The etchings of Lucian Freud are the equal of his paintings. The correspondences between the two are self-evident: the same models will often sit for paintings and etchings, often in the same poses. The settings – Freud’s house and studio – are the same. And in the finished works, correspondences in mood and form are just as apparent: intense intimacy mingled with physical surprise; a powerful sense of duration (rather than a fleeting moment captured); and an emotionally ambivalent depiction of the body at rest.
But the language of etching – the traditionally fine-tuned business of scratching lines into copper, creating grooves which are then bitten into by acid, filled with ink and pressed onto paper – could not, on the face of it, be less amenable to Freud’s mature style of painting, which harnesses the visceral energy of broad, lush layerings of paint transferred by loaded brush from palette to canvas. Ordinarily, etching is a medium suited to detailed exactitude, finicky precision. The great challenge Freud set himself when he took up etching again in the early 1980s, after a break of many decades, was to adapt its inherent aptitude for linear precision to a way of seeing the human body that was already deeply in tune with its sweeping volumes, its surging internal fluids, its shifting ungainliness and its constant, breathing movement, even at rest. He has succeeded marvellously.
That Freud chooses to pursue both painting and etching in concert (he is usually working on at least one etching at the same time as various paintings) attests to a taste for self-imposed challenges – but more importantly, a feeling for different forms of potential. It’s a feeling that is evident in other aspects of his work and life, too – in the models he chooses, the risks he takes, his disinclination to take known paths. His reinvention of the etching medium has been one of the great feats of artistic will over the past few decades.
The nudes – or “naked portraits”, as he likes to call them – in this show at Rex Irwin Art Dealer do not set out to shock or revolt. And yet by refusing to abstract or idealise the bodies of those who sit for him, Freud undermines the dominant tradition of the nude in Western art, finding fresh ways to command our attention. These works capture the physical stress and the awkwardness but also the surprisingly beautiful shapes and unexpectedly athletic configurations of the endlessly idiosyncratic human body in states of rest and abandon.
Freud is always finding surprising new ways to emphasise intimacy, without ever resorting to expressionist exaggeration. In the etchings (not in the paintings) the supporting surfaces on which his models rest (sofas, chairs, floors, beds) are often left out. As a result, the bodies themselves feel unanchored. The barriers separating us from them have been removed. Cropped, seen from above or seen upside down, they seem to float or spin or thrust out into our space.
In most of these works, conventional ideas of composition have been abandoned and replaced by something less aestheticised, more acutely observed. It turns out that the body, which has two of many things (eyes, ears, hands, arms), four of others (limbs), and ten or twenty of others still (fingers and toes) has a tendency to set up its own symmetries, its own echoes and rhythms, its own tantalising patterns of near-equivalence and slight difference, all of which seem somehow involved in a deepening, multi-layered game of complicity. Look, for instance, at the beautiful choreography of repeated arcing lines, sometimes standing alone, sometimes overlapping, that define and traverse the body of Blond Girl, 1985, or the near-rhyme of finger and penis in Naked Man on a Bed, 1990, or the four near-parallel lines that emerge from the sides of the mouth and from the nostrils in Head and Shoulders, 1982, the earliest work on display here. In his etchings especially, Freud is intensely alive to these echoes and rhythms, which he captures with cross-hatching and powerfully reiterated lines. But he also interrupts every emerging pattern, jolting it back into life with descriptions of unyielding specificity: surface blemishes, body hair, rashes and so on.
Girl holding her foot, 1985, with its slight echo of the Ancient Greek sculpture The Boy with the Thorn, captures a mood of casual concentration. The gentle torque of the girl’s body and the foreshortening of her jack-knifed thighs and calves produce a bulging mini-system of lines and forms, a sort of knotty, three-dimensional figure-of-eight. And yet the woman herself is amazingly specific – in fact, quite unlike any woman before her in the history of art.
Freud’s male nudes are similarly without precedent. Stripped of all narrative suggestions of doomed romanticism, saintly martyrdom or classical eroticism, these recumbent, foreshortened figures are intensely moving studies in masculine vulnerability. In Man Posing, 1985 (which is related to the painting Painter and Model, 1986-87), the model’s legs open casually to reveal his lolling genitals. Thus, he is utterly exposed. And yet we sense that he is at ease in the studio situation: warm, relaxed, unashamed. In Freud’s rendering there is a tension between the lines describing the hairs on his chest, legs and groin and the slightly twisted volumes of his torso. All these curving human lines are bound in place by the repetitive holding patterns of couch and cross-hatched walls. The tension serves to emphasise his palpable, breathing presence.
Man Resting, 1988 is one of the great images of intimacy. The man’s head and bulbous nose seem slightly too large for his hunched-in, sleep-craving body. The dense congestion of etched lines around his face powerfully conveys the wear and tear of skin and tissue, the gristle of nose, sag of skin, surge of blood in veins and stubbly hair. Described, it sounds ugly. And yet it is an extraordinarily sweet and beautiful image.
To describe Freud as a realist is accurate but inadequate. Yes, he shuns fantasy and exaggeration, and yes, he records what he sees. But a tremendous amount of art and imagination is involved in the process, and what emerges gains its power, its extraordinary hold on the imagination, through a level of concentration that reaches far beyond mere resemblances, entering a zone of intimacy that inexplicably brims with emotion.
Sebastian Smee 2006