Lucian Freud, Painter and Model, 1986-7. Private Collection.
I think it is an unacknowledged sign of ageing that more and more I am aware of a succession of artists’ retrospectives. The exhibition to celebrate Lucian Freud’s 80th Birthday, for example, at the relatively-recently renamed Tate Britain in 2002. Or the 90th Anniversary exhibition in 2012, the year after his death, at the National Portrait Gallery. And now, at the National Gallery, the celebration of the centenary of his birth. Nevertheless, with each iteration I have seen something new, and something which has come as a surprise. In this embodiment of the great artist’s work, apart from a number of paintings that I have never seen before, I have been really impressed by something I have always been aware of: Freud’s admiration for the delicacy of touch, and for the profound nature of the relationships between people, animals, and even things, that touch implies. I will talk about this more thoroughly on Monday 17th October at 6pm when I introduce the exhibition Lucian Freud: New Perspectives. If you’re not free, or fancy hearing the talk in person at the National Gallery on Thursday 20th, have a look for details in the diary. Today, though, I want to focus on something else: a painting in which the artist gets to grips with the nature of painting itself.
Called Painter and Model, we see a woman standing on the left wearing a brick-red painting smock, covered in paint, and holding a paintbrush between both hands. She is effectively in profile, looking down towards the bottom right corner of the painting, with her pale face standing out against a dark wardrobe which occupies the back left corner of the space. On the right is a battered leather sofa, the colour of which is strikingly similar to the woman’s smock. Lying on it, on his back, is a naked man. If her head is framed by the wardrobe, his is placed against the far arm of the sofa, and is seen full face, rather than in profile. Binaries, and contrasts, are always an important aspect of Freud’s work. The man’s left forearm lies along the back of the sofa, while the right rests on the seat, with the hand just sticking over the edge. His right leg, extended, stretches down so that the heel of his right foot is resting on the floor. The lower half of this leg, and the foot, cast intense, dark shadows on the meticulously detailed floorboards. His left leg is bent, and leans against the back of the sofa. His left foot is tucked up behind the near arm, and can’t be seen. Lying on the floor in the foreground is some of the paraphernalia of painting – tubes of paint, and paintbrushes of different sizes. The walls are in an appalling state of repair – painted yellow, but re-plastered with pink plaster, which nevertheless still seems to be showing signs of damp, presumably the initial cause of the repairs, and which has not yet been repainted. A blind has been pulled down over the window, and crumples untidily as if in need of replacement itself. The top of the walls are deep in shadow, but brightly illuminated further down, with the boundaries marked by uneven half shadows, probably cast by an uneven lampshade.
Lucian Freud was renowned for making what might seem to be unreasonable demands of his models. Once his career was established, he became a man of habit, and would paint regularly, either during the day, in natural daylight, or after nightfall, in artificial light. This is clearly a night-time painting – the stark shadows tell us as much. He would work on more than one painting at a time, with the daytime models making way for those arriving in the evening. They would return every day at the allotted time for weeks or months, or even, in some cases, for years. In order for him to discover something ‘unexpected’ and create something new, he would often pose them in unusual positions, or in surprising relationships to one another. It might seem that he was being entirely controlling, making the models obey his whim. And yet, of course, they didn’t have to be there. Often they were friends or family, but above all, they were people he was interested in. If he wasn’t interested, he couldn’t paint. Nevertheless, as a substantial number of his models were women, and, moreover, women who were naked, he was sometimes criticized as a voyeur. I’m sure this painting was intended to confront this claim, as it turns the idea of ‘the male gaze’ on its head.
