Lucian Freud 1922-2011

The New Statesman on the late artist.

The New Statesman has written about Lucian Freud many times. Here's a selection of what our critics have had to say about the late, great artist.

Tom Fairfield (2002):

"Although his work now sells for millions, money has not always been a Freud feature. Barbara Skelton's diaries recall her husband Cyril Connolly coming under pressure to buy an early Freud painting to rescue the struggling artist, stuck in a Paris hotel, unable to pay his bill. Commercial success and artistic maturity united in Interior in Paddington (1951), commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain. It is an intense study in superrealism of a dwarfish young man contemplating a giant yucca plant in a bare room. In the same year, he completed his uxorious Girl with a White Dog, now his totem picture in the Tate...

In the Fifties, he was the daring darling of a social set whose leading lights were the Connollys; Peter Watson, Freud's first patron; Lady Clarissa Eden, wife of Anthony, the prime minister; Ann Rothermere and her husband Ian Fleming; the Duff Coopers and the historian Peter Quennell. Rich, raffish and right-wing, these snobbish glitterati looked upon Freud as an uncouth roaring boy, talented and interesting. And although he naturalised in 1939, not entirely British - but still to be patted, petted and indulged. As Freud's wealth and fame increased, and these early patrons declined into drink and decrepitude, he became the one who could afford to be patronising.

Freud, somehow inevitably, ended up painting an official portrait of the Queen. That portrait, although typically unflattering, indicated that the British establishment had clutched this bad bohemian to its cold heart. That Freud accepted the commission, along with an establishment bauble in the form of the Order of Merit (for which he painted his own self-portrait) indicates that he was not unwilling to be wooed and won. He had one foot in Soho, but another in Buck House...

Without getting too Freudian about it, it is clear that his early childhood in Weimar Germany produced an alert watchfulness of the world - which benefits his work - shading into a deep suspicion that has never left him. Those outside the charmed circle are held at bay. Attempts at biography have been seen off with warning letters from Freud's lawyers, and the official life has been placed in the safe hands of William Feaver, the former art critic of the Observer, curator of the current Tate show and a Freud acolyte."

Sarah Thornton (2008):

"Lucian Freud painted only two portraits of Francis Bacon. One was stolen from a Berlin exhibition in 1988 and hasn't been seen since. The other, an unfinished painting from 1956-57, was one of the few works to meet with evident demand. Sitting in the front row of the room, discreetly eyeing the auctioneer, the London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin acquired the work for £5.4m - most likely for a Malaysian businessman who collects both Bacons and Freuds."

Richard Cork (2004):

"The longer Lucian Freud lives, the more defiant he becomes. Spurning the convention of displaying his new work in a bare white gallery, the 81-year-old artist has opted instead for the Wallace Collection. In his honour, an entire gallery was cleared of Dutch old master paintings. And Freud did not insist that his show should conform to fashionable ideas about minimal hanging. Far from giving each picture an immense amount of space, he has allowed them all to be placed cheek by jowl. No fewer than four etchings and 18 paintings have been crammed into a modest-sized room. They bombard us with their combined visual impact, more redolent of a crowded collection from the past than a cool, contemporary show.

Freud's subjects can be freighted with history, too, and none is more so than The Brigadier, a towering full-length portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles. Arrayed in full military uniform, the ageing lothario (who was once married to Camilla) leans back in an armchair and crosses his long legs with an air of nonchalance. The pose enabled Freud to flaunt the bold red stripe running down the brigadier's trousers. And the glinting medals on his jacket are proudly lined up for inspection as well.

So far, the painting reminds us of country-house portraiture at its grandest. But Freud, as an artist, is far removed from Reynolds, Lawrence, Tissot and Sargent. He has subverted all this seeming formality by allowing us to detect that the chair is just a well- worn studio prop, with a sheet covering the faded seat. Instead of buttoning up the brigadier from his waist to his stiff gilt collar, Freud let the jacket burst open, revealing an ordinary white shirt bulging with a substantial paunch. The brigadier's left hand, splayed on the arm of the chair, turns out to be surprisingly small, with delicate, bony fingers. But fleshiness reasserts itself in Parker Bowles's face. Flushed and puffy, he seems the victim of too many port-fuelled military dinners. And his downcast eyes, with their drooping lids, have a look of disappointment. He appears melancholy, lost in a gloom that is deepened by the darkness of the screen behind him...

Like his grandfather Sigmund, Lucian Freud has always thrived on unearthing disquiet. And in his superb etching Girl with Fuzzy Hair, the curling tendrils explode with such force that they seem to reveal the full extent of the psychic tension within her sombre, meditative face."

Lucian Freud: key dates

1922 Born in Berlin

1938 Arrives in London

1951 Girl with a White Dog; Freud's Interior at Paddington wins a prize at the Festival of Britain

1954 Represents Britain at the 27th Venice Biennale of Art with Ben Nicholson and Francis Bacon

1959 Woman Smiling, painting of former lover Suzy Boyt. It is described by Robert Hughes as "the turning point" in Freud's work

1968 Naked Girl Asleep

1985 Reflection (self portrait)

1987 Retrospective exhibition held at Washington, DC. In the exhibition's catalogue, Freud is described as "the greatest living realist painter" by Robert Hughes.

1993 Awarded the Order of Merit

2008 Lucian Freud's portrait of Francis Bacon sells for £5.4m at Christie's

Freud on Freud:

"I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

"The subject matter is autobiographical, it's all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement really."

In this video, Freud talks about his life and work:

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain