In answer to this, and I say that the accusation against that I do not believe in the accusation against me is precisely my justification. I do not believe it because I am the only who does not see it. Would I have seen anything, then I would have believed it like you do.
Lucianus van Samosata (around 160 A.D.)
As long as you do something, you are not guilty. Sinning is when you step out of the circle and become an observer.
Sándor Márai, The Disaffected (1930)
On the retina is still that torn skin of a cyclist’s thigh after his downfall during the Classic Race Paris-Roubaix, the red, battered meat visible thanks to splendid close ups made by a camera man, a co-passenger on the back of a motor cycle rumbling over the same dangerous cobble roads that caused that racer to fall. With the raw red, uncovered meat still the memory, I commence writing what follows, an essay on naked bodies, on the nude and on exposed flesh, destitute of cover or camouflage. As well as trying to find words for the frisson and the tightening of the chest that overcame me while gazing at the canvasses of the Germanic Londener Lucian Freud.
In the past I had seen a live Freud here and there. Now, in Berlage’s Haags Gemeentemuseum, I was suddenly confronted with a whole company of his canvasses. What an enormous pleasure to see art again, made by somebody who does not consider his artist’s eye as a separate entity from the craftsman’s handling of paint and brush, or for that matter the etcher’s knife. Also someone, who obviously considers the babble about so-called concepts as something belonging to the world outside his atelier and who is, when returned to that outside world, still averse to such gibberish.
Not all too great is the jump from the exhausting poetry of the cobbled roads near Roubaix, that pimpled skin covering the flesh of the landscape northern France, the ripped-open thighs of cyclist, to the skin of Freud’ nudes; from the ‘gruelling sprint of biker Balan’ to the perhaps even more arduous portraits by Lucian. Like Kafka’s violent writing machine is engraving its text into the flesh of its victims, so classic races as well as classic painters write themselves into your skin – getting under it. Lectori salutem.
Curiously enough, the catalogue accompanying the exhibition opens with the following phrase:
Is striving for resemblance by way of painting really of our time?
The use of that little word really, a sure sign of the silly ones. Painted corpses and their resemblance to the living, subcutaneous matter and surface, life and death, those are indeed the things that matter in Freud’s canvasses. Perhaps a quote from the painter has triggered the catalogue writer question. Freud does not want any ‘resemblance between skin and paint’:
I want the paint functioning as skin… I want that my portraits are portraits of people, not images like people.
But, Dear Lucian, that has always been the design of all great portraitists! And what is more important: the quote from the catalogue suggests that your remark on portraits can be simply applied to your nudes, which is not the case. Perhaps, you may consider your nudes as portraits, which is your privilege. However, there is a crucial difference between the two genres of painting, and you know it because you show it – in your work.
The nude in art is a tender subject; the word alone is already delicate. A little exercise via the etymological dictionary: At First sight there seems to be no significant difference between naked and nude. The Dutch bloot covers both naked as well as nude and refers to the word ploten, which meant the de-fleecing of sheep, cutting their hair close to the skin, making it look bare and smooth. This makes being bare an anthropinon, a characteristic defining the condition humaine. Evolution has bared mankind, except for some silly tufts on spots that immediately stand out erotically or otherwise.
Het Pelsken/The Fur, 1638
Ruben’s painting The Fur is in all respects a masterpiece, the word fur, better perhaps translated as skin, obviously referring to both its versions visible. The painter’s wife, a redhead, is voluptuously residing in her own flesh and skin. Her pubic hair – surely, that tuft must also be red – remains hidden from our view by a superbly painted fur coat, in Flemish called a Pelsken, a Skinny. The artist is giving back the hair that evolution once has stolen from her, thus transforming Woman into an animal again, at least half way so. Eroticism of the highest order.
Apart from the tricky question as to whether photography is an art, we can say of Jeff Silverstone’s picture on the cover of Créatis, no. 18, that once again it concerns a woman posing, a female who is flesh wise generously equipped. In what is perhaps an attic room, there are placed at her feet two round sticks of wood. Standing, her arms spread, even though she is seen on her back this pose allows the observer’s gaze to settle on her breasts for a while. One is reminded of those Cubist women of Picasso, whose attractions can been all seen at once.
Silverstone’s woman is also holding one such pole in her right hand; the flag seems to be missing, which makes it at least an obscene reference. The picture, though, like the half-clothed women on the paintings of Rubens en Rembrandt, is not a nude. This beauty wears two black bandages, all the way from her crotch to the of her knees cavities.
