Essay

Getting to grips with naked

WHAT IS IT to be naked? To others. And to ourselves. I suppose most of us know nakedness from various experiences of loving and being loved. Or from some childhood memory, perhaps going back to the moments of birth. Or from the experience of illness – a nakedness that comes from being helpless in the hands of others.

Nakedness involves more than a sense of exposure, of being looked at. It's a matter of being seen in ways tantamount to touch. It is being touched – lookingly – with penetration. When this is permitted, nakedness is an entry into a realm of trust. When it is not, nakedness is some kind of violation.

Nakedness is inseparable from the sense of inhabiting a material body. Nakedness has weight. Gravity becomes us, in our bodies. We descend, maybe even condescend, to be touched – albeit with the careful pride of warm-blooded creatures. Our nakedness can have the weight that we often feel is possessed by our erogenous parts – think of those explicit Japanese prints of lovers, where their genitals seem to have been swollen to a psychological significance for them and for us.

At the same time, there is the metaphysical body, which looms within and beyond itself and has that ‘unbearable lightness of being' of which Kundera wrote, offering us a phrase that even the secular took into themselves. Religious or not, it is the metaphysical body to which Rilke's angels gravitate, a space that speaks of infinity.

While Eros is unimaginable without the material body, desire can know no bounds. The temple that the body might be is open to the cosmos so that Eros is both carnal and divine, something that Western art has never really enacted as a unity. You have to look East. Is there anything more divinely at ease than those figures from the ancient temples of southern India? So free, so complete, so erotically celebratory of a sacred order.

A couple of years ago, I saw them again in the exhibition of works from the Chola dynasty at the Royal Academy in London. Moving among them, it was impossible not to feel their beautiful truth, a truth and beauty with a depth of naturalness that so reconciled the physical and metaphysical body that nakedness ceases to matter. Nakedness – as in a rare exposure that tests or threatens the individual – falls away, becomes flotsam to the oceanic dance embodied by the figures. The West has never realised such unutterably carnal transcendence.

This exhibition, small but ecstatic in its own right, was upstairs at the Academy. Downstairs at the same time, as it happened, was the monumental retrospective of Rodin. His fecund masterpiece, The Gates of Hell, was mounted in the courtyard, its naked figures writhing – like the progeny of Michelangelo – in all their glory. Inside, all manner of Rodin's mastery of the body was on show, the figures of anguish and sheer beauty and explicit Eros; a treasure trove of nakedness. It was something to commemorate, yes, this apotheosis of Western consciousness of the body. But at the same time it was so riddled with anxiety that I found its overall impact oppressive. Better the reality of a snake pit.

Each epoch, as with each individual in their time and place, must engage with nakedness in its own way. The means of that engagement come from the modalities of daily life, which might include the epiphanies that belong to extreme moments to do with mortality, relationships, art.

To tell the truth (truth is inseparable from nakedness) I had not much thought about this before coming upon the work of Lucian Freud.

 

FOR SOME YEARS now, I have been working on a book of poems called Naked Clay, a response to the work of the painter often described as the greatest living figurative artist, or realist, of the twentieth century. Looking back, my work with Freud started with my hardly knowing it – which is, come to think of it, how many of us live in our bodies, even when we are naked. I'd opened up a big book on Freud and found myself astonished by the bodies he had painted – their fleshiness and scale, their angularities and intimacy, the depth of their nakedness, their incomparable candour.

Among the first of my shocks was generated by Naked Man with Rat, painted in 1978. He is a stocky, red-headed man lying back on a settee with his legs apart, his scrotum fully on show. One hand is near his head, and he is looking towards the ceiling in what might be a startled way; the other hand is at rest near his hip and in it is the rat – a ‘Japanese laboratory rat', I have since read. From one side of the hand the head of the rat protrudes; from the other its tail, which drapes over the man's thigh, almost touching his cock.

The following year, Freud painted Naked Man with Friend, where the red-haired man appears again: the same settee and nakedness except that his cock is partly hidden by the trousered leg of the man stretched out beside him. Both men seem to have fallen asleep while posing. There is no rat. The picture exudes a warm yet unsettling atmosphere of trust – between the two sitters and, presumably, the painter. The sexuality of that warmth is emphasised, obviously, by the fact that one man is dressed and the other not.

I don't want to over-emphasise the sexual, however, which is what I realised as my gaze settled on the naked women Freud had painted in this same period. Instinctively, they were of greater interest to me: at the most general level, their nakedness unavoidably lives in the realm of desire. But this is misleading. Freud's torsos of women – the necks and breasts and bellies – leap forth, along with the sense that these women are individuals in their own right; yet it is nakedness itself that seemed to be offered as a subject. Nakedness rather than sexuality, I mean. The power comes from what is singularly matter of fact, something given about how these figures are in their bodiesAnd what is true of the women is true of the men, which is a double lack: the feeling you get is that there is nothing to celebrate, and nothing to be anxious about – a double negative that produces a weird unease that we have come to this.

Freud's naked figures have the monumental neutrality that belongs to certain kinds of truths of nature – less in the realm of art, you might say, than biology. Half a century ago, Kenneth Clarke, in his great study The Nude, enlivened us to Plato's distinction between the Celestial and the Vulgar body, the one belonging to the world of ideal forms, the other to the vegetable kingdom. Freud's bodies – most of the late work – usually exude a disinterest in beauty and occupy his studio as sweetly as a bunch of spongy suedes. That was the other thing that galvanised me: here was nakedness as humanely imperfect as what can be seen in a hospital ward; a nakedness with the tang of mortality, our communality.

You can't look at Freud without being instructed in layers and facets of nakedness. Instructed and provoked into an ongoing ambivalence about the matter of our bodies. He arrived at his radically naked, fleshy bodies after a long painterly journey. As a young man, he liked painting dead things – herons, monkeys, chickens – in a vaguely surrealist manner. The work was witty and cold. Technically, he could paint things with the finish of glass – his Flemish manner, as it was sometimes called. Everything was rendered exactly, the result of what Freud has called, in his rather chilling way, ‘surveillance', a term that registers his huge powers of concentration, comparable to those of his grandfather Sigmund Freud, who founded psychoanalysis on the practice of wilful, relentless exposure. Lucian Freud did several masterful paintings of his first wife, Kitty: she did not have to be naked as the painter's psychological penetration was so deep. But in one, Girl with Dog(1950), her breast is exposed in close proximity to a dog, which has its head in her lap. My poem goes, 
(in part):

Smart the dog that commands
the bend of the leg, the turn
that offers calf and thigh

the staunch hip under the downy gown,
its plaited tassel dangling
from her lap to slightly-parted knees,
and the rest-point of the dog's muzzle:

its muscular folds of flesh and bone –
like her shoulder and collar-bone
like the planes of her lips and cheeks,
their lustre of dried-out seashells

off-setting the glints and gleams:
on fingernails, nostrils, nipple,
along the pod of a lower lip,
in pupils, swimmy rims (the four of them).

Folds of its neck, folds of her gown.
Her arch of foot a swollen flipper.
A dog with the weight of a seal.
Their waters warm and rhyme.

Freud has long loved painting his figures in the company of his dogs, treating their bodies with the same regard as his human sitter, making ‘double portraits'. In the exquisite juxtaposition of 1985, his female subject in a grey dress is as relaxed as a cat asleep in a basket. Later on, the human bodies – men as well as women – will be naked with the animals, their warmth and smells together.

‘I'm really interested in people as animals,' Freud has said. ‘Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more. And it's also exciting to see the forms repeating themselves right through the body, and often in the head as well. I like people to look as natural and physically at ease as animals, as Pluto, my whippet.'

We look at his double portraits and feel our nakedness domesticated in deep creaturely ways. A gift. By the same token, we know Freud has turned the tables on us, as did Degas when he explained how he did those candid revelations of women in their domestic interiors: ‘I show them deprived of their airs and graces, reduced to the level of animals cleaning themselves.'

One aspect of being naked is experiencing the question: what level of nature do we wish to be on?

Very occasionally, Freud has led us outdoors, where we might – if we are lucky – experience our body strength differently. Well almost, but Freud's allusion to this dimension of nakedness can be palpable. One of my favourites is Naked Portrait Standing, which he did only eight years ago. The girl is painted in his rough, late style, the paint almost pitted. Tangibility is the thing because its inspiration was an elm tree painted by Constable. Freud so loved the Constable study that one day he sat down before a tree and tried to render its bark. Impossible! For all his own skills as a realist, the tree defeated him, but you can feel its presence as soon as you try to describe the woman he planted on the bare boards of his studio, where:

... in the room's muffled glow,
– forgetting sun dashed upon stones, the waterwheels–
he grows her thighs up from the floor,

muddies her shinbone, her loins, its leaf-litter,
makes her belly caterpillar creamy
her heart-space pale as a sheet,

lets her strong arms, folded behind her
branch in their own rough ways,
mottles her face, ruddies its downward gaze

under that thatch –
wet and as stiffened as a hay stack
out from which her bark pupils stare.

Her torso is a tree with a copse
of saplings packed into it.

(Daphne on Floorboards)

Freud did not paint a woman fully naked until the late 1960s. No, this is not quite true. He did Naked ChildLaughing in 1963, and the child is one of his daughters. ‘A waterfall of mirth,' my poems goes, ‘has splashed her upper body white ... She is naked spirit/clothed in happiness.'

‘My work,' Freud has also famously declared, ‘is entirely autobiographical. It's all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really.' I like this statement. It feels healthily ambiguous, at one with the sphere of nakedness we experience, surely, in our own families: body to body, unspoken, 
full of an ease we strive to accept with regard to each other's company – whether we are looking at each other or not.

But this kind of confirming domestic settlement about being naked only goes so far with Freud's work, which seldom fails to be unsettling. His Naked Girl (1966) is a case in point. The critic Sebastian Smee gives a vivid and accepting description that I found my poem had to engage: ‘On the face of it the picture couldn't be simpler, less conceited: a girl lies down on a bed and the painter paints her. And yet the finished work is full of visceral contradictions. The girl's pose is at once self-protecting (legs together) and abandoned (her arms have fallen into place in the most natural, unselfconscious way). Her body is foreshortened, but also tipped up towards the viewer, since nothing anchors the bed she lies on in a flat, conventionally receding space. Her legs are cropped just before the knee and her pink fleshy sex, squeezed between her two thick sallow thighs, is exposed. Exposed yet not inviting in a salacious way – just there. It is what it is.'

Two years later, Freud painted the same girl again. Against Smee's sweet acceptance of the first study I had my own ‘visceral contradictions' towards what seems to be a sacrificial offering. The poem is named after the painting, Naked Girl Asleep:

Asleep –
open to the night air
her hips aswivel, the feet
could be nailed there.

Do we bleed on her behalf
or for ourselves alone
on the night deck?
Years pass.

I can't help standing both
above and below her –
naked as abalone,
raised and slightly open
on the painter's mast.

Innocence, innocence,
and the grey green sheets
she has been tossed on.

I am of her flesh
yet I want to scrape myself
clean with a knife.

By the 1970s, Freud was painting freely in his new way, making his grand equations between paint and flesh, moulding bodies to his touch, as if with clay. He wanted to break out of tight forms, and be as technically and emotionally free as his good friend Francis Bacon who was stripping bodies to a scream. He was by then also doing the great paintings of his mother, which he started in 1970, after his father died. In her grief, his mother had tried to kill herself but she had been found in time and brought back to life to live out the rest of her years sick and depressed. In those years, on most days for more than ten years, Freud painted her. These works – tender and detailed, majestically composed – are a sustained homage that no other major painter has achieved with regard to his mother, a woman whose ‘insight' into her son, Freud, had always felt to be oppressive and possessive. Of these paintings you might say, as Auden wrote in his poem about Sigmund Freud, that they ‘gave back to the son the mother's richness of feeling'.

This is what we should always bear in mind about painting: it is always both a gift and a recovery of something. It is why the paintings of naked bodies touch us so deeply. Some kind of exchange is taking place, and it unsettles us even if we do not quite know what it is.

