. July 2 through October 28. Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas.

I had just spent two hours in the crowded first-floor galleries at the National Portrait Gallery exploring an exhibit of Lucian Freud’s work. The artist’s portraits train us to so notice skin so acutely. Gazing at the thickly layered, tortured tones of skin that compose so many of Freud’s canvases, it was hard not to be consumed by all the discolored and flawed flesh exposed on the streets of London.

“Lucian Freud Portraits” presents nearly 130 paintings and drawings, offering a chronological retrospective of the artist’s work from his earliest portraits in the 1940s to his last canvas, unfinished at the time of his death in July 2011 at the age of 89. The grandson of the famous psychologist, Freud created a complex archive of representational paintings that eschewed the power and force of abstraction that so dominated his generation of artists. But to call Freud simply a portrait painter is to deny his intense concern for the texture and effect of paint on the canvas, something that links him securely to the work of Abstract Expressionism. His portraits show an obsessively attentive eye for both the subject and the medium.

In this respect, his portraits are only secondarily about the people he portrays. They often have generic titles such as “Girl with a Kitten” or “Man in a Blue Shirt,” underscoring how little they have to do with the uniqueness of any one subject. Rather, it is Freud’s attention to the skin of his subjects, or more brutally the flesh of the human body, that compels us in these works. “I want my painting to feel like people. I want the paint to feel like flesh,” Freud said in an interview just before his death. His comment reminded me of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who once described the difficult work of portraiture as trying to stick the camera between the skin of a person and his clothing. Freud’s thickly layered oil portraits push even deeper, capturing that space between the skin and the person’s core. His canvases, constructed over weeks of encounters with his subjects, expose more than the outlines and depth of a body or a face. What you notice so often in his work, particularly in portraits from the 1970s on, is that the paint acts like a kind of palimpsest, illuminating not only the shades and contours of the subject, but also an introspective interior, glimpsed at in muted, meditative tones that expose more than they might conceal.

Freud’s early works from the 1940s present subjects in frozen glances: almond-eyed women and men with green-gray tones, composed in precise lines, looking awkward and alluring. These early canvases are relatively flat in composition, playing with shadows and lights, their color palette fairly muted. “Girl in a Dark Jacket” (1947), for example, presents a portrait of Freud’s first wife Kitty Garman, each crease of cloth, each strand of hair detailed with exacting precision.

One of his early self portraits, “Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait)” (1943), done when the artists was only 22, presents him awkwardly posing in front of an oddly muted landscape, a building in the back glistening orange with small black figures of a man and a bird anchored in two windows. The painting has a dream-like quality, echoing more contemporary surrealist imagery, with their mysterious symbols and gestures, than the stark realism of his more mature works.

Freud’s portraits would eventually turn away from such dream-like qualities toward more direct and tangible realities of intimate, and at times claustrophobic, interior spaces. “Girl with a White Dog” (1950-1) presents Garman again, this time between a window and an English bull terrier, her bathrobe half open to reveal an exposed breast as her arm crosses her torso as if in some kind of defense. The skin of her breast is white and bluish, much like the coat of the terrier. The exhibition text makes this similar analogy and concludes: “The couple separated not long after the painting was completed.” This is an odd comment, I thought, suggesting that the painting was the cause of the separation, the motivation for the eventual failure of the marriage.

In the next gallery, you encounter “Hotel Bedroom” (1954) depicting Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, lying fragile in the foreground and surrounded by white sheets; the shadowed figure of Freud hovers against the window in the background, the two figures occupying their own psychological realities.

Freud often turned to those near him for subjects. These portraits possess an intimacy that comes from the very relationships between painter and subject, most poignantly so in a series of portraits of his mother in the final years of her life. With many of these works, you feel as if you walked into the middle of a private moment, a quality that  attests to Freud’s skill at rendering a reality deeper than mere physical presence. His portraits offer a distinct contrast with the tradition of the genre. They are so intimately interior that we can almost feel as if we are intruding on the session between artist and sitter, rather than admiring a subject eager for a viewer. With such intimacy on the canvas, interpretations of his work have often rested on analogies between his painting and his famous grandfather’s theories of psychology, though Freud the artist has always refused such connections. In that same interview, when asked if flesh has a psychological aspect, Freud offered an elusive response:

Yes, I suppose. Painting is always psychological. At least it is to me when it is going well. When it’s going poorly, its nothing. Of course the process of learning to paint gets you involved with tradition, with prejudice, memory, with all sorts of things, but to have the person there in front of me, to try to understand their presence beyond clichés helps me to get around all those things.