Whereas Rubens’ Fur has not the slightest horny effect on me, far more evoking admiring attention for the painted image, there is surely something like porn seeping through the surface of Silverstone’s photo. Only a category mistake of the first order would allow Rubens’ canvas such lewd effect. Neither has a Cubist nude by Picasso anything to do with the obscene; at most, it is playing at it by using a multiple perspective on the nude’s sexual characteristics.
Could the difference have to do with the realist medium of the photo as opposed to the imaginary quality of the art of painting? McLuhan coined the contrast between cool and hot media, the cool version demanding of the observer some addition to the image, whereas a hot medium is more like ‘what you see is what you get’. All this brings us a step closer to the difference between ’being nude’ and ‘being naked’, an insight which will be of the essence when turning once again to the work of Lucian Freud.
An almost self-evident metaphor is at hand, circumscribing the periphery of the word naked: a poor pauper, in the sense of being literally stripped of whatever makes you a human being. This metaphor slides into the macabre when in Homo Sacer Agamben describes ‘the Mussulman’ in Auschwitz as the naked human being, a zombie stripped of his human existence. In the concentration camp he is reduced to pure zoë, the sheer physical survival of someone who has completely lost the bios of a full social life. Thus, even dressed, a human being can be naked, upset and shaken in all the meanings of those words. Not nude – naked.
However, this is not yet enough for this essay. What in English is called a nude, a painting with on it a woman or man more or less denuded, the French call a nudité. The English, however, also call a flesh-coloured nylon hose a nude stocking. Perhaps literature may be of help. Hawkes, in The Frog, writes: She was clothed only in my night shirt, and hence feeling inappropriately nude… The protagonist ‘I’ at this moment claims that time will come when he will speak of unfettered flesh, and there is more in store in his story than the mere stockinged leg. And so he does: She turned to me most all of her buttocks. Another woman he calls a modest woman, exposing her breasts, while concealing her chest.
In the German language things are more openly awkward, nackt (naked) and bloss (being nude) being more or less identical in meaning. However, a nude painting is called ein Akt, bundling a range of notions from copulation, to acting in general and to the stage. All of a sudden we feel that nude, as it were, is nakedly related to carnal pleasures, to the flesh. This may be considered more realistic than the camouflaged language of the Brits who always seem to be keeping up appearances, especially while talking about what as prudes they consider ineffable.
Not following the British lead, but being the Continental who I am, I shall follow these coordinates when writing on Lucian Freud’s work. Nude seems to refer to a context of self-willed intimacy, perhaps even involving a touch of feelings of shame. Flesh by contrast refers to either the intended, perhaps even affected, yet non-intimate showing of nakedness, or the situation of being unwanted naked in the eyes of a voyeur.
However, one should be aware of subtleties not so easily phrased in words. In Sándor Márai’s novel The Disaffected we read this: How terribly naked a man must feel when, in the presence of another human being, to take off his shoes and to then lie next to that other – without those shoes. This, to be sure, after the man is invited into the bed of a whore. Curiously enough, many a whore is keeping on at least one piece of clothing and quite often also her shoes. One might claim: to excite her customer, but I would also suggest: in order not to be completely naked, as is her jobs condition of work.
This same Márai also described the wig that is snatched from someone’s head: The suddenly bared skull of the actor, smooth as a billiard ball, was so naked, so corporeal, so undisguised and shamelessly bare, that it seemed as if the man had thrown off all his clothes and was standing stark naked in front of them.
Schama, in his Rembrandt’s Eyes, distinguishes between nude and naked. He considers those women on the Dutchman’s canvasses who are partly clothed as being quasi-nude, that is in a transitional state. The same, methinks, would apply to Rubens’ Pelsken. As a consequence they cannot be considered as nudes in the current everyday use of that word. However, because the observer may very well consider these bodies not only as art, but as also desirable, we may interpret them as vulnerably exposed and thus at least as half naked. Schama’s plot: We are all nudes before the act, and we are all naked afterwards. Perhaps this applies to the observer of such paintings, their gaze changing from an art-lover’s into the eye of the one who is judging her flesh?
Summing this up, if summing up is the right expression for getting on with it while leaving the conceptual maze by plainly cutting one’s way-out through the hedges, amazed as it were by my own destructive nerve: Nude is someone who is willingly undressing the self for someone known, often a mutual activity. There is no real shame involved here, although it might if only because of the thought of what usually happens next after the undressing: the act. By contrast, people become naked if their flesh is exhibited, exposed against their will. This would involve being stripped in both the literal and the figurative meaning of the word.