The years when he was painting his mother to death, so to speak, he painted his way into the deep nakedness that so confirms and tests us. He did the mother of one of his children in a foetal position, for all the world aching with misery. In another work he put the same woman in the presence of his mother, each oblivious to the other. And he painted his mother's granddaughter more nakedly than any father has dared to do. Perhaps the prone presence of the mother empowered the son with some permission to transgress. Then, towards the end of this period with his mother, he did the pregnant woman who most candidly confronts us with our beginning: Naked Portrait II (1980-81), a sexual exposure as explicit as Courbet's famous close-up, The Origin of the World.

The Courbet, of course, is one of the great erotic works – at least to the male gaze. The picture shows only the belly, thighs and loins of the woman, her lips slightly open to her clitoris. By most definitions it is pornographic. Lacan once owned it and kept it behind a curtain, offering peep shows to those inclined.

The Freud painting invites nothing like that. The woman is slumped, blotchy and a few days before giving birth. The painting simply presents a fact of life, as you might see it in a labour ward, or as a father might see it before the birth of his child. And deep down it can't help but invoke those flickers of suppressed imagining of what one's own mother might have looked like, transgressively witnessed.

When it came to writing in response to Naked Portrait II, I found myself having to tease these components up and out from my memory and unconscious. It had to be a poem that confronted the focus of my own erotic gaze, while locating it with regard to the ‘origin of the world'. I have no idea whether the poem works or not. Suffice perhaps to say it's called ‘Mercurial Awe', and that today I'm not in the mood for citing it; and that in the poem I found that I had to settle, finally, for writing the word ‘cunt'.

If he didn't work all of the time, Freud told Sebastian Smee, he would feel like ‘a prize cunt'. The painter speaks like that, as I do often enough. The moral and artistic question provoked by Freud's naked bodies is the extent to which we are obliged to be as frank as the paintings. Over the years I have been looking at Freud's figures, I've felt that their blunt candour sometimes demanded an equally plain-speaking response.

Perhaps I should say ‘shameless'. Freud himself has solicited the nerve to be shameless. It was the term he used when he first saw Courbet's The Bathers, and felt he might never be able to be as shameless as the great French painter of large and sometimes sleeping women, their flesh rendered with painterly gusto. It was in the spirit of shamelessness he once urged his art students to paint themselves naked.

This he did to and for himself, eventually – in 1993 – producing the astonishing Painter Working, Reflection, a full-frontal self-portrait of him waving his palette knife, well hung and standing in lace-less boots – a study packed with irony and pathos. In skill and courage, it rivals anything done by the great self-portraitists, Rembrandt or Titian, Cezanne or Van Gogh, Munch or Picasso. And because it is so naked, it demonstrates that what Freud asks of others he is prepared to give of himself.

Overall, the grandeur of Freud consists in the invitation he keeps extending to us to keep looking fearlessly. When we do, I feel, shame falls away as something inimical to nature. Which is not to say that the issue of shame has disappeared into all of Freud's naked clay.

 

TO MY MIND, the most naked of Freud's bodies is the painting Portrait of Rose (1978-79). Rose is one of his daughters. She is lying back on the familiar settee, one hand shading her face, it seems, from the studio nightlight. Her muscular torso commands the picture, as do her strong legs, one bent up on the settee, the other stretched towards the viewer and the floor. You notice, first of all, every facet of her construction, the flesh treated with the patience with which Cezanne painted the stone of Mount Sainte-Victoire. And you can't help noticing the sheet stretched between the toes of one foot and the other lower leg – a drape that creates a strange tension with the languid pose of the body. I mention these things because they are so fully present: they constitute the work of a great painter who has also composed a picture where his daughter's loins are in full view. I have yet to meet a viewer – man or woman – who has not been jolted by the picture's explicitness. Rose's slit is done with ruddy application, perhaps with a hint of menstrual blood.

It is possible to say that Freud has done no more than paint his daughter as he has painted every other thing hitherto – plants, dogs, horses, friends and acquaintances, the various women who have given him children, the rags he has used to wipe his brushes, the leather chair upon which so many have placed their naked behinds. These are objects before they are subjects in the material world, and Rose is one object among them who simply happens to be his daughter, and who was, as a matter of fact, delighted to be asked to sit for her father.

