Available Works: Freud, David
This February, as the world’s media descended upon the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the work of one of the greatest painters of our time, one attendee at the opening of Lucian Freud Portraits took the chance to relate the legacy of a recently-deceased parent to his own progress as an artist.
For David Freud the months since the tragic loss of his father Lucian have proved a time of challenge and reflection. The period has seen his developing career as a painter become a means of working out his relationship to a parent whose influence was felt more in absence than through any direct contact with his son. David acknowledges that Lucian’s paintings – so widely hailed for their starkly beautiful observation of human flesh – are an influence upon him whether he likes it or not.
Yet rather than try and work in his father’s style, a competitive act which he believes is necessarily doomed to failure, David instead delights in the affirmative sense of difference that viewing Lucian’s work gives him. He has come to realise that success must be on his own terms; he can, and should only, approach his subjects through his own idiosyncrasies and interests. And the intriguing approach behind David Freud’s new exhibition at Meller Merceux reveals that he is very much ploughing his own artistic furrow.
Whereas one of the chief virtues of Lucian Freud’s work is its relentless commitment to the body as a complex and material mass, for David, portraiture is a profoundly spiritual and relational process. His father’s subjects often express the sense of unease which arises out of being observed by the artist’s penetrative eyes, but David’s work arises out of a commitment to the changeable nature of relationships, a pursuit of the nuanced emotional dynamics felt between close friends. The result is an exhibition energised by great varieties of mood and form, as the artist gauges the stylistic implications of different physical and emotional presences.
Whereas his previous exhibition, Losing Lucian, reconnoitred the unspeakable territories of grief, this show sees David take a liberating step away from painting as a reactive, grief-laden action, into more sophisticated territory. He is now committed to a method which embraces chance and failure as it seeks to capture the infinitely varied contingences of human relationships. He speaks of the need to be ‘brave’ in order to paint portraits, a genre marked by the presence of his father. Whereas earlier in his life, his father’s intimidating success led to the young David avoiding the practice of painting, this newfound bravery seems to stem from an acknowledgement that he can never, and more importantly does not want, to be the same artist as his father. The result is work of increased confidence, embracing the experimentation and variation which are so necessary to an artist’s growth.
When Meller Merceux spoke to David about the working process behind these paintings, it became clear that this was very much geared to the recognition of chance and spontaneity. His artistic objective in these portraits is to capture the moment in which the artist’s personality interacts with, and is changed by, that of his sitter. As both artist and sitter respond to the nuances of light, atmosphere and mood, some unseen aspect of their relationship is revealed. Freud begins by making a series of rapid charcoal sketches of his sitter, often as many as ten or twenty. This is a way of identifying formal problems and opportunities within the situation, of working out the lines and tones which will form the dominant features of the composition. Having decided upon these parameters, Freud then proceeds to make initial marks on his canvas in charcoal. Keen to move beyond the demands of line, he begins to paint in loose and fluid marks Once, as he puts it, he is ‘no longer measuring,’ Freud feels the real excitement of the piece kick in and the emotional nuances of the situation come to life. Via this responsive and fleeting means of working, the artist transcends any notion of art as personal therapy, opening himself up to an emotional and aesthetic situation which is larger and more profound than his private concerns.
The result of this flexible process is a group of varied and emotionally revealing portraits, which are sure to fascinate and entertain. The relevance and potential of his process is demonstrated in The Mother, a portrait of a local friend Jen, who at the time of writing was due to give birth in one week. The painting captures a sense of physical fulfilment and promise which is markedly different from the feeling of stark vulnerability presented in the Losing Lucian show. Jen stands in her in-laws’ garden, the dappled light falling on the leaves behind her and creating a feeling of natural harmony. Yet the painting carries a drama which arises in part from the sense of expectancy which dominates the scene. The sitter’s face conveys a mood of anxiety mingled with excitement; both inevitable in the build-up to a life changing event.
Elsewhere, we see David pursuing his anxieties surrounding the human body, which for him can confine and entrap the personality even as it appears to give it expression. This has been a theme since the beginnings of David’s career, when he painted a local acquaintance who suffers from scoliosis and dystonia and is forced to wear a full body brace. In his more recent work this theme receives more oblique treatment, in part through the inclusion of puppets alongside some of his sitters. The portrait of Freud’s friend James Pearson, a graphic novelist and neighbour of his in Worthing, sees the sitter accompanied by an eerie-looking puppet tin man. On one level, this is a useful formal device for Freud: if he is looking for something of the essence of his sitters’ personalities to become exposed during their sitting, then the presence of an alien figure such as this can be of assistance; the subject’s resistance to or embracing of the puppet reveals something of their spirit and attitude. But on another level, the puppet relates to the artist’s questioning of the human form, alluding to the body as restrictive mechanism, or perhaps capturing the sense in which our bodies are the vehicles of some intangible, higher force, which they represent but can never fully capture.
This yearning after the elusive mysteries of his subjects is perhaps the principle motive behind this remarkable group of portraits. As his paintings are highly contingent responses to the transitory conditions of his relationships with subjects, surroundings and materials, the virtues of patience and selectivity take on increased importance. A sign of Freud’s increasing progress as an artist is his acceptance that these complex conditions do not always produce results on the first time of asking. Many of the paintings currently on display at Meller Merceux have gone through several versions, discarded because they felt too contrived, formal, or did not do justice to the ambience of the moment. Freud hopes that the images which have made his final cut capture something of the spontaneous energy of the momentary, often unspoken exchanges which happen between close friends and relatives, qualities which can never be truly captured in a painting which has been overly-worked or thought out.
It is his ability to surprise himself, often through, as David puts it, ‘the fates conspiring,’ which seems to make him tick. These works convey a feeling of freedom and experimentation, the sign of an artist who is excited about his own future and celebrating the fact that art, when done in this responsive and fluid way, can take him in any number of directions. It also offers a range of possibilities for the visitor to this exciting new show, David saying, ‘I like the fact that paintings are not prescriptive, each viewer sees a different thing.’ For him, art occupies a redemptive space at the edges of language; the virtues of a good painting, can for him, never be entirely captured in words. It gives Meller Merceux much pleasure to exhibit the work of an artist who, in this exciting exhibition, is ever striving to capture the ineffable, fleeting moods and emotions that pass between close friends and can never quite be translated into speech.
Written by Dr. Thomas Slingsby