2002 Getting the dirt on Lucian Freud

Getting the dirt on Lucian Freud (2002)

Dirt, anthropologists tell us, is matter out of place. And shit is dirt par excellence. Social conventions determine what belongs where. When these conventions are infringed, dirt ensues. Lucian Freud is notoriously unbeholden to social conventions and obviously enjoys flouting them: he was expelled from school for dropping his pants in the high street, and has said that Duchamp’s declaration that painting was no longer possible increased its attractiveness to him, as he was now doing something forbidden.

Most of us are decisively influenced by images in advertising and glossy magazines in the expectations we have about bodies, furniture and interiors. Given these sanitised expectations, the form and content of Freud’s paintings are likely to evoke strong connotations of dirt. In one of his rare cityscapes, Wasteground with houses, Paddington [1970-2, #69]1 the back yard one looks down upon is full of discarded old mattresses, furniture, and other detritus. In other paintings his sitters occupy a scruffy studio space, stand or lie by heaps of painter’s rags, lie on sheetless mattresses or decrepit couches threatening to spill their stuffing, and often seem unwashed and unkempt themselves. The bodies rendered here constitute a sort of polar opposite of the body found in advertising, women’s magazines, pinups – as well as the traditional nude. There is no risk of confusing the one work on the show with the word “nude” in its title [Nude with leg up, 1992, #119] with any traditional nude. Elsewhere we hear of ‘portraits’ or ‘naked portraits’. This often for a painting where the pose and angle of vision of the artist gives maximum visibility to the vulva, or penis and scrotum. Not only are genitals included in these portraits – they seem central to them. This brings us back to dirt again – “ dirty pictures”, i.e. pornographic images, often zoom in on the genitals. In fact, Freud’s work isn’t opposed to porn the way it is to normal media sanitisation. (I am thinking of something you could call “the porn pinup” – not of images that show women in postures or actions that are clearly demeaning). The figures shown in porn are often unidealised – sagging breasts, unexceptional faces – or extreme – huge breasts, bulky women.

The stronger our ideals regarding the body, the more the actual body is experienced as matter out of place. Where we should have a perfect skin, it is blotchy; instead of “steely abs” we have a flabby paunch; breasts don’t defy gravity the way we demand they should. We sweat, pass wind, urinate, defecate, salivate, excrete sexual fluids. The body ages and gets wrinkled. When it dies, putrefaction will set in.

Edward Lucie-Smith (2002:45) accuses Freud of focussing too exclusively on what is “inherently freakish,” saying that “he is too dependent on the outré to be a really major painter”. This formulation makes the questionable assumption that Freud subscribes to the norms according to which certain of his subjects would count as “freakish” or “outré”. ( Lucie-Smith also seems to forget that the great majority of Freud’s paintings are of sitters who would not count as freakish or outré, even by conventional standards).

True, what interests Freud is the animal reality of the person he is painting, beyond social niceties. But he is not a Leonardo creating idealised faces and figures on the one hand, and on the other producing caricatures showing people as ridiculous and disgusting because they fall short of the norm. I, for one, cannot pick up any disgust, ridicule or disapproval in any of Freud’s paintings, even those whose subjects most radically clash with the norm. He paints them with the same interest and empathy found in his paintings of other, more conventional or more conventionally attractive subjects.

Freud says that he likes things and people that have been lived in, that have lost their newness. Nothing in these words or his paintings suggests that what he likes arouses his disgust. His paintings thus do not express disgust on his part. Only to the extent that we subscribe to, or have been conditioned by, the norms Freud shrugs off, do they evoke disgust in us as viewers. True, his paintings present us with the reality of our non-ideal bodies in a way that admits of no escape – we do defecate, sweat, deteriorate. Death is the destination to which our bodies are inexorably headed. But Freud seems singularly innocent of the psychological and social conditioning feeding the illusion that this could or should be otherwise, that anything here is “out of place”, and thus qualifies as dirt. Idealising the body is of course as old as the hills, and Rembrandt (for instance) already caused dismay with his homely nudes. However, in our age the nature and status of this idealisation is qualitatively different from anything it has ever been before. Never before has the distance between the ideal body and the average body been greater; never before has departing from the ideal been as unacceptable to large numbers of people as it is today. Crucially, falling short of the ideal is seen as incompatible with being sexual – or sexy. In this context what Freud does becomes truly subversive. The carnality of the people in his paintings seems completely unmediated by the media images surrounding us – and reminds us how mendacious such media images are.2

One reason we feel the need for images of an idealised body, especially a sexually idealised body, is our fundamental ambivalence towards the body and sexuality. It has often surprised me that terms for the genitals – ‘vulgar’ terms for them – function as terms of invective. Why, especially in a society which apparently glorifies the sexual – is it offensive to call somebody a cunt or a prick? To answer this question fully we would have to investigate the ambivalence noted above more deeply.

