Since the vast majority of Lucian Freud's paintings are portraits, Sarah Howgate enjoyed broad purview while selecting work for the Freud survey now at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and scheduled to travel in July to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same name, Lucian Freud Portraits clutters with anecdote the discussion of Freud's idiosyncratic meditations on the human form. Howgate avers that the exhibition is "a life represented in paint rather than a biographical retrospective," but her essay stresses the artist's personal relationships with his sitters, distracting attention from his pictures' universality by imposing a diaristic reading on his life's work. Such a strategy doubtless makes more accessible the canvases some might find difficult, but it misrepresents the self-evident intention of the pictures, particularly those painted after the late 1950s.
A titanic figure of 20th-century British painting, Freud died last July at the age of 88. In 2009 he told MAM curator Michael Auping, "I want the paint to work as flesh does," faithful to the distinctive physiognomies and physiques of the human animals before him. Auping's interview, excerpted in the book, also confirms that availability for a protracted period was as much a factor in retaining sitters as any personal connection: "they need to be punctual, patient and nocturnal."
In her essay, "People in Rooms," Howgate frequently discusses the sitters' connections to Freud: they are his wives, friends, lovers, children, mother, neighbors, horses and dogs. But Freud's portraits are distinctive not because of the subject but because the intimacy the paintings project both arises from and is emotionally at odds with the painter's unflinching, analytical consistency. This quality is the same no matter whether the sitter is the painter's whippet, Pluto, or Queen Elizabeth.
Howgate acknowledges Freud's profound midcareer shift from the emotionally fraught, overtly narrative early work to the brushy, fleshy realism of, for example, Head on a Green Sofa (1960-61), but she doesn't retool her analytical vocabulary to keep up. The viewer is unlikely to know whose head that is, and it doesn't matter; the painting is all about how the wavy-haired mass rests against the cushioned upholstery. (Freud: "The head is a limb, of course.") A finely drawn, smoothly painted depiction of psychic disconnection between the painter and his second wife, Hotel Bedroom (1954) operates quite differently than, say, And the Bridegroom (1993), the drama of which resides in the contrast between the male model's swarthy corpulence and the female's pallid boniness.
Speaking for Americans in the book's second essay, "Freud From America," Auping insists, "the insensate nude is our comfort zone." He contrasts Freud's approach—"visceral to the point of being swampy"—to that of a short list of stateside contemporaries including, most interestingly, Philip Pearlstein. Straightforward, not idealized, and purged of sentimentality like Freud's, Pearlstein's paintings of models posed among still-life props under harsh lights are characterized by a cool smoothness, an antiseptic quality quite unlike Freud's meaty, dingy paintings.
The plates in Howgate's book are fine, free of the yellowish cast that mars Rizzoli's otherwise useful 2007 monograph.Lucian Freud Portraits includes infrequently reproduced works such as the minuscule portrait of the painter's longtime friend John Richardson, who contributes to the present book the brief memoir, "Remembering Lucian Freud." With a true biographer's sense of the formative milieu and the temperament-revealing detail, Richardson fondly recalls that his colleague was at ease in postwar Paris, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés studio of the "beautiful, Rimbaud-like poet" Olivier Larronde: "The walls were lined with portrait drawings of Olivier by Giacometti, who would often be present. Monkeys capered around in a jungle of philodendron plants and eddies of opium smoke. I was petrified; Lucian fitted in perfectly."