Friday, 22 July 2011

Lucian Freud: Painting Matters

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995
So we're talking about painting AGAIN, but why? I think it's because Lucian Freud made paintings that were - are - relevant, whatever other artists they may remind us of, or refer to, whatever movement or genre they belong to. Beautifully crafted, staged and lit, they are no more 'real' than a painting by Frank Auerbach (one of Freud's favourites), but they talk to us about our world and our time.

The painting of Sue Tilley, a Job Centre manager who is now in her fifties, could be seen as a Rubenesque modern incarnation of all those reclining Venuses but you don't need to know anything about art history to appreciate either the physical presence of the woman on the couch or her significance. People seems slightly amazed that a figurative artist should have been enjoying such success in the 21st century, but has there been a time when humans have been more obsessed with the body? An overweight middle-aged woman waits for the bus beneath a vast billboard showing a svelte young model in M&S underwear; Freud makes the unspoken connection real.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1992
Freud painted Sue Tilley at a time when painting in general - and figurative painting in particular - seemed to be on its last legs. Damien Hirst stole the painterly tradition of the still-life-with-dead-things and went one better with a real shark in a tank. I saw it at the time and loved it. I still love it. Hirst's best work - you can see some in an Art Fund touring exhibition, currently in Leeds - is terrifying, fascinating and relevant in an age of close-up natural history and industrial farming.

Tracey Emin, Everyone I have ever slept with, 1995

Great artists - the same goes for writers, politicians, sportsmen - are great opportunists. Freud's famously piercing stare wasn't just for intimidating people. He was looking at us, figuring out what we wanted (or didn't want) to see, seeking out not the most beautiful but the most interesting models - looking for the one that was RIGHT. Sue Tilley was one. Kate Moss had to be another. Freud was competing for our attention with artists who could offer something new and exciting, like a tent full of real-life lovers. He chose his subjects carefully and well.

Benefits Supervisor Resting, 1994
But Freud must also have known, having lived and worked among some of the great 20th century artists, that good paintings - the right paintings - last. When Paul Nash painted 'We Are Making a New World' (1918) and 'The Battle of Britain' (1941) he was competing for public attention with photographers and film makers who were convinced (as many others were) that their media were the best - being the newest and most obviously realistic. Perhaps the photographs are more harrowing, and the films more dramatic, but those paintings have endured, as Freud's will.


  1. It is so good to hear that painting is being championed once more but surely it only ever went out of fashion in contemporary fine art circles? When I was an art student in the seventies if you wanted to paint you headed for the illustration department or printed textiles, anywhere in fact but the fine art department. David Hockney was one of the few who kept the tradition alive.

  2. She does not strongly correct the misconception that the names are all "lovers" hoping to cash in on a bit of sexual frisson. Sleep with does not indicate sex but sex sells.

    All Empresses' clothes...