‘When Daddy asked me ...' she has explained, she didn't hesitate to say ‘yes'. Daddy had painted so many other women. Daddy had not seen much of her since she was a small girl. Being his subject was a way of getting to know him. When the painting was done, they went on a wonderful holiday together in Brittany.

I am paraphrasing from the gushing voice you could hear in the headphones at the Tate, when Freud had his great retrospective in 2002.

What the recording was doing, of course, was proving permission, and illustrating something of the culture that belongs to the studio of a serious painter: the working habits of truth-seeking, the project of endless scrutiny of all that draws him.

‘The painting is very much done with their co-operation,' Freud has explained, speaking generally. ‘The problem with painting a nude, of course, is that it deepens the transaction. You can scrap a painting of someone's face and it imperils the sitter's self-esteem less than scrapping a painting of the whole naked body. We know our faces, after all. We see them every day, out there at large in the mirror or the photo. But we don't scrutinise our bodies to the same degree, unless we are professional models, whom I don't use, or extreme narcissists, whom I can't use.'

For many years, Freud had four words painted on a door in his studio: URGENT SUBTLE CONCISE ROBUST. As a coded manifesto, it fits with his antipathy to works and bodies in works that exude narcissism. Freud's achievement in the sphere of naked is to have honoured all of our bodies with an urgent, robust and subtle concision of presence. In an earthly way, he makes us inescapable to ourselves without narcissism. No 
mean feat.

 

I SAY THIS without having resolved my recoil at Freud having painted a daughter so exposed – and yet, at another level, how is that different from his grandfather's analysis of his daughter, Anna – if the details had been so intrusive and then published? The fact simply is, though, that I cannot for the life of me imagine sustaining such a gaze with my daughter. Portrait of Rose (1978-79) made me want to challenge the imperial assumption that the gaze of the contemporary painter may be turned to anything he likes. Indeed, by what right do we scrutinise what we claim to love (assuming love is the word)?

As a reflection on the types and tenor of family intimacies, I found myself doing a long poem called A Look to Cure. It concerns my daughter's blood, with which I became intimately involved when she was five, when she contracted diabetes, until she was about eleven and had learnt to inject herself with the insulin. For years, each morning we had to sit side by side as I pricked her thumb to get a drop of blood to test. Then we had to find the least painful part of her body to stick the needle in. All that could justify this sustained invasion of her body, we both knew, was the notion of care. All that can finally justify Freud's gaze upon an utterly exposed daughter is, it seems to me, something beyond his art project.

It was one of Freud's most naked of subjects, the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, who put the hard question in 1991: ‘When did you get the idea of working from your grown-up naked daughters?'

‘When I started painting naked people.'

‘It must make things, well, slightly extreme.'

‘My naked daughters,' Freud replied, ‘have nothing to be ashamed of.'

The slippage is plain to see. The issue pertains to the shame of the father, not the daughter.

In the end, rather than write a poem charged with moral indignation, I made a slippage of my own: from poetry into prose – an ethnographic reflection on how, in some cultures, it is customary for fathers to offer their wives to other men, their daughters there in the wings, presences to be negotiated with more elaborate ceremony. That is an overwhelming aspect of an exhibition like the one at the Tate in 2002: once on show, each individual, each body, is a public offering – daughters included. I can't help feeling that Freud and I might belong to different tribes, although I have to say, undermining myself at the last minute, that Freud painted one of his adult sons as naked as the day he was born!

The Bowery works are one of Freud's great achievements. As with the paintings of his mother, of the pregnant woman and of his daughter, there is nothing quite like them – as bold and as truly realised – in Western art. Freud found Bowery beautiful and that is what shows – with a body as impressive as the Torso Belvedere, which Michelangelo loved, and a skin painted with the lustre of satin. Bowery is the most naked of Freud's men because he is not in slack, dormant repose, but a figure with generous springy proportions that he flaunts, dangling before the viewer as he must have done before the painter, and looking out at us as brazenly as did Manet's Olympia, the prostitute making her presence so felt, such a breach of art's decorum that the bourgeoisie had to banish her image from the salon. The fact that we now know Bowery – clubbers in London and New York knew at the time Freud was painting him – as a drag queen of the most provocative kind, famous for giving simulated bloody births on stage, for scatological performances as well as his bondage and space-age costumes, adds to the inescapably natural power of the portraits.

