Looking again through my books on Lucian Freud, I think perhaps he liked animals more than humans. They seem to be treated with more respect and gentleness in his paintings (and in person – see the images of Freud with a fox or a horse or a falcon).
Reading about his life, his lack of concern for social norms, his absolute commitment to what mattered to him, it seems Freud was a feral creature himself. Like a wild thing, whose days revolve around those few imperatives, eat, endure, procreate, in an eternal present, Freud pursued his basic needs, food, women, and most of all, painting, every day, without much thought of consequences or the future, it seems. So one wonders whether he saw these dogs and horses as kindred spirits, more comprehensible than the people he studied so assiduously.
Or perhaps it is not the painter’s own attitude that makes the difference. Perhaps he just paints what he sees, and what looks like a special respect for his animal subjects is only a recognition of their absolute self-containment, their lack of concern for his penetrating eye. There they sleep or stand, utterly indifferent to his observation and his easel.*
His human models, on the other hand, however familiar they become, surely cannot help but be aware of their situation, of their relationship to the artist, and be self-conscious in the simplest sense, knowing that they are seen, and will be seen by others, as part of his great body of work, his oeuvre.
Perhaps then, the difference that Freud’s paintings show us is not in his view of his subjects, but in theirs and ours. If there is any sense of an improper invasion, that is only possible because we humans have a special sensitivity to the gaze and judgement of others. The paintings affect us, the viewer, because we can empathise at once with the model and the painter, and feel that we are being seen and seeing intimately, maybe too intimately for comfort.
Freud painted himself too, of course, and in his unflinching self-portraits, I think we can see him as one of his own animals – unconcerned with questions of intimacy, getting on with what he does, paradoxically unself-conscious while concentrating all his attention on this object which is himself.
*Of course I cannot know this, but it seems to me that at least the dogs I know have no sense of embarrassment or privacy (which is why it is always faintly absurd when their people try to stop them from ‘being rude’ in their greetings and nosing inspections of each other).
‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations II, p. 223)
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts