Lucian Freud for President!

This is another transplant from my old blog, slightly altered.

Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait

Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait

Okay, he was never a US citizen, he lived a sometimes rowdy and energetic life (a dozen children at least…) and he’s dead. But there are the reasons why I think people should look at Lucian Freud’s paintings before they vote. Perhaps there are works that should always be looked at before voting, or writing legislation, memos to our conscience about what it is we ought to be doing, but I will limit myself here to Freud’s work – besides, I get nervous when people start talking about what art should or ought to do.

1.) Freud’s people are fragile: The people in Freud’s paintings are in the grip of forces beyond their control. Life is pulling them apart, and their acceptance and suffering lends a nobility that shines through their awkward poses. Looking at them reminds us of our fragility and the fragility of those around us, and how we should be mindful and considerate of their needs. Considering the polished, superhuman façade politicians try to adopt, a reminder that they are no less vulnerable than we is a good thing. The politics of the body always provokes strong reactions, whether it is external politics, such as the undying debate on contraception and abortion, or internal, in the grasp of distorted self-image. We wear our life on our sleeves, or, as Elbert Hubbard put it, “God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.”

2.) His people are integral, but not separate, from the rest of the work: Freud’s sitters had to be patient, as he would require them to sit over and over, and be present even when he was working on other parts of the painting. The environment and the figure were interconnected, and to change one affected the other as well. Looking in this case means being aware of how we affect our environment, and how it, in turn, affects us.

3.) His work is unbiased: Freud, in keeping with his famous grandfather, looks deep into the psyche of his sitters. Wealth and position does nothing; his portrait of the Queen of England is as much his own as that of one of his children, or anyone. There is universality to his work, a fairness; every person is a subject of equal value. Don’t be misled by the veneer of ugliness we have become acculturated to expect. These sitters have their own beauty, and no amount of money or authority changes that.

4.) His work is not abstract: I love abstract art, and I even make my own. But there is a lot of talk in politics about abstractions: liberty, rights, etc. We do not live by abstractions, but in a real world where compromises must at times be made. Don’t sell out real life in exchange for an abstraction. This is the ultimate failure of the more extreme brands of Libertarianism; they consider nothing more important than rights, as though one person’s rights had no effect upon anyone or anything else.
Freud himself wrote, “What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” And what do we ask of artists? We ask them to be human; their flaws and scraps of genius make their art unique, and pass along something to us. But our politicians are asked to be ciphers, perfect yet with some sort of quirk, a handhold for public opinion to latch onto. Today we would throw out candidates considered flawed, despite the fact that we would be throwing out Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt in the process. The cool, rational mind of Piet Mondrian fails to ignite the imagination as a Jackson Pollock or Lucian Freud does, though all three are important in their own way. As President, Freud would have brought turmoil and brilliance to Washington, which is precisely what Washington doesn’t want; calm breeds complacency and somnolence. What’s good for the halls of power is bad for artists.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition with Phillip Pearlstein, to whom Freud is sometimes erroneously compared. Pearlstein is an abstract artist working in realism: that is, his figures are elements in a composition, but without personality. They are exercises in shape and color, which lend a dryness and distance. They are barely people at all. In Freud the opposite is true. No matter how far we are from Freud’s subject, or whether the sitters are looking in our direction or not, they are present – or we are present with them. We have the sense of being intruders into their space. My initial reaction to some Freuds is the desire to say, “Oh, pardon me,” and back out of the room. This is not a detriment, but shows how deeply Freud imbued flesh with the presence of the person inside. Many artists never come close to that.

Sequence is the idea at work there; the idea that a painting is a moment, but connected to other moments before and after. In abstraction, or abstracted realism such as Pearlstein’s, there is no time. The moment is frozen. Freud puts us in his place, inside the moment, and has his model pose whenever he works on the painting, so that the model is always in the moment, and the next moment, and the next. We live in time and we die from it; without time neither growth nor decay is possible. Freud gives us the moment with awareness of that flow, acknowledges it, and treasures it even as it destroys him, his model, and us.

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