I came and went from the rooms at the Tate trying to get Bowery in perspective, as it were, his presence in the huge paintings enough to test any heterosexual gaze. My self-consciousness was heightened at that time by renting, as it happened, a room in the Islington flat of the celebrated Australian artist Mathew Jones, whose mother lived around the corner from me in Queenscliff, Victoria. Mathew, whose own art took off around the AIDS moment in New York, looked at me askance over our first drink (Bowery died of AIDS, unbeknown to Freud until near the end).

‘You don't know Leigh Bowery?'

‘No.'

‘You don't know Leigh Bowery?'

‘Not really.'

‘You don't know Leigh Bowery. I mean, Leigh Bowery?!!'

‘Give me a fucking break, Mathew.'

After that we got on well. Jones was nakedly sceptical about my even being in London, all the better to see Freud live, so to speak. To whatever general remarks I made about Freud's ‘themes', he would reply: he was just making a picture!

Towards the end of my stay, Jones agreed to come to the Tate and see for himself. A kid on roller skates could not have gone from room to room faster or smoother. Obviously a nasty pasty, he said at one point; at others he threw out his hand – masterpiece, he said, masterpiece.

One of the masterpieces I loved, and had been visiting each day. And I should mention it, in case I have given the impression that Freud has been stuck on the meaty aspects of bodies and is incapable of painting women with straightforward tenderness.

Annabel Sleeping (1978) shows another of his daughters. She is curled up in a dressing gown, her back to the viewer, bare feet tucked up. The gown is a blue Fra Angelico might have used. The paint has been applied sumptuously. The work is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Annabel Annabel in celestial blue
you have turned away
for God knows what.

Your gown contains you
and the soles of your feet
are there to be washed.

 

JONES AND I completed our tour without pausing before Leigh Bowery. I had by then grown accustomed to the big man's assertiveness, realising that I was imaginatively drawn to him for another reason entirely: he was Australian, born and bred in the Western suburbs of Melbourne like myself. Bowery's body knew what I knew: the long summers, the sea, the hot winds, the northerlies that dried the washing our mothers had hung up on the line in the backyard. That lustrous skin of his knew sunlight, fitness, the pleasures of action – such a contrast to most of Freud's figures with whom I was keeping company at the Tate: bodies pallid and flaccid, dormant and lack-lustre, confined to rooms without windows, exposed in a bright, sour light. Their melancholia, a mood that our naked bodies can sometimes cultivate if we let them, was oppressing me by that stage of my return visit to London, the beloved city where I had grown up in my twenties. And Bowery was kin for another reason: he was yet another Australian expatriate who had made his mark on the English establishment, having been taken in for his daring.

Freud painted him for some years, most intimately in And the Bridegroom, done in 1993, not long before Bowery married one of Freud's other models. The painting shows them lying down together, a very skinny naked woman beside a whale of a man, which makes you shudder at the thought of them coupling. ‘How did she come near him?' my poem asks. ‘Or did she lie down like a lamb not to be slaughtered?' It's called ‘Oiling Hercules':

Thanks to my good compatriot Leigh Bowery
I remember that enduring work in the dockside wool-mills,
bending under the low iron roof in summer,
picking dags from the wool then pushing the wool
in heaps that fluffed and bobbed across the wide floor,
clearing the boards like a stage set for shearing –
our bodies (a schoolmate and myself,
eighteen-year-olds, good swimmers)
heaved over the waves, their tang,
the big whiff of their dungy grease in our nostrils.

It was a long performative push across the floor
to the hole in the shed's sweating boards
where, hooked up down there, a full drop,
a great bail awaited us with a man in it.
Masser. Masser of the wide arms and chest
and shoulders that took with ease the bulk
we delivered to him in regular bouts,
his meaty arms, hands catching the foam,
calming it to wool, patting it down
so as to be able to tread on it
stomp on it as more came down
packing it into the bail in a dance that was continuous ...

... The painter, self-soiled, oils his Hercules
forcing the ugly question up between the bare boards.