The sexual apparatus, sexual actions and sexual fluids allowing intense pleasure and intense human contact are simultaneously a potential source of shame and disgust. Idealisation tries to replace this ambivalent body with a body that is free of potentially distressing connotations.3 Its sexuality is more contained and distanced; it is subordinate to the rest of the body, not “in your face”. In the paradigmatic nude of the tradition the vulva was not visible and pubic and underarm hair were omitted.

It is probably no coincidence that these distancing manoeuvres concern three of the centres which can impinge most directly on our sense of smell. The sense of smell does not leave the distance between the subject and the object which sight does. In our society unsolicited smells emanating from the bodies of others are found particularly disgusting, while the idea that others could be disgusted by smells emanating from our body is particularly shameful. We therefore try to control how our bodies smell assiduously, suppressing our “dirty” smells or replacing them with “clean” ones.4

The movement of Freud’s works seems directly opposed to this idealisation: genitals, pubic and underarm hair are rendered in all their non-ideal irregularity of colour and texture.5 Though traces of it probably must be there, in Freud’s paintings on this exhibition I search in vain for the negative pole (disgust) of the normal ambivalence regarding the body.6

Psychoanalysis links disgust to the repression of the anal phase and everything associated with it; the anal-obsessive person is obsessive about cleanliness and order, because haunted by the fear of dirt. Everything I have said above implies that Lucian Freud does not suffer from this fear. Another aspect of the anal-obsessive character is its miserliness. Various iconographic and biographical details confirm that Freud is the opposite of miserly: the extravagance of the running taps in Two Japanese Wrestlers by a sink (1983-7, #101)7 and Large interior W11 (After Watteau) (1981-83, #95); the extravagance (and simultaneously pollution) of the paint squelching from the tube stepped on by the woman artist in her paint-saturated smock in Painter and model (1986-7, #106); and then, to bring in biography, Freud’s well-documented generosity, as well as his gambling habit.

Freud says that he tries to get as much reality as possible into his paintings. “Reality,” it has been said, “is what hurts” – an overstatement, perhaps, but isn’t it true that without some sort of sting, we lack a feeling of reality? Where reality disagrees with the ideal, it seems more real. Freud’s focus on the non-ideal thus serves his pursuit of what is emphatically real.

Freud’s use of colour is linked to the presentation of the real in another way as well. We tend to associate reality with what impinges on us directly – what is tangibly at hand, rather than distant – even though only the tiniest fraction of reality can ever be present. The colours Freud avoids (cool colours; primary and secondary colours) are exactly the colours which recede. His colours are rude – they do not preserve decorum by maintaining distance. They crowd us; they invade our personal space.

I happen to have come to the Freud retrospective from the Tate Modern, still intoxicated with Bonnard’s colours. The confrontation with Freud’s colours, which gravitate towards muddy brown-grey-ochres, was initially like having a shovelful of muck thrown in my face. (He avoids brighter as well as cooler colours, including dirty colours tending more to grey than to brown). This use of colour is foreign to a whole swath of Modernism: Freud uses shitty colours as if Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse had never existed.

Gauguin once said that if you want to paint something green, you should use your greenest green. Freud’s approach to colour could hardly be more different. He thereby avoids committing that most pervasive of Twentieth Century sins regarding colour: unmotivated or unresolved garishness (probably often as a reaction against the maligned browns of Nineteenth Century academic painting). Once my eye had adjusted to his range of “London colours,” I (re-) discovered both mastery of colour and great beauty there.

Though doubtlessly inaccurate as a description of his actual process of painting, Freud’s works often seem to emerge only gradually, and incompletely, from a beginning in undifferentiated muddy browns. As a sculptor starts with an amorphous piece of clay, only gradually endowing it with shape, so Freud seems to start with a largely undifferentiated mucky paint substance, only gradually giving it differentiated colour.

This description perhaps forces itself upon me because there is something inherently plastic or tactile about the way in which Freud, especially since the late eighties, models with paint as if it is clay. (The sense of touch, like the sense of smell, cannot distance itself from the object the way the eye can). It is as if he does not want any part of the surface of his paintings to be uniform to the tactile sense, so that they would also appeal to those who can only feel them, without being able to see them. This is unusual in a painter as faithful to the visible world as Freud is.

Freud does not create by violently manipulating pre-existent entities, as Picasso typically does. Rather, like God when he made Adam, he starts with an amorphous Ur-substance – clay-shit-paint – with the aim of turning it into a human shape possessing reality. Somebody has aptly described his style as “creating flesh with paints”.8 Each painting seems to start from scratch – as Frank Auerbach says of Freud in the exhibition catalogue (Feaver 2002: 52): “he has no safety net of manner.” There is a fundamental affinity between the two artists’ process – a descent into a primeval formlessness as a prelude to finding form, even if the end result in Freud is technically far closer to an older realist tradition than in Auerbach. The metaphor for the amorphous prima materia of such a process is frequently clay. But clay is dirt. Thus the raw material of a form-giving process is close to the afval of such a process. Dwelling in the realm of this formless clay-dirt is thus not for those terrified of dirt. That Freud is friends with dirt therefore gains a further significance.

