Lucian Freud and Celia Paul

January 25, 2020 0 Comments

Lucian Freud isn’t one of those big artists whose star quickly fades after death.  To judge by a visit to the Royal Academy exhibition of his self-portraits (it finishes tomorrow), his work still attracts plenty of public interest.

Lucian Freud, Startled man: self-portrait (1948)

The paintings were arranged chronologically, so you could follow easily the track of Freud’s development, and how far he’d travelled in over seventy years of making art.  It’s not hard to reconstruct how his earliest works, with their hard lines, ruthless economy and surrealist hints, might have made an immediate name for him in the nineteen-forties.  There were few works from the ’fifties and early ’sixties.  This is when Freud abandoned this first style and developed another kind of ruthlessness, based on a concentration – freer, more painterly but always fierce – on the human figure.   He kept close to this kind of painting for the rest of his long career.

Lucian Freud, Self-portrait, reflection (2004)

It was the late works in the final room that left the strongest impression on me.  If most male artists are egotists, Freud can’t avoid being numbered among them.  From the start he was his own favourite subject, and even in the early works, where his face only peeps round corners, the artist’s face and body demand attention.  Sometimes they dominate and overbear – notoriously so when shown next to a woman lying in bed – and often they have the artist-as-hero feel so common in Western male art since Michelangelo.

Lucian Freud, Self-portrait, reflection (2002)

It’s different, you sense, with the late self-portraits.  Like Rembrandt, as Freud enters old age he seems to grow tired of self-projection, and paints his image out of a process of reflection and acceptance of his own ruin (he titled many of these paintings ‘reflections’, which indicates more than use of a mirror).  The familiar fierce stare no longer aims to intimidate others.  The face looks inward and interrogates itself.  Maybe not all these pictures are technically as masterly as those of Freud’s prime, but their piled-up paint, crumbly textures and directness of gaze give them a vulnerability lacking in the earlier work.

Lucian Freud, Painter working, reflection (1993)

The show ended with one of Freud’s oddest and latest works, his only nude self-portrait.  At first glace this belongs to the defiant artist-as-hero tradition.  His stance is frontal and confident.  His legs are apart and arms outstretched, almost aggressive – one holding a palette, the other a knife.  But this painting is not all it seems.  The proportions of the body are somehow, deliberately adrift.  The gaze is downward. The feet are encased in a pair of unlaced old boots, which immediately recall the boots Van Gogh painted in 1886 – another emblem of a worn-out soul.  Far from being as straightforward expression of artistic independence, this painting looks hesitant, half-finished, uncertain – and it’s all the better for that.

Martin Gayford’s excellent book Man in a blue scarf (2010) uncovers many of the processes, mental and technical, at work when Freud worked on making portraits of others.  But it says little about how he approached the task of painting himself, beyond a single anecdote:

When LF was painting Self-portrait (reflection) in 2002, his cleaning woman glanced through the studio door one day and saw it on the easel in the shadows, and told him, ‘I thought it was you.’  He was pleased and amused by this incident …

Celia Paul, Painter and model (2012)

Gayford’s interactions with Freud, as he sits for his portrait and in their conversations before and after sittings, are respectful but convivial and clearly masculine (the two men had known each other for many years).  For a very different relationship you can now turn to another book, Self-portrait (2019) by Celia Paul

Paul was Freud’s student, model and lover during (and after) the time she was at the Slade School of Art.  Her account of how Freud captivated and captured her as a young woman, and how her later betrayed and left her, is told with total honesty and a rare literary skill.  The story reminds you strongly of the relationship between the young Gwen John and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (the link is one she herself acknowledges).  Like Gwen John, Paul was not destroyed by the older and domineering lover.  She too possessed an inner strength and self-belief.  Her paintings – most of them of women, and many reproduced in the book – are very quiet but full of held-in feeling, and immediately recognisable as by her.  Freud left many iimpressions on her.  Some were helpful and practical – he gave her much encouragement, and a studio in London, overlooking the British Museum.  Even her decision to split with him, in 1988, had its positive side:

Painting is the language of loss.  The scraping-off of layers of paint, again and again, the rebuilding, the losing again.  Hoping, then despairing, then hoping.  Can you control your feelings of loss by this process of loss by painting, which is fundamentally structured by loss?

Freud’s death in 2011 affected Paul deeply, but also brought about a kind of release, and an ‘integration’ of herself as an artist, which she explains as transforming herself from the Freud’s model into her own model:

In 2012 I did a painting titled ‘Painter and model’, as a reference to the last painting Lucian did of me with the same title, and which he had finished in 1987.  I painted myself as an artist’s model, seated and with my eyes downcast.  My bare feet and the squeezed-out paint tubes that litter the floor relate to Lucian’s painting in which, following his instructions, I had placed by bare foot on a tube of green paint.

But the dress I am wearing, in my own painting, is overlaid and dripping with paint: it is my painting dress … after the death of my mother, I am my own subject.

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