October 28, 2009
Lucien Freud loves being an enigma. The grandson of Sigmund has been lauded and touted as, "Britain’s greatest figure painter", though one may assume there are people who would contest that idea with some vehemence. He has an enthusiastic following, some of whom would say he’s one of the greatest artists who has ever lived. These 'fans' might offer as proof of this the fact that his painting, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” recently sold for the highest price ever recorded for the work of a living artist: thirty-three million dollars. An image is included here for your delight…or disgust.
In order to understand why a painting that is so obviously trying to be repulsive has found not merely an audience, but has become so stunningly valuable, I have looked at Freud’s career as an artist and his life as a person. I looked at a book of his work put out by Taschen, but declined to give it a place on my bookshelf, unable to justify buying something that celebrates the repugnant. It would be akin to collecting dried fecal samples...because they are so "interesting". The simple truth is that Freud has become the poster-child for making art that reflects humanity back to itself in a way that shocks, repulses…and yet fascinates. It is a well recognized trait in people that when they are confronted by the darker side of life and the human condition that it has a magnetic appeal. We drive past the scene of a bad car accident, and almost unanimously we turn to stare. Part of us is desperate to get a glimpse of the pathos that has just occurred. It may be for lots of reasons, but, it is not separate from, for instance, the television news content that is so heavily loaded with stories of people acting badly. In fact, the more evil the actions being reported, the stronger the fascination people seem to have with knowing every detail. One blogger acknowledged Freud's importance and his genius, but then said, "But, I just can't get past the fact that his work is so hideous." If that is his reaction, then why is this poor fellow still willing to accord 'genius' to an artist whose lifetime mission is to offend? Why does he doubt his own genuine distaste on viewing the works of a 'great master'? What is wrong with this picture...literally?
I suppose it would be possible to argue that Freud is dedicated to making images that reveal the depth and breadth of the human condition, or--the one I really love--perhaps he is expanding our way of thinking about art and the human figure. But, it just feels like he is slapping us in the face for our weakness and our urge to ‘look away’. He wants us to stare, to be repulsed and yet to keep staring as if transfixed. Somehow he seems to be saying, “This is YOU! Drink deeply from this cup of woe, for it is who you really are.” There is a feeling of impending darkness--as if we are being given a glimpse of some arcane knowledge which is in need of an 'acquired taste' in order to understand it. This uncomfortable sense pervades almost all of the paintings he does. It seems almost a poetic irony that he’s the grandson of the psychiatrist who transformed—many would say for the worst—how we understand the human mind. If he was saying something empathic or genuinely insightful, I would have an easier time of it. But, he paints with a subdued palette of muddy colors that underscores the ugliness he is so fond of.
Diane Arbus spent much of her too short life photographing the people society considers to be freaks, and yet, she always seemed to be reminding us of their normalcy and that they are utterly human after all, not so ‘other’ as we have considered them in our ignorance. It is a sympathetic way of broadening the viewer’s perspective. Freud, on the other hand, is making ‘outcasts’ look as ‘other’ as he possibly can. He puts them in shabby beds, often with emaciated, dead-looking animals, surrounds them with a feeling calculated to make one’s skin crawl. And, he is daring us to look away, to deny the fact that they are undeniably human. But, it is NOT a sympathetic eye he has cast on these subjects. In fact, there is an aura of cruel disdain in his vision. He is not celebrating their humanity, far from it. Instead, he is casting them as pitiable and pathetic creatures in a depressing netherworld. Even his self-portraits of himself are imbued with a feeling that can easily pass for self-loathing. Reading about his personal life is like reading accounts of the Eastern Front in WWII. He has left a long trail of wreckage, rumored to have as many as forty illegitimate children, along with a host of failed marriages. He seems to be stumbling through his life just doing whatever is in front of him, all the while insisting on sharing his macabre vision of people and life as he does. In the topsy-turvey world of modern fine-art, is it any wonder then that he’s become a kind of cultural anti-hero? It just makes perfect sense that he would.
I am left with a feeling that inhabiting the inside of his head would be a massively depressing experience. But, I suspect that—now in his mid-eighties—he’s far too busy enjoying the legacy and the controversy he has created to be bothered by it in the least, quite the contrary, in fact. He’s like a man who pushes a jar towards you and says with a wicked smile, “Here, take a whiff.” And you just know that you are going to toss your cookies if you take him up on his offer….but, you do anyway. His is a world of foul body odors, the smell of decaying food in the sink, moldy sheets and musty, decrepit spaces where bad things happen. And we simply cannot pass up the chance to dive in.
In this respect, his paintings are like some literary novels that seem to need to push us toward witnessing the seamier side of life. “Here, step-up and have a good look. Is this your first autopsy?” And, interestingly, now mainstream entertainment is doing exactly the same thing. The CSI shows--now three of them, each with its own unique visual style--are all very popular and their ‘mission’ is to immerse the viewer in the blood and guts of violent crime. The special effects people have pulled out all the stops to do this. We can now follow the bullet that killed the victim as it passes through her vital organs and comes to rest in her spine. We watch as a poison turns the victim’s lungs into blisters that drown him. It might pass for sadistic pornography, if it weren’t all so ‘neat’ and detached.
As I said before—and will doubtless marvel at again and again—art mirrors a society back to itself. And we—by our proclivities and choices as to what art we glom onto—make an ongoing decision as to what image of ourselves we want to embrace.