What do Lucian Freud, Picasso, Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon have in common apart from a clear interest in human flesh? They — or rather their paintings — are currently rubbing shoulders in a perfectly proportioned Victorian gem of a room in the furthest corner of the Art Gallery of NSW and they all belong to a British businessman Joe Lewis and his daughter Vivienne who have placed them, among others, on a long term loan to the gallery.
The extraordinarily generosity of this loan can be understood by placing the two Freud works in the context of a smattering of purchases made by state galleries over the last three decades. When the National Gallery of Australia purchased Lucian Freud’s After Cézanne in 2001, a tide of commentary eddied around both the quality of the work and the $7.4 million paid for it. Eighteen years earlier (1983) the Art Gallery of Western Australia had acquired Freud’s remarkable Naked Man with Rat (1977) for just $78,000 — its value today is purported to be $6.5 million. When the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s deputy director Gary Dufour was asked to comment on the relative quality of the works, he declined to comment except to say: “I’m pleased that we have the one that we have.” The Art Gallery of South Australia had arrived there before either museum, having purchased Freud’s Boy with Scarf in 1949 for £75 on the advice of “a British art agent [!] called Kenneth Clark”.
In After Cézanne the customary awkwardness between Freud’s figures and the paralysing isolation which is at the heart of so many of his canvases was intensified by an equivalent clumsiness in the final shape of the canvas. It had started its life as a conventional rectangle, but Freud changed his mind — attaching another stretcher in order to paint the maid as a full figure instead of suggesting her presence by her legs and lower body only.
The NGA’s acquisition was a ‘late-in-the-day’ Freud — if one could put it that way — painted in 1999 when Freud was 78. Yet the then director of the NGA Brian Kennedy, believed Freud was at his peak. “Late Freud, I see as sort of late Rembrandt or late Titian.” An enthusiastic Kennedy had visited the artist in London and made notes on the work afterwards, which identified Freud’s son Freddy as one of the assemblage. It seems Freud mostly used people who he knew well to sit for him.
His distaste for professional models was grounded in their lack of vulnerability. He explained, “Professional models have been stared at so much that they have grown another skin. When they take their clothes off, they are not naked; their skin has become another garment.” One of his favourite sitters was an Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, to whom Freud confided that his pictures of women were always of straight women, while his pictures of men were always of gay men. Freud said “I’m drawn to women by nature and to gay men by their courage.”
The title of Kennedy’s trophy suggests the painting’s relationship with a jewel of a work by Cézanne which the National Gallery of Australia had acquired in 1985. It was called L’Apres-midi à Naples which depicted a maid serving coffee to a pair of relaxed lovers. Freud spent much time examining Cézanne and the old masters, to see how they tackled the nude, and this particular theme — love in the afternoon — resulted in a number of intimately scaled early works by him.
Kennedy said: ‘If you really want to get people riled, you show them a whole lot of naked bodies, especially in the sex act.’ But it might be more accurate to say that what mesmerises the viewers of Freud’s nudes is their raw humanity. His slack, sallow, scabby, figures remind us that humanity is not at all like the attenuated nudes of fashion magazines or the creamy perfection of marble statuary. In other words, they are us and his impastoed brushwork achieved with a hog’s hair brush and a heavy granular pigment called ‘cremnitz’ white, seems to gouge actual flesh from the palette.
Freud’s nudes provide a license to examine the body as topography — or landscape. Nature’s relentless diminution of the human form; weight redistribution, mottled sagging flesh, purple veins floating under thinning skin are revealed with forensic exactitude. And like a sunset, no two sitters’ hands, breasts or buttocks are the same colour. And if Freud’s nudes seem more naked than other nudes, it is because they are utterly exposed, eschewing classical poses and skewed awkwardly across the indifferent settings of threadbare rooms, iron frame beds and crumpled sheets.
How removed they are from the hairline delicacy of Freud’s earliest portraits which were achieved with a fine sable brush. One memorable example was a portrait of writer and Caroline Blackwood, his second wife. This painting achieved an unexpected notoriety when her third husband, the poet Robert Lowell absconded with it in 1977, and expired in a taxicab in Manhattan still clutching the work.
Freud’s later works may have abandoned fine detail and enamelled surfaces but they relinquished nothing of the artist’s forensic gaze.