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The Ego of the Artist

February’s Vanity Fair includes a feature on Lucian Freud, the artist who died last year at 88. Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, was known for his fleshy and stark portraits of subjects ranging from duchesses to drag queens. Vanity Fair calls him “arguably the greatest portrait painter of his era.” Hilton Kramer, the conservative art critic, has written that Freud has an “eccentric and perverse talent” and that “No Lucian Freud exhibition would be complete without its requisite weirdnesses.” Check out Freud’s paintings for yourself.

Freud’s portraits, though they grab your attention, are not what stood out to me in the Vanity Fair piece. What stood out was another portrait, this one taken of Freud, below: 

Apparently, Freud was a deeply private man who was capable of great acts of generosity. According to one art critic, “there was the reality of this incredibly sensitive and deeply considerate person who, if he liked you, would forgive all manner of idiocies, extend you no end of courtesies, and, even better, extend you the great compliment of speaking his mind in front of you.”

As private as Freud was, the above portrait of him, taken in 2005 when he was in his early 80s, speaks volumes about the man. Freud had many lovers and here we see one of them, naked, on the ground, desperately clutching his leg as he motions away from her. She’s literally wrapped up in him, but he’s hardly aware of her presence. He’s looking at the camera. If you cropped the image at his hip, you wouldn’t even know that she was there. According to Vanity Fair, the portrait is of “Freud and one of his many lovers, Alexi Williams-Wynn. [They] pose for The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer in his Holland Park studio in 2005″:

Alexi Williams-Wynn, one of his later models, recalls that “the speed with which I entered his life and began sitting was, I think, very characteristic of him—highly impulsive, urgent, impatient towards anything beyond his life in the studio.” 

Freud is so caught up in his own world—in his “life in the studio”—that his naked lover is reduced to nearly groveling at his feet to get his attention. It’s hard to imagine a more blunt display of the artist’s ego and machismo.

  1. dogsbody

    That old man has “many lovers”?

    1. I will never, never understand women.

    2. There’s hope for me yet.
  2. DocJay

    I pretty much have to shake off two or three nubile young maidens wherever I go.  I just say, ” Baby please, I am not from Havana”

  3. N.M. Wiedemer

    …HHMM…what?… Oh hey Emily- were you saying something?

    Well I guess the Freuds can still scam the ladies, it’s a family tradition after all.

  4. Fredösphere

    Emily, are you trying to become the Ricochet go-to gal for soft-core pr0n?

  5. Karen

    I’m always amazed at how two people can look at or read the same thing and draw completely different conclusions. I think your assessment is way off. I don’t know why people think it is fashionable to elevate the brutish, tragic painter stereotype. 

    And he was one of the greatest portrait painters of his era and belongs among the pantheon of great figurative painters. What’s most disappointing is to focus on the more sensational aspects of the man’s life and avoid the scope and beauty of his work and its contributions to contemporary painting.

    He was a painter’s painter. The sophistication of his palette and his sensitivity to skins tones is unparalleled. The textural and gestural characteristics of his marks are simultaneously forceful and restrained, deliberate yet unselfconscious. He was a master and influenced by a great many styles, but allowed the work to speak for itself. He was devoted and authentic, self-aware but not selfish. He wanted his paintings to prompt a dialogue with the viewer. As he said, “What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” 

  6. Deleted Account

    LOL. Freud did like to upset people, and it seems to have worked. Personally I admire his craft but am not keen on his paintings (I find most of his later work a little depressing). In the over-sexed artists department, I much prefer Klimt.

  7. Jeff

    You write ‘machismo’ like it’s a bad thing.

  8. Crow

    Potentially NSFW indeed–but, Emily, if my voice means anything, don’t stop posting content like this. No man is free to be an ostrich.

    A few quick reflections:

    1) “and, even better, extend you the great compliment of speaking his mind in front of you.” Isn’t this, in a way, the definition of intimacy–and perhaps even more important than the physical kind? Would he throw it away so carelessly? Those like me chuckle among ourselves.

    2) She’s literally wrapped up in him, but he’s hardly aware of her presence. This is a highly deformed kind of egotism–one might be more correct in calling it solipsism. He is literally entangled, but is distracted. This is not, in any way, the same as being engage but capable of abstraction and the pathos of distance.

    3) Some women love the beautiful in a way that lays waste to all else. Have you never been with a woman of this kind? Then perhaps you cannot understand. There is a sense in which I admire the aesthetic, even if I cannot condone the practical or political consequences of it.

  9. Crow

    4) Freud, the grandson of Sigmund. This is a most uncomfortable thought in this small sentence, but I’ll broach it here without any attempt to answer it, and without any sort of endorsement, and necessarily with a question mark following it. That is, I raise it as a point we should ponder:

    Are the partisans of some kind of aristocracy right? Is there some sense in which, regardless of how hard we try, those men and women who are raised in the presence of–exposed to–noble men and women of high birth, long education, and material ease, are able to develop capacities and senses to which other human beings may not be sensitive? Does aristocracy have this over democracy?

  10. Duane Oyen
    Crow’s Nest: 4) Freud, the grandson of Sigmund. This is a most uncomfortable thought in this small sentence, but I’ll broach it here without any attempt to answer it, and without any sort of endorsement, and necessarily with a question mark following it. That is, I raise it as a point we should ponder:

    Are the partisans of some kind of aristocracy right? Is there some sense in which, regardless of how hard we try, those men and women who are raised in the presence of–exposed to–noble men and women of high birth, long education, and material ease, are able to develop capacities and senses to which other human beings may not be sensitive? Does aristocracy have this over democracy?

