The Gothic Bodies by Lucian Freud

The Gothic Bodies by Lucian Freud

“The human body is Gothic,” said his friend Manolo Hugué, who was a great admirer of Greek ideals, to Josep Pla. Referring to the form of bodies, the sculptor ruled out that an art could attain excellence through the expression of particular existences and their most pernicious forms. He dreamed of making a Venus and was disheartened to see that only “a monster with sagging buttocks, dislocated arms and deformed feet” would come out. But he had turned on the electric lights in his house in 1941, four years before his death, and the presence of classicism and – if we can call it that – Gothic in the 20th century had nothing to do with forms and their impossible tradition Continuity but with a new symbolic meaning.

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When Hitler took over the German Chancellorship in 1933, Sigmund Freud’s youngest son moved to London with his family; the neurologist himself would do it a little later, already very ill. Lucian was the second of the children. His incorporation into the British cultural scene was brilliant. Horizon magazine, recently founded by Cyril Connolly, reproduced a drawing of him that he made when he was 17 years old. The Gothic style of the young Lucian Freud’s paintings is unmistakable. In which his first wife, Kitty Garman, appears surrounded by coldness and strangeness, the affinities to Otto Dix, to George Grosz or to German paintings – as meticulously as those of Dürer – combine with the new objectivity of the twenties (those of Schrimpf , For example). Not to mention that the Nordic and Expressionist imprint has always remained in his work, in the angularity of the Little Laughing Naked Girl (1963) or in the long, gnarled fingers of Baron Thyssen in his 1985 portrait.

The excellent exhibition, which has just opened at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid and was co-produced by the National Gallery in London to commemorate the painter’s 100th birthday, sheds light on the chronological stages of his career in a delicate balance between a number of themes. The title “New Perspectives” may sound somewhat conventional. Yes, the critical work on Freud has been uninterrupted since his death in 2011 and has shed light on aspects with which this exhibition articulates its sections: influences of youth, power, the depiction of intimacy. But if there is any remarkable novelty, it is outside, in the new context that surrounds our gaze. Freud, who rose to widespread fame in the 1990s (perhaps the pivotal exhibition of his work took place in Whitechapel in 1993; it later went to the Museo Reina Sofía), had been saved at the risk of the new boom in European painting. Today, so many years later, these academic contributions seem less crucial than contemplating his painting in another world, in another art time.

A light falls on her file as hard as the headlights on faces leaving a nightclub in the morning

Freud’s more or less expressionist Gothic is not about the old characterology with which art history described regional or national schools, but about a question of language. In Freud’s full and mature expressive system, painting no longer represents but becomes flesh, in a sort of synecdoche that takes on reality. In doing so, Freud does not pay so much attention to the form – as Hugué observed – but to the material substance that flesh and color have in common. A student of Levinas, Michel Henry, a student of some painters, in his book Incarnation, distinguished the state of a thing that a body has when seen as an object in space from the affective and patient carnality that is in us aa priori every thought. In Freud’s paintings, the bodies are asleep (partly due to strenuous poses) or fall in utter limpness onto beds, carpets, or pedestals. In this way they express the pathos of that radical passivity that makes them unattainable for themselves.

British painting had for decades debated its insularity, or its dependence on the modern French tradition, in which the work of Roger Fry had much to do. The more independent and daring painters Freud encountered in his youth felt close to Herbert Read. One of them was Graham Sutherland, instrumental in the arrival of Surrealism in London in 1936, whose bristly and thorny paintings are inevitably reminiscent of Grünewald. It was Sutherland who introduced him to Francis Bacon. But both were 20 years older than Freud. He had to find his own way.

'Girl's Head' (1962) by Lucian Freud, one of the works on display at the Thyssen.‘Girl’s Head’ (1962) by Lucian Freud, one of the works on display at the Thyssen.

Around the 1960s his youthful star began to wane, coinciding with the rise of pop (in its distinctively British variant) and conceptual art. But it was during this exiled survival that Freud shaped his non-transferrable style. He did a lot of portraits: a London of aristocrats, rent-boys, music producers, models who were wayward daughters of families… Still, it was all a bit local. International recognition came after the major exhibitions in Washington, Paris and Berlin, and coincided with the revival of painting, especially figurative painting, encouraged by young people who wanted to rewrite an art history that had hitherto been abusively linear and guided many people had mad artists who didn’t fit the argument.

The study in which Freud locked himself in the last years of his life was also a metaphor for the carnality in which we are, move and exist. A narrow place completely covered with crusts of dried paint, wads of paintbrushes like branches, mounds of petrified rags like the ones you see in photos taken by his assistant David Dawson (“What did he help you with?” my aunt Herminia would have said). In addition to the density of color, in his last works the canvas bears tides of a sandy material that brings us closer to the bodies while at the same time removing us from their smooth image, their bare form. The Social Security Inspector or Bowery, the actor who died of AIDS, pounce on us, but we find them elusive. A light falls on these nudes as raw and direct as the spotlight casts on the blinded faces exiting a nightclub in the morning.

Although he is unrepeatable and makes existential unrepeatability a true theme of his painting, there has been no shortage of artists after Freud. His most obvious legatee was Paula Rego. In Spain, even with Gutiérrez-Solana as intermediary, one remembers the nonsense of Luis Vigil and even more clearly the police thrillers painted by Víctor López-Rúa, the old and shiny platforms.

“Lucian Freud. New insights’. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Madrid. Until June 18th.

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