Lucian Freud at The Museum of Modern Art

Lucian Freud. Large Head. (1993)Lucian Freud, Large Head (1993), etching, 27-5/16″ x 21-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art posits that Lucian Freud’s etchings are as integral to his art as the paintings, but its exhibition title, The Painter’s Etchings, intimates that Freud’s real priority is working on canvas.

We’re encouraged to compare and contrast the 21 paintings on display with around 100 prints. How is Freud’s vision altered or confirmed by his approach to the two media? The one thing his etchings have going for them is the absence of oil paint. The secondhand medium of print-making attenuates Mr. Freud’s worst tic as a paint-handler: Those overworked and self-conscious encrustations of pigment. Let him make prints—though gifted, he is turgid and sometimes insufferable as a painter. The less physically direct his medium, the better off we are.

Freud’s earliest forays into etching were his Surrealist-inflected images of the 1940’s. The Bird (1946), seen glaring blankly from its cage, is almost Klee-like in its oddball simplicity. Things get less whimsical in Girl With Fig Leaf (1947)—she holds it in front of her face, leaving one stunned eye uncovered—and Ill in Paris (1948), wherein the same woman lies in bed, lorded over by a preternatural rose. Alienation and distance reign.

Freud wouldn’t touch an etching needle again until the early 80’s, when he made a portrait for a monograph by fellow British painter Lawrence Gowing. The influence of Freud’s friend Francis Bacon is evident in rubbery distortions of anatomy—particularly in the occluded, death’s head visage of the second version of Lawrence Gowing (1982). He wouldn’t make another image like it, but Bacon’s influence remained: Freud’s figures are prisoners of unruly and burdensome flesh.

This is especially the case in the prints. Freud’s hatched line brings with it a sculptural tangibility. Scratchy clusters of marks build form, at first with open-ended clarity and later with increasingly dense areas of agitated incident. The scrabbled approach is well suited to Freud’s distaste for the body. He says that he considers people animals, but what they truly are to him is meat: The model’s face in Head and Shoulders of a Girl (1990) is flayed and raw.

Perception as a form of violence can be an aesthetically rewarding approach, but Freud goes at it with terrifying narrowness. The ugliness he depicts is, in the end, his own. Freud has said, “Art has always to do with sensuality and selfishness.” But trust the art, not the artist: Sensuality is beyond his ken, and the artist’s hand is as clinical as his gaze. He’s adept at likenesses, but at the cost of humanity and of connection with his subjects. (The sitter for one portrait, according to the exhibition catalog, woke up earlier than usual to accommodate Freud. The result is tinged with characteristic misanthropy.)

In the catalog essay, curator Starr Figura explains that Freud abhors Expressionism’s overstatement, but an Expressionist he is: The world matters insomuch as it capitulates to his cruel apathy. The only time Freud steps outside his indifference is in pictures of dogs, Pluto Aged Twelve(2000) and Eli (2002). It’s as though only the blind obedience of pets can draw Freud’s sympathy—they’re less of a threat to his dictatorial autonomy. It’s the only time during The Painter’s Etchings that we experience vulnerability without menace.

Looking at Mr. Freud’s Leigh Bowery (1991), an etching of the notorious performance artist, or at the print of his daughters Ib and Esther, you realize that his scouring vision is, in the end, a debased form of art for art’s sake: Any connection to the outside world is denied or abandoned. Freud brilliantly realizes this debasement in the etchings, absolutely—but his narcissism wears thin. The Painter’s Etchings goes nowhere with nagging persistence.

(c) 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 18, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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