The procedure of endowing clay with form lacks the violent dismemberment and reconstitution of the image typical for Picasso, which involves, by implication, dismembering and reconstituting the person represented. (After writing this I encounter a book about Picasso by his granddaughter. It takes as its motto Picasso’s words: “To make a dove you have to wring its neck”.) Violence involves a destruction of form; inasmuch as Freud’s procedure starts with something like formless clay, imposing form on it will tend not to appear as violent.

In Sleeping by the lion carpet [#131, 1996] Freud’s use of paint evokes, in all sorts of ways, associations with modelling in clay. We are made highly aware of the interconnected volumes of the body, which are such that a clay figurine could have been made needing no inside armature, because the legs are too sturdy to need one, and the arms touch the body along their whole length. The tactile quality of the paint is also that of moist clay. The body is massively real, massively there, not some realisation of an ideal or geometric schema of a body. The floor similarly appeals to the tactile sense, rather than simply realising a geometrically defined plane. This painting, especially the floor, is a good example of how Freud uses mucky colours to great effect, as is Painter working, reflection [#125, 1993] – where the muted play of colour in the limited range utilised is surprisingly lively (primary and secondary colours are avoided). In # 115, Lying by the rags [1989-90] there is, similarly a wealth of colour in the dirty greens, greys and browns of the floorboards. The rags in this and similar paintings9 are shabby descendants of the sumptuous drapes often embellishing the traditional nude, just as his running taps [##95 & 101] are humble echoes of the lavish fountains of Classical art – both signifying overabundance. The ungainly pose is a far cry from the sumptuous nude of tradition inviting us to join her on a soft bed. No promise of pneumatic bliss, here! She lies uncomfortably on the hard floor, and the bony hips and shins are not inviting. Though there is a softening towards the breasts and head, and towards the rags, this softening is not towards sumptuousness. The whole is rather clinical; to me the rags have connotations of bloodstained bandages. The reflected light is literally a clinical light – the pose is a prelude to an operation or autopsy rather than an erotic encounter.

Andries Gouws


Feaver, William. 2002. Lucian Freud. [Catalogue of 2002 Retrospective Exhibition]. London: Tate Publishing.

Freud, Sigmund. Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In: Standard Edition, Vol. VII, p. 125-243. London: The Hogarth Press, 1975.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. 2002. ‘The rake’s progress’. ArtReview, June 2002 (Vol LIII), pp. 43-45.




1 Numbers indicated by “#” refer to the numbers of works in the exhibition catalogue (Feaver 2002).

2 Freud qua painter has been accused of being a misogynist. This accusation would be far more plausible if directed at a painter whose female sitters have to conform to some ideal of physical perfection.

3 Are the points at which bodies can interpenetrate in sexual embrace a threat to the reassuring image of the integral, beautiful body as a self-enclosed, separately existing whole?

4 Freud’s grandfather Sigmund links the repression of our sense of smell with the repression of anality.

5 Sigmund Freud had said that what is beautiful derives from what is sexually stimulating, but “we never regard the genitals themselves, which produce the strongest sexual excitation, as really ‘beautiful’.” (Freud 1975: 156, note 2)

6 At this point I realise that my reading could be challenged – rather than his paintings accepting human embodiment warts and all, they could be ambivalent, or each represent a different point on a sliding scale between a celebration of the body – or embodied person – and disgust with it. At some point argument must cease; I can only say that I cannot see the paintings themselves in this way. Every interpretation of this nature is ultimately unstable, opening up on alternative readings – and even its own antithesis. (This becomes particularly clear on close inspection of any psychoanalytic interpretation, even the most brilliant one). I have no illusion that my interpretation rests on iron logic; the shadow over which I can’t jump is my own sensibility – it may be rock bottom for me, but I can’t pretend that it should be that for anybody else. The goal of a piece like this can never be to convey the truth of an oeuvre – it can only be to provoke. Occasionally it will provoke others to develop its ideas further, but more often its value will lie in evoking dissent, especially where the dissent has a content that would not have arisen but for the provocation. If in this article I sound unduly categorical and unaware of how controversial my claims are – it was initially peppered ad nauseam with phrases such as “in my opinion”, “to me” and “as far as I am concerned”, but I deleted most of them in the interest of readability.

7 As the two running taps are more prominent than the pictures of the Sumo wrestlers, the title tends to anthropomorphise these taps into two personages – by implication: two micturating ones. But recall that classical (or kitsch) fountains often take the form of human figures with water issuing (i.a.) from their genitals. Duchamp’s inverted urinal, titled “Fountain”, plays with these associations.

8 Quoted on the BBC web page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/audiointerviews/profilepages/freudl2.shtml.

9 Except for ## 114 & 115, whose titles include a reference to the rags, heaps of painter’s rags also feature in ## 51, 100, 108, 111, 119 and 121.