In terms of the title, Painter and Model, it is surely clear which is which. The woman on the left is the painter, the naked man is the model. In this one bold gesture Freud manages to subvert the whole history of the Western European nude, in which, we imagine, a fully clothed man paints a naked woman, and in the process, he objectifies her. It is the man here who becomes the object, subject to the whim of the female artist. She is standing, upright and secure, whereas he is supine, passive and vulnerable – apparently a complete reversal of gender stereotypes. Of course, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. Or, to put it in other words, it’s nowhere near that simple. I’m intrigued, for example, that the painting is called Painter and Model rather than Artist and Model, but paint is clearly of the essence. And, whether Painter or Artist, is the woman really the one who is in control? One of the problems for women over the course of Western European Art History was the nature of the female gaze, because, quite simply, it wasn’t allowed. ‘It’s rude to stare’, as I’m sure many of you were told by your parents, and it was particularly rude for women to stare. You were supposed to stand with your hands politely held in front of you, and look modestly down. And if you’re looking ‘modestly down’ all the time, then you can’t look at things to paint them. Women weren’t allowed into life drawing classes until the 20th Century (on the whole): for them to look at a naked man was considered to be inappropriate. But in this painting we see Freud reconsidering the whole issue. Or do we? Maybe we should have another look at the painting. Even in this detail, although more pointedly if we look at the whole image (above and below), it becomes clear that the woman is standing in precisely that appropriately ‘modest’ feminine way, hands held in front of her body, and her face looking down towards the floor. She is not staring at the man, not even gazing at him, despite his unabashed nudity. Indeed, the male gaze is still fully active, but it is the naked model in the painting – the man – who is gazing – even staring – at us. The model seems to be more in command, and more commanding, than the painter.
It becomes more complex when you realise that, given the title of the painting, the woman on the left is both painter and model. Although she holds a paintbrush, she is modelling for Freud as a painter. And she is painted – in more ways than one. First, she is one of the subjects of the painting, one of the models that Freud has painted, but second, her smock is covered in paint. She appears to have used the fabric to clean her brushes in between different brushstrokes, as Freud used to, either on the walls of the studio or using the rags which can often be seen lying on the floor in the background of his paintings. So, Freud has painted her, and she has ‘painted’ herself. Look again, and you will her smock covered with the yellow of the walls, the light greys of the damp and of the window frame, and the darker shades of the wardrobe and of the shadowed areas of the sofa, with the smock itself more or less the colour of the sofa. Indeed, the smock is effectively Freud’s palette, an inchoate mass of paint like that from which he has formed this image.
We add yet another layer of complexity when we realise that both models were also artists. On the right is Angus Cook – described as ‘model and artist’ in the National’s exhibition, although I can find little about his work online. One source describes him as a poet, and there are also some of his texts about art. Above all, he was part of a nexus of friends and lovers, several of whom feature in Freud’s work. On the left is Celia Paul, a respected artist in her own right. She came to Freud’s attention as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was a visiting tutor. They went on to have a ten-year relationship, with Paul often modelling for Freud, as she does here.
In the bottom half of the painting we can see five feet – three human, two sofa. It’s a sort of game, and one that Freud played in different ways in different works. Each foot has a different relationship to the floor (and Freud was always interested in relationships). The two carved wooden feet are connected by the sharp line of shadow cast by the edge of the sofa which, together with the glints of light on the curving bulges of these feet, reminds us that this was a night-time painting. Cook’s right heel rests on the floor, whereas Paul’s two feet are firmly and securely planted, the toes turned out a little from the heels. And yet, how secure are they? A curious detail suggests that something might be awry.
Whose paints are these? Stop and think about it: have you seen an easel, or even a canvas? If Paul is the painter, what is she painting, and where, exactly, is the painting itself? Or is she just posing as a painter, for Freud? Are these her paints or his? And look – her right foot is planted on one end of a tube of paint. A tube of green paint. You can see that: the lid was not put back on the tube, and some of the green paint (more brightly coloured in the original than in this reproduction) is squeezing out. Am I wrong in seeing some form of sexual connotation here? Would I be right in going so far as to say that it seems a little bit, well, Freudian?
In case you didn’t know, Sigmund was Lucian’s grandfather. This must have had an impact on the boy, but more so on the student, and, as he came to a fuller understanding of the world, and of the significance of his grandfather’s work, on the adult artist. Both spent a lifetime analysing people lying on couches, for one thing. On Monday we might just find that there were other things that they had in common.