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Lucian Freud set himself apart. For several decades, until his death this past July, the English painter stuck stubbornly to his program of stark, severe portraiture, ignoring the many trend-waves that washed over the art world in that time. While so many of his fellow artists were dashing between happenings and video installations and formaldehyde tanks, Freud stood in his studio, squinting and scowling at splayed naked bodies, piling his canvases with sagging jowls, curled toes, and pubic hair. He was an ardent admirer of the antisentimental “shamelessness” of Gustave Courbet, the nineteenth-century French realist, and his own paintings trade in an often gruesome sort of candor.

A relentless analyst of the human form, Freud doggedly resisted any impulse toward idealization or symbolism. His only goal, he said, was to paint his sitters “how they happen to be.” Freud’s recent death gives us occasion to step back and reflect on his singular artistic vision.

In 1987 the critic Robert Hughes awarded Freud the status of “greatest living realist painter.” Hughes’ instinct for superlative is sound—Freud was in a class by himself, and critics generally adopted appreciative, even adulatory, judgments. But if Freud is indeed our age’s greatest realist painter, this is a fact worth pondering. It speaks, to be sure, of the courage of Freud’s vision, but it also speaks of the limited amount of reality that our contemporary highbrow culture can bear. Freud painted portraits for a post-metaphysical age, an era when such airy notions as essence, soul, eternity, human nature, and God seem not just self-indulgent and sentimental but positively dangerous, to be ruled out from the start. Freud was, we might say, the best product of the culture that produced and nurtured him. His paintings, therefore, can teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Freud was born in 1922, grandson of the famous psychoanalyst, and he began painting and drawing as an adolescent. After several years of student-like experiments with still lifes, grotesquery, and the occasional surrealist whimsy piece, Freud turned in the late forties to the painting of portraits, a task that occupied him to the end of his life. One of his finest early portraits is called Girl with a White Dog. The painting depicts his then wife Kathleen Garman seated on a striped couch with a background of ample, folded drapes. She is wearing a yellow robe, her right breast exposed, with the eponymous white dog beside her, his snout laid gently on her lap.

As in much of Freud’s work from this initial stage, individual brushstrokes are nearly invisible; the skin texture is soft, milky, and cool, with just a hint of fleshly warmth. Much of the painting’s magnetism rests in Garman’s large eyes, which stare listlessly, and perhaps hopelessly, past and beneath the viewer’s gaze. She looks resigned, but uneasily so. Her bare breast is displayed in almost clinical fashion, without a hint of erotic energy, but at the same time her right hand cups her unexposed left breast in a seemingly protective gesture. It seems as if we are watching a woman gradually, and without any thrill, relinquishing her privacy through sheer exhaustion. This fraught posture is juxtaposed to the dog’s languid, unselfconscious repose. Not all animals bear scrutiny with the same equanimity. For the human animal, being seen is hard; sometimes it hurts.

Despite some significant successes like, Girl with a White Dog, Freud later said that during this period he felt “more discontented than daring.” He wanted his painting to be more than it was, but he was unsure of how to proceed. New direction came, ultimately, through his association with Francis Bacon, another great English figurative painter. To Freud’s reserved manner, Bacon juxtaposed a bravura brashness, both in art and in life. Inspired to inject his own painting with a greater vitality, Freud began standing at his easel rather than sitting and traded in his fine sable brushes for coarser ones made of hogs’ hair. His brush strokes became riskier, and the smooth surface of skin began to show tinges of sub-epidermal energy, beautifully manifest in Pregnant Girl (1961).

Pregnant Girl brings the viewer into intimate proximity with a young woman sleeping, her breasts and shoulders exposed, head lolled to the right, face in profile. The painting, for its subject matter, is remarkably lively; the young woman’s skin courses with cool vitality, even as she rests peacefully, neck and jaw relaxed, eyes closed. Freud used his newfound painterly freedom to touch her flesh with gray and ochre shadings that, while not strictly literal, suggest a deep, mysterious fecundity—she is quietly bursting with life, even though her pregnant belly is hidden by a draped brown blanket.

But while something is happening in this picture, it is not the result of conscious human agency. We see in Freud’s painting that life goes on, even flourishes, quite apart from our worried efforts. It’s a humbling, liberating vision. Here, in sleep, this pregnant girl has attained the vital, easy self-forgetfulness of Freud’s white dog. Consciousness would only complicate things—it is the brute vivacity of the human body that is on such lovely display in Pregnant Girl . Not many of Freud’s pictures at this stage are so classically beautiful, and, in his fully mature stage, very few even approach it.

Lucian’s father, Ernst Ludwig Freud, died in 1970, and shortly thereafter his mother, Lucie, fell into a deep depression and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. According to Lucian, his mother never fully recovered from the suicidal depression, and for the rest of her life she convinced herself that she was perpetually and seriously ill. For the next fifteen years Lucie sat for a series of portraits, the first of which were completed in 1972. One of these, The Painter’s Mother II (see page 44), zooms in on Lucie’s fierce, earnest face, her brow pinched, her lips pursed tight. As might be expected given the painting’s backstory, the earnestness on display is not hopeful and energetic but weary, embattled, even doomed.