To become pure flesh is a whole different ball game. Here a person is showing off, exhibiting herself in all his or her carnality like, say, the carcass of Soutine or the porn star in an obscene movie. After all, once so exposed the distinction between live and dead flesh has become rather irrelevant.
In a normal situation of two people meeting, a man might say to a woman – or vice versa – Show me your body!, not however: Show me your flesh! This last phrase would be an obscene remark, as the act then would be obscene, something only becoming possible when a woman would be literally asked to open her legs to show that one little piece of the female body not covered with skin; thus true flesh, if not meat. It is asked of the whore or the porn star, perhaps even of a spouse – but obscene it remains, reducing the other to that little ounce of flesh. It reminds one of the ripped open thigh of the biker who has crashed on the cobblestones around Roubaix.
In Hawkes’ novel, already quoted before, he describes a set of wooden decoy-ducks as lifeless but not dead; he also speaks of the violence of pure paralysis. Combined with what has been said before, we may develop a critical perspective on the large, sometimes gruesome nudes by Lucian Freud. His paintings of women laying on beds or leaning into an enormous pile of soiled linen ready to be washed, do remind one of the genre of the still-life, well-known for its lifeless pewter and dead fowl hanging from iron hooks.
Some critics like Tamar Garb consider the nude, in painting developed since the end of the 19th century, as individually and sexually differentiated. Perhaps so – after all, modern bodies are indeed rather lively when compared to the non athletic era which went before. In the milieu of the arts there is much talk about what we may coin as bodyology, so much so that it may become nauseating. Lucky enough for us, Lucian Freud’s models do escape from this rather oppressive theoretical dungeon. Perhaps for this reason they escape this postmodern cackle and may simply be seen as intensely classical.
Especially his female models seem to enter Freud’s atelier for their interment in his monk like cell which is filled with lots of artificial light and shadows. This sombre quality of the workspace, contrasting with the often clearly lit ateliers of his colleagues, is seen both on photo’s and sometimes on the paintings as well.
His sitters are mostly lying down, often on a slovenly made bed. For just the making of one such painting Freud’s models were expected to arrive daily on a fixed time of day, then to lie on that bed for hour after hour, often for months on end. Thus Lucian himself, quoted form an interview in a Dutch paper:
Flesh is living clay.
This tunes with the distinct impression these Freudian nudes make on me, of a violence of pure paralysis. Unmistakably, these are no portraits of persons, but a depiction of personages and bodies, perhaps even of personages as bodies. Attached to these bodies seems to an indistinct head plus face, proving my point. The moment one places one of his delicious portraits next to such a nude, you become well aware of this: Those portraits do not show us a personage, but rather real persons with their distinctive individual countenance. Not to talk about his etchings, often portraits of the first order.
This comparison between Freud’s nudes and his portraits may be enlightening in another respect, instructive as an Englishman might say. Pay some attention to the coloration! The faces in his portraits of men are often rosy, images of real guys, healthy and suntanned. The exceptions to this ‘rule’ all have their reasons: for instance The Big Man, with the face of a ruddy drinker, a true British Saxon. Or take the magnificent self-portrait from 1965, in which the face seems to brown-blackened like a chimney sweeper’s.
Now compare this with the skin of almost all of Freud’s female nudes, their greyish tone is striking. Living corpses, who do not look like persons as do the faces on his portraits – whatever the man who organized the exhibition may have said about resemblance. Whereas the portraits do indeed resemble, the nudes do not. Thus, the painter – on purpose – is denuding most of his ‘nudes’, thus turning them into naked, dead meat. Most of his nudes are in fact living cadavers. The living dead.
In the catalogue there is one photograph which seems to fully prove my point. On it we see both the model, a fattish man of about forty years old, naked in the sense already discussed, as well as his image on the painting, a canvas called Leigh under the Skylight. Whereas the actual man must be a treat for someone with the proper taste for it, Freud’s picture has transformed him into a fat, sixty year old greyish colossus, a living corpse if there ever was one.
