16 APRIL 1988, Page 46

Happy ending to a pictorial autobiography

Grey Gowrie

LUCIAN FREUD PAINTINGS' with an introduction by Robert Hughes

Thames & Hudson, £24, pp. 135

LUCIAN FREUD 'WORKS ON PAPER' We are living in Lucian Freud's year: nothing has taken place in the arts in Britain to match the great retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, itself a culmination of shows in Washington and Paris which have at last forced Freud down the throats of international critical opinion. In spite of Moore, Nicholson, Bacon and the emerg- ence of David Hockney as a popular painter who also paints well, this island is still considered too quirky, literary, misty to be part of the main where the visual arts are concerned. This is quite good for British painters themselves, as artists who work in movements — one eye on the canvas, the other glancing over the shoul- der — have turned modern art into a closed shop for many people. Worse still, reverence from insiders or acolytes invests artists with a priestly authority that harms their work. It is nevertheless cheering when everything goes right for a good painter. The work is hard and in crucial respects lonely. Fame and fortune make suitable frames for a painting so long as they do not affect what takes place inside. These books are part of the celebration of Lucian Freud, and, as such, welcome. They also have general relevance because, regrettably but inevitably, most people's judgment of the painter will nowadays depend on reproductions to supplement the rather lean diet provided at the moment by the Tate.

The reproductions are adequate in the case of the paintings and very good, which is of course much easier to achieve, in the case of the drawings and etchings. Freud's recent paintings are earthy, in both the literal and the colloquial sense. The red-

dish browns of the human clay as rendered in pigment seem to need a three- dimensional surface for colour separation. If you flip through the paintings book you will get an impression of tonal sameness an unattractive tomato-ey colour at that in the later work as contrasted with a more subtle variety in the earlier. This is mis- leading and also damaging because it is part of the drama of Freud's career that he abandoned, in his thirties, a fine-brush, northern Renaissance, Memling-like treat- ment of flesh for something muddier and more modern. His paintings were for a short time dead to colour. He was teaching himself the alpha-and-omega lesson of art from Rembrandt onwards that a painting is also a sculpture, that the stuff of oil paint itself as well as the forms it depicts needs to match the weight and tactility of creation, that good painting is carnal and a painter needs to get his hands, as well as perhaps his mind, dirty. It took Freud years to learn to model the colour of the flesh of the friends, lovers and relations who compose his pictorial autobiography and form the plot of these books. Thames and Hudson's colourists need time and doubtless a more expensive production to approximate the flash of blue vein on white breast, or the white of an eye woken from sleep which makes the best of the late paintings so moving. As Nicholas Penny describes, in his authoritative essay on the early draw- ings, `Freud's exhibition at the Marl- borough Gallery in 1958 was badly re- ceived by almost everyone. He had ceased to be fashionable. Kenneth Clark, who had formerly done much to support and en- courage him informed him that he "admired his courage" — and never spoke to him again. The change entailed the abandoning of drawing which, Freud felt, had kept his painting too linear.' It is well

worth buying these books together because the story they tell, how a prodigious draughtsman turned himself into someone who could work in and through oil paint, is an exciting one. There is a happy ending, too, for lovers of works on paper because as Robert Flynn Johnson demonstrates in his essay on the later drawings, Freud has the confidence now to return to graphic work in order to explore what bodies tell us about the minds and moods of their own- ers.

For those who know Freud's work well, there is a bonus, a benefaction even, in Robert Hughes's introductory essay to the book on the paintings. Hughes is the florid, irreverent Australian who conducted the 'Shock of the New' series on modern painting on television a few years ago; his book on the Australian penal settlements, The Fatal Shore, is both a masterpiece and a best-seller. He is also the art critic of Time, and a welcome squeeze of lemon on New York's oleaginous art establishment. Hughes argues that Freud is the greatest living realist painter. Whether or not you agree, the essay is a great piece of writing. Miles apart from the Pseud's Corner school of criticism, but with nothing tiresomely down to earth about it either, the essay manages to be ornate, subtle, truthful and funny. We are still too near the Freud exhibition in Washington last autumn to measure the extent of his migration from local to international acclaim. My guess is that it will happen, not least because of Hughes's essay. Good critics are rare. Like good artists, they teach people how to look. The problem remains, however, of our habit of 'reading' images through art books rather than submitting ourselves to paintings as objects with a powerful physic- al presence of their own. Go to the exhibition while you can.