With a textural surface the living material nature of the sitter's flesh, Freud's Naked Woman on a Sofa, painted between 1984 and 1985, is a compact masterpiece that bursts from its frame. The palpable warmth of the subject's body is captured and transmitted by the virtuoso painter with the impasto bristling on the canvas in a way that lends the work a heady sensuousness.
Freud's subjects are not mere sitters. Instead, they are prompts that allow him to capture in his oils some essential quality of life. Of all his subjects, it is flesh itself that is his greatest key to this fundamental life force: 'When I look at a body I know it gives me choices of what to put in a painting; what will suit me and what won't. There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so' (Freud, quoted in R. Hughes, 'On Lucian Freud', pp. 7-24, Lucian Freud paintings, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 20).
Even early in his career, this talent led Herbert Read to celebrate Freud as the 'Ingres of existentialism'. Naked Woman on a Sofa is painterly--more akin to Rembrandt than to Ingres--but it is an even more potent existential painting than the earlier works. The cool, meticulously honed images from Freud's early career gave way to an impastoed and energetic quality as early as the 1950s. The impetus of the germinal period of this transformation in Freud's work is sometimes credited to Francis Bacon's advice to him to stand while painting, instead of sitting. This physical freedom increased hugely during the 1970s, when Freud began painting in his Holland Park studio. There, he benefited from an immense liberation, not only of his body but also of his surroundings. Now, Freud could move around the furniture and his sitters, allowing the studio itself to feature in various ways, be it through the use of the walls and windows, or the changes in light that various positions afforded him. This gave Freud complete flexibility in arranging the compositions of his works. As is evident in Naked Woman on a Sofa, it even allowed him to retain the claustrophobic atmosphere of proximity and imprisonment that had flavored so many of his greatest paintings from his smaller studio.
The difference between the light of night and day naturally remains beyond Freud's control. In order to overcome the ever-shifting qualities of light, Freud tends to work on several pictures at a time, and to divide them between night and day works. He has two studios for this purpose, working in his well-lit Holland Park studio by day and often retiring to his home studio to paint at night. The latter is often illuminated, according to the artist's preference, by a single strong overhead light. Freud frequently works on more than one of each type of painting over the same period. For example, his Night Portrait of 1985-86 appears to show the same sitter stranded on a bed in a similar manner to that of Naked Woman on a Sofa. Both works are clearly night pictures, exhibiting trademark pools and clefts of shadow as well as an increased chiaroscuro. These two paintings show the artist exploring two very different characteristics with the same subject matter: while Freud's increased distance from his subject in Night Portrait introduces an island-like isolation, the very nearness in Naked Woman on a Sofa adds to the latter work's intensity.
Despite the length of time that Freud's working methods necessitate, he insists on painting directly from life. This can mean Freud's subjects often have to endure long sittings of four to six hours at a time for a period of up to a year. This extended scrutiny results in layers and layers of paint being built up, creating an organic feel in his pictures to the point where they become environments and landscapes in their own right. Articulated by impasto here and scraped paint there, the surface of these canvases slowly is slowly built up so that it takes on the living qualities of the sitter's flesh.
To harness a raw and genuine intensity, Freud shuns professional models and commissioned portraits equally. He chooses only to paint people, or bodies, that interest him, disliking the cool distance that professionalism can create and the coldness of an habitual, contrived pose. Freud instead uses his family, and his friends, and other people who strike him as having an interesting or intriguing physical quality to them: 'If you don't know them, it can only be like a travel book' (Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, p. 56). Despite his intense desire to control his paintings' composition, he allows these sitters complete freedom to assume a pose that shows them at ease, and therefore comfortable 'in themselves', enforcing the authenticity and immediacy of what he captures on canvas. It is mainly through his unique ability to portray flesh that he succeeds in depicting his subjects while harnessing something larger, something universal:
'I want paint to work as flesh... I have always had a scorn for 'la belle peinture' and 'la delicatesse des touches'. I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn't want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does' (Freud, quoted in Gowing, op.cit., 1982, pp. 190-91).
Freud accentuates, through his vivid brushwork and his composition, the flesh, and therefore the life of his sitters. In Naked Woman on a Sofa, the foreshortening of the legs and stomach allows them to swell in proportion to the head, which is almost discarded, intensifying the atmosphere of fleshiness, allowing the body to dominate more of the canvas and to completely monopolize the viewer's field of vision. The face has been depicted with relative delicacy and is finely portrayed, yet is clearly less the object of Freud's attention than the legs or the stomach; as he himself has said, 'I used to leave the face until last. I wanted the expression to be in the body. The head must be just another limb. So I had to play down expression in nudes' (Freud, quoted in Hughes, op.cit., 1988, p. 20).
In Naked Woman on a Sofa, this focus on the body and its physicality lends the picture a sculptural quality that is heightened by the intense illumination of the night paintings' customary single lamp. This is especially apt as Freud had several casts of sculptures by Rodin at his disposal during this period, and appears to have used them as inspiration. Naked Woman on a Sofa shows an affinity with Rodin's Iris, Messenger of the Gods and his study for Balzac in particular. In Naked Woman on a Sofa, Freud has harnessed a sculptural sense of monumentality to fill it with a strong three-dimensionality and a highly textured feeling of the living physicality of flesh.
Lucian Freud (b. 1922)
Oil on canvas
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Art Council of Great Britain, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne; London, Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre; Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Lucian Freud Paintings, September 1987-June 1988, no. 78 (illustrated as a detail on front and back cover in color).
20 x 23 5/8 in. (50.8 x 60 cm.)
B. Bernard Lucian Freud, London, 1996, no. 182 (illustrated in color).
James Kirkman Ltd., London