Strikingly so, the painter once forbade one of his models to come back to his atelier. She had gone away for a sun holiday, to one of the more benevolent realms of this world, and now had to wait for months till her skin had recovered and was showing her natural bleached grey hue. An artist with whom I went back to see the exhibition a second time denied my thesis of the dominance of grey in the painted bodies. Me thinks, a matter of projection: The human body is pinkish, is consequently always supposed to be pinkish; thus what one tends to see is a pinkish nude, even if they are greyish with now and then a touch of pink. Observing closely, you see the dominance in the palette of a corps gone grey.
Apart from the obvious grey on the canvasses, there is also circumstantial evidence. On Naked Portrait the little pallette-stool standing in front of the woman, who is depicted as an aborted foetus, is covered in grey, accompanied by grey coloured brushes. On Large Interior a mortar full with grey paint is to be seen. Grey is dominant on the palette which Freud has in his hand on a picture from 2000. The colour photograph of his atelier shows the floor right under the easel as well as the steps seen with an overtone of blackish grey.
Ecce Homo, Ecce Femina! With Freud no carcasses á là Soutine, nor for that matter meat hooks. However, there is that bed with the iron tubes, supporting those skin diseased women. Disposable nudes as it were. However, these canvasses are nudes no more, they are depictions of the flesh – meat paintings. On one of them we observe a female, sort of leaning, or rather hanging against a huge pile of filthy hotel linen: Standing by the Rags, the by in its title not all together right, one might say, nor so methinks is the word rags.
From the navel up, especially the face, she has the skin of syphilitic patient; the lower body resembles that of a woman who has just been bathing in red hot cooking oil, the skin of her legs is dripping from its flesh like too loose trousers not properly fitting. Of a gruesome beauty, surely; yet unmistakable an excellent cadaver, to abuse the title of a Francesco Rosi movie, Cadaveri Eccelenti, which in its turn used the Surrealists’ nickname for their collective, unconscious drawings.
Most of Freud’s so-called nudes have something posthumous about them. However, they are before the funeral, even if only just, as seems to be the case of the woman Standing by the Rags, who appears to be dying or even seems to be already in a steady state. Looking at Freud’s almost-corpses, I regularly came to think of Hitchcock’s effect of suspense. Even though most of his women are lying on a bed, they seem to be suspended between life and their death. The way of all flesh…
Perhaps the notion of das Erhabene, the Sublime, fits these images: one is abhorred by a repulsive kind of beauty, enjoying its horror, a delight like the great Irish conservative Edmund Burke once confessed to have found in an execution. And a Westerner Lucian Freud turns out to be. His canvasses, always painted under by artificial light, do not show any real shadows of the kind that is described by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki, who was praising shadows. We Easterners, we do not discover beauty in the things themselves, but in the shadow patterns one thing causes in another object. Out there, in the East, things always are seen in relation to one another. By contrast, the objects of Freud’s personages face the music and have to dance all alone.
While wandering through the halls of The Haags Gemeentemuseum, I was constantly reminded of Grϋnewald’s Crucifixion, hanging out there in far French Colmar. That Christ, hanging there on the cross, fixed on the wood with gruesome looking nails, his bony body covered with a skin that is putrefied with the boils of a ghastly disease – awesome it is, and awesomely well painted.
In some of his paintings Freud seems to be aiming at precisely the effect I have tried to describe. His Naked Portrait in Red Chair not only juxtaposes the genres of portrait and nude which, as I have tried to indicate, in his case is problematic; at the same it also shows time an intense grey cadaver-like skin, as well as intense red flesh in the utterly obscene sense of that word.
This woman – an uggely, whether live, dead or painted not encountered all too often – is leaning onto the back of a typically English chair, her thighs wide open. Ostentatiously she shows her red slit, what in American journalism is called a wide open beaver, a thing never to be published in a journal, always censored. Simultaneously, Freud has allowed her a deep-red blush, perhaps stemming from sheer sexual arousal, or rather from shame – or from both. This pose performed periodically so, this for months… The canvas is a show of flesh, la chair giving you la chaire de poule – Goosebumps. Only a necrophile, or perhaps the whoremonger will get excited by this image.
Summing it up. Lucian Freud’s so-called nudes resemble isolated insects that the votary may inspect through his loupe. The paintings give you both a feeling of enormous splendour, however also impregnating you with that impression of the eerie which is exuded by the cold-blooded species of evolution, the snakes and the lizards. Before these women were screwed into the cell of their frames, the artist first fucked them with his brushes and the palette-knifes.
Lucian Freud once reminded the art critic Sylvester of a pathologist. However, in that profession the specialist is cutting up his corpses, which is exactly what Freud does not. That metaphor would well apply to that master draughtsman Hans Bellmer, an erotomaniac who is drawing his women-in-parts as if he were a anatomic-pathologist.