The most salient element to note, however, is Freud’s changing treatment of skin. As in Pregnant Girl, Lucie’s skin is variegated by dashes of color—in this case, tans, browns, and grays. However, in this portrait the skin not only glows with energy but seems to be almost tortured by it. His mother’s face looks like it is struggling to bear up under the interior and exterior pressure. In Pregnant Girl colors pulse beneath the skin, but the texture of the skin itself remains intact. In his work from the early seventies until his death, the lively tension between surface and depth increasingly gave way to bitter, vain warfare. And it’s not an even match”inner vitality is defeated, time and time again, by outer disintegration.

These mature portraits point, as the critic Sebastian Smee puts it, to “the wear and tear of occupying a body.” This wear and tear is nowhere more obvious than in Freud’s self-portrait Painter Working, Reflection (1993), in which the viewer encounters Freud standing naked (but for a pair of unlaced boots) in his sparsely furnished studio. The color scheme is washed out and wan—Freud’s wiry, aging body is bathed in a clear white light. The background is bare and roughly finished, so that the viewer has nothing to distract him from the central figure, whose physical disintegration is emphasized, perhaps even exaggerated.

And yet, despite this emphasis on disintegration, the painting’s mood is not one of melodramatic despair. The painter looks exhausted, but stubbornly determined. He brandishes a palette knife like a weapon, with a shield-like palette in his other hand. Confronted with his own disintegration, Freud portrays himself standing grim, resolute, and singular. He knows that against this foe no weapon can be effectively brandished”the palette knife is extended aimlessly into the air, the palette-shield hangs limply next to his flaccid penis”but he will not simply surrender. The effect is tragic and bracing, and it represents the apogee of Freud’s mature genius, an unstinting, grit-toothed courage.

Much human energy is frittered away in the attempt to escape, or at least forget, the universal realities of disintegration and death. Prettified, saccharine art is one vehicle for such evasion. So Lucian Freud is rightly commended for his courageous willingness to look grim reality, again and again, in the cheek, navel, and nipple. His mature work is a modern memento mori, a hard-eyed stare at the way of all flesh. This is clear enough, and sensible critics everywhere have agreed. However, it is only part of the story. The other big part is Freud’s much-lauded realism, his unsparing honesty. Many commentators, and Freud himself, have tended to assume that the two are coextensive: that to brashly foreground the decay of human hopes is just to be honest, and vice versa. But this is not necessarily the case. The increasing centrality of death and disintegration in Freud’s work actually served to undermine his realism, his stated desire to paint people “how they happen to be.”

Freud long described himself as a “biologist,” fascinated with the animal physicality of his human sitters. But since the early 1970s, his interest in flesh increasingly applied only, or at least mostly, to the way that flesh disintegrates. This is a narrow vision, and a tendentious one. What about flesh’s cohesiveness, its elasticity, its warmth and luminosity? The beautiful vitality of flesh does diminish with time, and things do eventually fall apart, but these facts give no warrant for a denial of such beauty and vitality as we find here and now. This exclusion makes for a very strange sort of biology, a discipline that is, after all, focused on bios—life. In fact, Freud’s mature work scarcely attends to biology at all. As disintegration came to dominate Freud’s art, his art-as-biology increasingly collapsed into a brilliant, beguiling art-as-thanatology—an aesthetic study of death.

If Freud’s decline as a biologist is striking, his failure as a psychologist is even more so. This is far from surprising, since psychology is a task that he explicitly disavowed. He went on record saying that he had no interest at all in depicting the “inner life” of his sitters. So while Freud was, in theory at least, deeply committed to capturing the flesh of his subjects, where flesh meets consciousness he stepped lightly, if at all.

This turn away from the inner life could not but undermine Freud’s program of realist portraiture, because so much of what is interesting and particular about any given human transcends the biological base that we share with the rest of the animals. To be sure, the unique intellectual, emotional, social, and maybe even spiritual elements of human existence take shape on the platform of biology, and they are profoundly shaped by it. But if one is really to depict a particular person, the more ephemeral, specifically human realities must be addressed.

The exemplary portraitist is able to capture the quidditas, the whatness, of his subject in part by capturing the way that intellect, emotions, memory—that is to say, personality—are expressed in physical appearance. As a portraitist, Freud failed to ask or answer a vital question: What is the particular point of painting humans? Why focus on the animals with the deepest inner lives, the grandest aspirations, the highest hopes for redemption? Further, when an artist leaves these realities out, in what sense is he painting humans at all?

On this point, Freud wandered from his own mandate, failing to do justice to the full reality of his sitters. He became a genre painter, albeit a great one. His achievement is analogous to that of the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, whose iron-spined, hypermasculine heroes served well the needs of the nascent French Republic but fail the test of simple human reality”they are much too grand for life.

David’s political sympathies (and political savvy) can go a long way toward explaining his circumscribed vision, but what of Freud’s? Perhaps there is a similar explanation, one that connects Freud’s idiosyncrasies with the core commitments and interests of our contemporary highbrow culture.