 

SPEAKING OF UGLINESS – which our bare bodies have to live with in all manner of ways, especially as we age, or let ourselves slip, creating an argument with our bodies at different times of our lives, perhaps all our lives in some cases – Freud has magnificently transcended ugliness. The celebrated case is his subject, Sue Tilley, who is huge. And the great paintings of her are so fully addressed that they are another unprecedented achievement by Freud, as no other artist has taken such a subject upon himself. Admittedly there is an air of social condescension in Freud naming her in paintings as the ‘Benefits Supervisor'. But before long everyone in London knew her name as distinct from her social rank, and Freud was on record as revelling in painting her with all her blotches and contortions – ‘flesh without muscle' which had ‘developed a different kind of texture through being such a weight-bearing thing'.

The result is humbling. Stand awhile with the paintings of big Sue and you overcome the banality of her being ‘fat'. The fact of ‘fat' gets lost in the fullness of her individual presence, the way she inhabits her body with such a power of acceptance, affirmation. Her individual and unique body, I mean – not some Rubenesque torso offered as a defiance of the Greek ideal, which she shows up as a kind of cock-eyed departure from reality. The paintings of her are straightforwardly, unapologetically there, as the woman in them is there in her own life. Maybe, at some deep level, her massive female figure resonates like those prehistoric fertility sculptures. But mainly the feeling generated by Freud is closer to the atmosphere that belongs to Rembrandt's larger women, an addition to the history of Humanism. Once I got over the initial squirms of being with Tilley, I found I was writing poems which adopted what I imagined to be her voice – a mark of otherness that no other Freud painting had prompted in me. It's a chirpy cognisant voice at one with itself in the artist's studio and in tune with the magnanimity that Freud brings to his creaturely human presences:

how should I place my whole weight
the weight I am when glutinously
askew from the afternoon, loosened
for war's end? How can one be at ease
seen from three angles: no benefits there
though he pays me, pays me fair ...

(Evening in the Studio, 1993)

 

FOR SOME TIME, actually, Magnanimity was the working title of my book of poems. Freud is possibly some kind of closing chapter in the long modern history of rendering the body naked in defiance of ideal forms. His bodies remind us that it takes some doing to appraise ourselves truthfully in public, so to speak. We learnt to do so via various causes celebres, well-known signposts in art history – the 1868 scandal over Manet's Olympia, for example, which ushered in the direct gaze of the carnal lower orders – and the slow seepage of the sexually commonplace, such as Walter Sickert's Camden Town series, in which plump naked tarts loll on beds in seedy rooms, the iron bedrails as much a statement of reality as the glimpse a painting might offer of the fully dressed gentleman caller. Sickert's work is as psychologically frank as it is graphically – taking his cue from his mentor Degas, who painted in the shadow of Rodin at his most explicit. This point came home to me a couple of years after the Freud retrospective at the Tate, while I was still trying to code the arrival of his naked bodies, the journey they had made along the byways and highways of art history.

The exhibition that soon followed Freud at the Tate was the judicious Degas, Sickert & Toulouse-Lautrec: London & Paris 1870-1910. The ideal forms of Venus were very much on the minds of painters such as Sickert and Bonnard, referenced in various ways, the better to usurp them with more explicit realities. The quintessentially explicit was provided by the sculptural forms of Rodin, most conspicuously with Iris, the fragment of a torso where the girl's legs are wide open. The curators at the Tate put Iris at the centre of the exhibition. The torso functions, as a catalogue essay put it, almost like a ‘mute, de-anthropomorphised face', and the fragmentation intensifies the ‘boldness and frankness of the female genitalia'. Sickert painted foreshortened woman as if they were sculptural fragments, and his L'Affaire de Camden Town is a natural companion to Iris: as one of the curators remarks, it's as if he has popped Iris into bed. But there is an important difference. Rodin names Iris a Messenger of the Gods, and there is no suggestion of a god in anything Sickert painted. His rooms are what they are: bare of belief, pregnant only with a kind of sour carnality.