Freud, by contrast, is more an entomologist of women, a panoptical painter of female horrors. Nabokov, the master of semantic chess, was an amateur lepidopterist who caught gorgeous butterflies in his net, to subsequently stick them with pins on pieces of cardboard. In the same way, Lucian Freud is pinning his women onto the canvasses. An anatomist only shows us his meat after he has dissected it; Freud, however, is metamorphosing whole bodies into fleshy meat. Freud’s own characterization of his work as giving the feeling of mortality thus seems to be an enormous understatement. After all, the women on his ‘nudes’ are already dead.
Exiting from the Freud Theatre, let me remind my reader of three works of art, to contrast or to compare them with his work. This may expand the perspective on his work and on my interpretation.
First contrast: Klimt’s women, and I mean especially the drawn versions. They are rather special because, on their sheets of paper, they seem to be there merely for themselves, to lie there as if they are of no concern to anyone. They do not exist, that is: to be for others – they are simply enveloped in their own being.
Perhaps satisfying themselves, they are also self-satisfied, not exposing themselves for Klimt, their painter, not for us, the observers of his work. Precisely such observation makes us into voyeurs, into a stranger entering forbidden because private territory. Being art, even such an outsider is allowed to enjoy these drawings, though they seem to be meant never to be exposed to a public.
This is the result of Klimt’s artistry. After all, this woman is posing, perhaps the draughtsman has explicitly asked her to lie before him like this. Yet, I have the distinct impression that this is a loved one of his, whom he as espied by chance, lying on their bed, either asleep or in half sleep touching herself. It is not a painting, which takes hours; it is a drawing, given Klimt’s mastery probably done in a few minutes time.
This, then, would be a true nude, in the full artistic sense of the word. By contrast, Lucian Freud’s painted women are there expressly for him, as objects used to make a painting, and indirectly for us who come to see those paintings. They are made available to his eye, and to ours.
Secondly, a similarity: Those Freudian women are as desolate and isolated as Hopper’s houses. City-less objects, Hopper’s buildings are floating in some kind of ineffable eternity. Freud’s women do also not seem to have any relationship to anyone at all. The universe of Hopper’s houses and the one of Freud’s women remind one of the Cartesian cosmos, in which there are only self-absorbed atoms, lucky bastards who are only kept together by God’s invisible breath.
And finally no. three, again a contrast: Eric Fischl’s women. His nudes are not per se obscene, not as they are depicted. They become so, thanks to a social context which on Freud’s canvasses is completely, structurally absent and which Fischl often inserts by way of the titles of his works.
On Fischl’s Bad Boy a nude woman is lying on her bed, in an attitude which is strangely enough similar to both the chaste woman in Klimt’s drawing and the obscene one in Freud’s Naked Portrait in Red Chair. However, given the title she becomes the bad boy’s son and suddenly acquires the airs of a whore or of a woman exposing herself.
She may not be aware of the boy, in which case one is referred to the Klimt drawing. If, however, she knows that he is standing there, lets it be and has him peep into her slit, we are back with Freud’s exposed flesh. The last interpretation is favourite, because her Peeping Tom seems to know that she knows of his presence; he is doubly bad in that he is in the act of stealing money from his mother’s purse, hiding this from her possible view.
Now we have Freud, the other one; slit and purse do enter into a perverse interaction.
What could have been a beautiful nude, well executed by Fischl, easily turns into a seductive female, wilfully naked and perversely exposing herself to the son. What might have been part of the whole woman, suddenly becomes shameless flesh…
This perverse play with nude and naked is what Fischl successfully aims at with his paintings. On his The Bed, The Chair, Jetlag a voluptuous woman is approaching the observer. She is watching her husband who, in the background, is lying on a settee taking a sunbath, dark sunglasses obscuring his face. Watching her like this, exposed to our view, she is transforming into useless meat, perhaps useful to the naughty mind of the voyeur the observer of the image has become. During the contemplative stroll of our gaze over the canvass Fischl’s men and women become mere bodies, objects to be manipulated.
By contrast, Freud’s ‘nudes’ are always already pure flesh, that is: from the start and the very first moment we have them before our eyes. It is an instant impression, no becoming. They are there, wholly for the artist’s manipulation, not to be changed by us, the observers. These women are his, to be turned from live models into his personal corpses.
Sierksma January 2018