Andrew Lambirth

Displeasures of the flesh

When Lucian Freud (1922–2011) was hailed as the Greatest Living Painter towards the end of his career, it was almost as a mark of respect for having survived so long and kept stubbornly painting in the way he wanted, without any quarter given to fads and fashions, in pursuit of truth to appearances, whatever that term may actually mean. This lifetime achievement award, though understandable (the English love a Grand Old Man), was misplaced, for Freud was not a great painter. He was often a striking image-maker, but from the overwhelming evidence of the knotted, gnarled and pelleted textures of his later paintings, the turgid accumulations of dry pigment, he disliked the medium of oil paint intensely. Almost as much as he seems to have disliked the people he painted, though not, revealingly enough, the animals. These he clearly did like, and the difference in the way he painted a dog or a horse from his manner of depicting a human makes this inference unavoidable. If we must find a suitable candidate for Greatest Living Painter, let’s at least choose someone who loves paint and uses it beautifully — such as the staggeringly underrated American, Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920).

I remember being pleasurably shocked when the eminent critic David Sylvester announced towards the end of his life that Freud had never really been an artist, and should have turned away from painting, for he was at heart a poet. That reading makes quite a lot of sense when confronted with the vast acreages of flesh on view at the National Portrait Gallery (supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch). And why, may I ask, in a show of portraits are there more than 30 nudes? If the organisers were following Freud’s own definition that ‘everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair’, then logically we should have examples of the other kinds of picture he did as well — the landscapes and animals, the versions of Old Masters.

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