It is no secret that many of our most educated and sophisticated cultural leaders—in the universities, museums, and magazines—now believe that antimetaphysical, atheistic materialism is the final destination of Western intellectual progress. We are now at the end of history, the story goes; God is dead, and metaphysics is shown up for the illusion it always was. The enlightened see this illusion as toxic, a seductive invitation to dominate the merely particular people and things around us, all in the name of glorious, illusory universals. The logic runs like this: If I think I can identify, with final confidence, the Good for human beings, then I will see fit to tell my neighbor what he is and what he is permitted to do. I might even feel justified in forcing him to act as I wish—I might become an oppressor. Old-fashioned, big-question philosophy is thus marked out as dangerous, and we are told that it is much, much better to be safe than sorry.

In this context, then, Freud demonstrated what is perhaps the cardinal ethical-cum-intellectual virtue of postmodernist thought: a humble willingness to reject all pretensions of total comprehension. According to the critic Smee, the combination of physical shamelessness and psychological humility is one of the principal virtues of Freud’s corpus: “Although his portraits take candour to new levels,” Smee writes, “and although he scrutinizes his models with unflinching intensity, he does not presume to know his subjects definitively. Instead, by showing his models asleep or with closed eyes, by rejecting symbols and story-telling, by keenly observing their self-modulating presence over hours and hours of sitting, he powerfully registers their unknowability.” Smee’s analysis is not mere description. It is also the philosophical vindication that Freud (who was in many ways a profoundly old-fashioned artist) needed in order to gain entrée to the contemporary art world. His antimetaphysical aesthetic is what saved him from damning accusations of conservatism.

There is, one might speculate, an element of simple mercy in Freud’s decision to paint his sitters with their eyes closed. The experience of having one’s naked body scrutinized for hours and hours can be physically and emotionally exhausting. On the other hand, Freud’s repeated verbal repudiations of painterly psychologizing, symbolism, and sentimentality suggest that something like Smee’s philosophical rationale was indeed decisive, or at least operative. In any case, the decision to paint his subjects with their eyes closed was philosophically weighty, because, for a portraitist, the eyes are not just one organ among many. They are where the psyche, or soul, can seem most visible. Perhaps Freud feared that even cracking this door open could mean admitting a whole gang of outmoded, sentimental notions: immortality and eternity and, yes, maybe even God.

If I am right that Freud’s aesthetic program is related to the postmodern prohibition against universalizing metaphysics, there is a sad irony here. Precisely by rejecting any hint of the universal, Freud damaged his ability to see the particular people who posed for him. In jettisoning the idea of a soul, Freud also swept away the idea of the inner life and, with it, the individual personality of his sitters.

Happily, this is an unnecessary move. Acknowledging glimmers of transcendence need not portend a collapse into saccharine self-indulgence or self-righteous presumption. Freud was not the first painter to confront the reality of death, even as it is manifested in the disintegration of human skin”think of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. But then think of the wry, intelligent, hopeful eyes that glint from Rembrandt’s pocked face. Certainly, we see a man whose life will soon end, but is it the end? Does he tilt inexorably toward the precipice of total annihilation? This is far from clear—Rembrandt simply does not decide for us.

Rembrandt’s willingness and ability to limn these deep human ambiguities, or tensions, or maybe even contradictions, are what make him a truly great portraitist, a realist in the fullest sense of the word. He knew that an artist need not, indeed ought not, try to provide a final, fully realized answer to the deepest questions of human life. But neither, he knew, should he allow a prudish metaphysical chastity to prevent him from freely exploring the wide, mysterious plane of human existence.

So the postmodern ethicists and aestheticians are partly correct: Humility is indeed a virtue, especially when it comes to the always open-ended questions of what we are and how we should live. But it is worth recalling that virtues can morph into vices if they are overextended. Søren Kierkegaard, an inspiration to postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, writes that “only superficial, impetuous, passionate people, who do not know themselves and for that reason naturally are unaware that they do not know others, judge precipitously. Those with insight, those who know, never do this.” Kierkegaard is quite right, but note the adverb. There is an important difference between guarding against precipitous judgment and fleeing the field of judgment altogether. Freud, in harmony with the highbrow zeitgeist, seems all too prone to flight.

In both his successes and failures, then, Lucian Freud reflected our moment. His brand of realism expresses the postmodern distaste for aesthetic idealization and philosophical presumption. In itself, the determination to see and paint existence unvarnished is commendable. Our particular, mottled reality is a much worthier (and more beautiful) artistic subject than any homogenized fantasy world. Yet Freud’s work is plagued by the concomitant postmodern taste for what Saul Bellow called “the harshest or most niggardly explanation” of human phenomena. This taste, where it dominates, can lead to art that is artificially narrow, that forecloses a generous, honest, realistic humanism .

While Freud’s truncation of reality may be a sine qua non for art-world credibility, it hamstrings his pursuit of painterly realism—it keeps him from capturing the particular quidditas of his particular sitters. For Lucian Freud, the burden of painting brave, unsentimental, antimetaphysical portraits was heavy indeed. It forced him to spend the better part of a long, productive career with his searching, incisive eyes part of the way shut.

Ian Marcus Corbin is a Ph.D candidate in philosophy at Boston College.