By the 1950s, this need to understand the subject of his portraits created arduous experiences for the sitters, who often had to give hours at a time over the course of several months. The act of turning paint into flesh, in essence, was not unlike the process of analysis itself, though the intent was much different. “Doing a portrait is about seeing what I didn’t see before,” Freud claimed. “It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone, and perhaps about yourself, by looking very carefully at them, without judgment.” This looking is as layered as the oils of his portraits and emotions of his subjects. In these encounters between Freud and his sitters, this careful act of looking reveals itself precisely in the shape and color of the skin, the unevenness of light and colors that give the bodies their distinctiveness.

“Naked Man with Rat” (1977-8) portrays a reclining young man, who appears neither relaxed nor strictly posed, but rather as if he is waiting for something to happen. His legs are bent inward, his feet touching to form a triangle that centers our gaze on his penis. His one hand covers a small rat whose tail curves around the man’s thigh. “Tail and penis are both different kinds of appendages,” the exhibition text tells us. “We get the sense here that Freud did not care about gender or ego, people were simply another species of animal.” Animals certainly populate many of these portraits, particularly in the later works of his studio assistant David Dawson. But so many of his nude portraits lack any sense of erotic fantasy precisely because the sexual is deeply subsumed to the psychological and not merely the bestial. His portraits with bodies prone on the studio floor, or wedged along piles of linen, remind me more of crime scenes or older images of asylums; their realism arrests us with all the heaviness of flesh burdened by its weight, the body literally prone amidst the studio’s chaos.

His portraits of performance artist Leigh Bowery from the early 1990s fill one gallery in this show. Bowery’s expressionless physicality confronts us as not as voyeurism, but rather as a densely and starkly composed encounter with a man stripped of his stage masks. This is not nudity we gaze upon, but nakedness, lacking the voyeuristic play of nudity’s charm. Like so many of Freud’s portraits, these of Bowery make us uncomfortably aware of our gazing upon a body exposed not for mere aesthetic appeal. Indeed, the flesh of nudity protects the subject from the viewer’s gaze, turning the body into something to look at: Think Matisse’s “odalisques,” for example, or Mapplethorpe’s bodies dressed in precise compositions of light and shade. But here, Freud turns the body into something stripped and revealed, absent any artifice, as if we stand there in the studio space, unsure of our place in the whole scene.

Such nakedness also appears in the series of portraits of Sue Tilly from the mid-’90s.  The portraits present Tilly in a state of repose, her body exuding the roundness and exaggerated girth of Ruben’s cherubs but lacking the idealized aura. “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995), the largest of the Tilly portraits, presents her resting on her side along a green divan, her skin contoured and colored with heavy brushstrokes and tones, in contrast to the more smoothly painted fabric that frames her. This painting made headlines in 2008 when, just before the global economic crisis, it sold for $33.5 million at auction, setting a record for the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold. A young Russian billionaire purchased this image of the arrestingly exposed benefits supervisor, suggesting perhaps an increasing interest and pleasure by contemporary capitalists in consuming naked, unadorned flesh.

While Freud experimented with large, open canvas compositions in the late 1970s and ’80s, such as “Two Irishmen in WII” (1984-5), a work that spreads beyond the subjects in his studio and outward into the city streets, his best works are the intensely focused portraits that render the interior moments between artist and sitter.

Consider one of Freud’s later paintings, “The Brigadier” (2003-4), which presents Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, seated with legs cross, dressed in military uniform, his medals of honor aligned along the left side of his jacket. But look at his hands, these bluish veins discoloring the skin, his face a mixture of hues, of pinks and reds that echo and contrast with the red strip along his pant leg that cuts across the image. Bowles looks off into the distance, deep in thought or lost in longing, his right hand raised as if to make a point. But the point is gone. And then there is that jacket, open and relaxed, his white shirt expanding with the paunch behind it, the body betraying whatever grandeur the clothing may speak.

Like the Brigadier’s uniform, Freud’s portraits consistently turn our interiors outward, in psychological and bestial and unflattering ways. It’s as if Freud painted from the inside out, layers upon layers of oil over months of work, only to leave us to sit and ponder with difficulty the mysterious interiors his painted flesh offers us. His portraits challenge much of what we expect of a portrait. They unsettle us in how the flesh is so consistently rendered as mere nakedness, uncomfortably absent of any pleasures of looking. Few of his sitters stare back at us, but rather exist in rest or sleep or some melancholic trance. In the end, Freud nearly pushes us out of the viewing range altogether.

In considering an earlier retrospective of Freud’s portraits back in 1987, Robert Hughes wrote, “This isn’t voyeurism, but something more potent — a unique type of mutual intimacy between painter and subject.” It’s quite hard to enter this intimacy even after hours of staring at his portraits, even his self-portraits. As alluring and potent as this intimacy can be, Freud’s portraits can prompt a longing for the familiar distance of classical nudity, where flesh, like clothing, is worn with voyeuristic pleasure. • 3 April 2012