    As evidence that you are too worried, Crow’s, I offer the mediocrity of me, contrasted with the virtues of our brilliant daughters.  Recessive intelligence and self-discipline genes can spring forth after many generations seemingly out of nowhere.

  11. Deleted Account
    Grendel: It’s a picture, not the portrait of Dorian Gray.  Call me an amoral aesthete, but what I find horrendous is the actual painting that resulted:  The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer. · 9 hours ago

    I find it rather entertaining, there’s a lot of things in play there – from the Rockwellesque palette (though hard to say for sure from the photo) and apparently sloppy drawing (look at the chair), the mirroring of the figures in the painting within the painting and other things that play on whether he painted it from life or from photos, to the humourous provocation of the arrangement of the figures (épater la bourgeoisie and all that). He wants to tease as many people as possible, I think. FWIW, the artist and adoring model idea is pretty old, see (for example) the central figures in Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio (minor nudity alert).

  12. Deleted Account
    Crow’s Nest: 

    Are the partisans of some kind of aristocracy right? … Does aristocracy have this over democracy? · 5 hours ago

    If you are talking about artists (not the buyers), then no. They seem to be pretty much distributed among social classes – whether you class them by money, education, or upbringing, pretty much in line with everybody else. I can’t think of any offhand -perhaps some pre-Raphaelites? – that actually came from the true aristocracy – even Lautrec came from a side branch that wouldn’t have been recognized except for the hash the Revolution made of titles. Some had artistic parentage (the Wyeths being probably the best known American family of artists, and Picasso’s old man was a painter), many did not. Rembrandt’s father, for example, was a miller, Giotto’s was a blacksmith, Leonardo was the out-of-wedlock offspring of a notary and a peasant. Degas came from a banking family, while Renoir’s family was so poor he started off at age 11 or so decorating china. Of course his natural talent was so great that by age 15 he was able to by his folks a house (I hope my kids are listening…)

  13. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Crow’s Nest: Is there some sense in which, regardless of how hard we try, those men and women who are raised in the presence of–exposed to–noble men and women of high birth, long education, and material ease, are able to develop capacities and senses to which other human beings may not be sensitive? Does aristocracy have this over democracy? · 18 hours ago

    Yes, to the first sentence. But the second is a non-sequitur, or at least the terms are ill-defined. It is possible to have an aristocracy within a democracy. 

  14. Grendel

    It’s a picture, not the portrait of Dorian Gray.  Call me an amoral aesthete, but what I find horrendous is the actual painting that resulted:  The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer.

    Lucian-Freud-paintersurpris.jpg

  15. Deleted Account
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Crow’s Nest: Is there some sense in which, regardless of how hard we try, those men and women who are raised in the presence of–exposed to–noble men and women of high birth, long education, and material ease, are able to develop capacities and senses to which other human beings may not be sensitive? Does aristocracy have this over democracy? · 18 hours ago

    Yes, to the first sentence. But the second is a non-sequitur, or at least the terms are ill-defined. It is possible to have an aristocracy within a democracy.  · 2 hours ago

    With respect to the first sentence, how so? At least once you correct for the raw poverty that kept most people pretty much on the edge of existence throughout most of history. And I’d also like to see how one could argue for a true aristocracy (either the Greek form, of rule by elites, or the more modern idea of a governing class of inherited nobility).within a true democracy.

  16. Trace

    I don’t know if it was purposeful or happenstance, but the click to reveal more of the post is excellent.

  17. Duane Oyen

    Emily is the official NSFW Ricochet correspondent.  First Camille, then Lucien.

    If I weren’t about 95 and thoroughly wrapped in the cocoon of wedded bliss, I’d propose.

  18. Crow

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Yes, to the first sentence. But the second is a non-sequitur, or at least the terms are ill-defined. It is possible to have an aristocracy within a democracy.  · 2 hours ago

    Fair enough that the terms are ill-defined here but that is as a result of the necessity to use a kind of shorthand.

    I agree with your re: the possibility of an aristocracy within a democracy, or an ennobling of democracy.

    I do not think the second sentence is a non-sequitur whatsoever, but explaining this in a short space is difficult. I’ll try.

    Democracy has a tendency toward “mass culture”. Democracy as a spiritual condition, you might say, tends toward a sort of culture that can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without very much intellectual or moral effort. (We’re talking about democracy in a kind of abstract sense here–obviously in any given country “pure” democracy is offset, typically, by other elements of tradition.)

    Aristocracy, because it is oriented vertically and not horizontally, tends to preserve culture in the proper sense better. Appropriating the whole culture in this sort of regime requires ascent. Although, aristocracy has other problems.

  19. Grendel
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Crow’s Nest: Is there some sense in which, regardless of how hard we try, those men and women who are raised in the presence of–exposed to–noble men and women of high birth, long education, and material ease, are able to develop capacities and senses to which other human beings may not be sensitive? Does aristocracy have this over democracy? · 18 hours ago

    Yes, to the first sentence. But the second is a non-sequitur, or at least the terms are ill-defined. It is possible to have an aristocracy within a democracy.  · Jan. 21 at 5:57am

    Jefferson expected a natural aristocracy to arise in an open, democratic society (corrective glosses welcome).  Aristotle and his fellows held–correctly, I think–that a competence was necessary to afford a man the time to develop his human nature effectually.  Nearly the worst thing about TV and the whole entertainment sector is how much time it wastes.  Abe Lincoln would never have gotten his lessons done on the shovel if he’d taken time out to watch The Simpsons and Entertainment Tonight.

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