And so it can be with Freud. Most often, he leaves sex out of it, offering us figures whose sexual temperature is so low that we take a look and forget all about it – a depressing reminder of what our bodies might become, in their sad, due course. The sourness, then, is in the rooms Freud paints, the floors bare, the tap dripping in a stained sink. When Freud does sex, the atmosphere is no brighter: think of the big painting Australians now know at first hand, After Cezanne, which hangs in the National Gallery. The painting shows a naked threesome: a man and a women on a bed, awkwardly turned away from each other as a second woman enters the room carrying cups on a tray. Everything signals misery and estrangement and you can't help feeling, apropos of the painting, that Freud has taken pleasure in its studied ugliness. In aesthetic terms, it is well and truly after Cezanne. The original that inspired Freud is a gem of mysterious erotic enthusiasm.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Freud's defiance of the ideal forms applies to men as well as women. In the history of the explicit, it is easy to remain preoccupied with the female figure and to muse, in a John Berger-esque way, about capitalism and the construction of the male gaze. But this only goes so far. It doesn't touch the atmosphere created by Freud's sustained treatment of both men and women, often in each other's company, each done with equal candour, with every body scrutinised all over, genitals and all – the ‘all', in the final analysis, being the thing.

Perhaps what is most naked about his figures is their isolation from each other. One person's body is usually turned away from the other. They seldom meet each other's gazes – or the painter's or ours either. It would be a relief to be able to say that Freud's sitters are turned inwards. But that is not the feeling at all. Rather they seem to be asleep, and not just because the painter has given them permission to be so, since they must, on average, sit for a total of eighty hours. There is something abandoned about them, as if they have come to the end of the line ...

They dream oases
having come a long way
baked in an earlier light
and now settled, in some shade.
No salt, a few wizened dates ...

The mirror is cracked.
Dance has left the belly

(Oasis)

Twenty years ago, Robert Hughes wrote a splendid essay on Freud in which he remarked that, for all the angularities and nakedness, ‘they (the paintings) bypass decorum while fiercely preserving respect'. True. It is what comes through after the registrations of gender and genitals have taken place and the larger truths start to seep in, truths that put his bodies out of the realm of desire. The terms ‘realist' or ‘realism' don't easily summarise those truths, by the way. Freud has never had any realist program, as did Courbet. And, as Sebastian Smee has pointed out, there is a theatrical streak in his work that flouts realism. Freud himself speaks of ‘revelation'.

‘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.'

As a result, and as Hughes points out, ‘The body is new every time.'

Found and refound as new, time after time.

For most of his life, Freud has worked all day and half the night, concentrating on several pictures at once, needing his subjects to sit for weeks and months at a time, developing what he calls a ‘concourse' between himself and them, arranging them in a studio he himself hardly steps out of, and to which he is almost regressively attached – as we can see from the paintings that show the encrustations of paint on the walls and on the floors, littered as they are with the soiled rags from his brushes, rags that pile up around his easel and his subjects, the interminable signs of toil and pleasure taken in the presence of bodies we recognise as belonging to a unique sector of London life at a certain epoch in its history, obviously, but which also draw our attention to ourselves, whoever we are in our naked and uniquely Western and material bodies, like them or not.

The point is: this is what Freud has been making for himself and for us. What he has been seeking is some truth of bodies in all their forms, in their essence, which must always elude him, as he has gone on being an archetypal procreational self. A poet might be forgiven for adopting the voice of a painter. My book's last poem is called Alchemy:

Paint of my flesh
flesh that is yours,
more paint, more that is yours
in my painterly hands.

My hand along your brow
your brow guiding my hand,
my thoughts at your throat
your throat showing me how.

My flesh, your flesh,
ours to the touch,
the matter at hand alchemy
a distance from us.

Yet oddly close to me
my memory, my loves –
the gleamings, slippery trust,
the heat in the brush

and my self-caress
its boundlessness, its
tautological finesse.
Wedding after wedding in pigment.

Pure stone to pure stone.
The fire out of lead.
The whole burning white.
A hole in my head.

A heart crossed with itself
from beginning to end,
fist over fist
a finish begins again.

Umbilical rainbows,
a placenta as palette,
the smearing and honouring
of kith and kin,

etchings of angels
I won't let in.
Such is the wonder
the full spectrum

of my cell's birthing,
nursery returning, a crib
(coagulations, emissions) –
a crucible fundamental.

 

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