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June 02, 2006

Christopher Peachment mourns the decline of British figurative painting: Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach at the V&A

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Freud & Auerbach at the V&A: New Paintings
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
25th April – 29th May 2006
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

Christopher Peachment feels let down by the small V&A show of recent works by the grand old men of figurative painting, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.

Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach have become the grand old men of figurative painting, although that may be largely from lack of competition in the field. But to go to the recent small exhibition of their works at the V&A is to see their weaknesses painfully exposed.

That they are both figurative painters is one reason to hang them together, but there are more good reasons not to, beginning with their very different styles. Moreover they are hung in the same room as some Constables and Turners, and the reason for that is harder to see. It does neither of them any favours. According to the art critic Richard Cork, who did a "rare" interview with both of them in The Times, Freud is "very moved by Constable". He is also described as "sprightly". (Why are the old always described as "sprightly"?)

Freud's corner is dominated by his portrait of David Dawson, a former shepherd and now Freud's assistant. The face is the good part of the painting. It captures a fleeting grin, and that ability to catch the moment as it flies has not always been Freud’s strength in the past. His models are more usually vacant.

The face is good, but the torso is inept. The left shoulder seems wider than the right, and both belong more to the current Governor of California rather than an artist's assistant, so perhaps he works out. The trunk of the body is a lump of rubber, lacking a skeleton beneath it, as if someone had thrown a boned side of meat down on an armchair. (One can see why Bacon admired Freud, at least initially. Sides of meat were Bacon's thing.) But it is the right arm and hand which reveal most painfully an alarming desertion of technique. The hand in particular is an acne'd botch of over-painting, which looks like a photo from a medical journal, from the section on skin diseases.

The head is too small for the body, giving an impression that the man is a cartoon pinhead, and it sits off centre on the body. The whippet lying across his lap is also uneven in its rendering, although there is something touching about it. It's curious how much more moved by animals than humans so many modern painters are, and that would include Picasso.

Critics have made allusions to a Madonna and Child. That is true of the pose, but once past that analogy you are still left with the fact that the sitter is a man, and the creature in his lap is not a baby but a dog. There is nothing exalted or religious about the painting. And no angels that I could see.

Also in the exhibition is a painting by Freud of his garden, which looks like an interesting throwback in style, and could easily have been found in an exhibition of the 1880s, in which the lessons of the impressionists had been fully absorbed and mimicked by a lesser generation. In contrast to the stillness of Constables in the room, it is very busy, with the colours rushing at you in profusion.

Auerbach however shows up badly against Freud. He has not changed his style for many years now, and his characteristic stabs of dark paint, thrown in profusion over the canvas, still look murky and uncomposed.

There was one portrait of a head which I passed by quickly since I felt little attraction to it. But then I caught sight of the title, which was Head of David Landau. That pulled me up short, because David Landau is an acquaintance of mine. I cannot claim to know him well, but I have met him perhaps twenty times over the past years. But I did not recognise him from the portrait, which looks nothing like him.

And the more I looked at it, desperately searching for some detail of recognition, the more I realised that in fact the portrait resembled no one. Its features are so indeterminate that not only is it impossible to say that it is a likeness, it is impossible to say that it represents anyone’s head at all. It is a human head only in the sense that Easter Island statues or faces on a totem pole are human heads.

This might be the point of the whole thing. Figurative art has sometimes tended towards the abstract, in an attempt to render the particular universal. But if that is the intention, then why call it the Head of David Landau. It is no such thing.

So too with Auerbach's landscapes of Mornington Crescent. I have walked that area often enough to know my way around. But there is nothing in Auerbach's paintings which I recognise. Inasmuch as they are landscapes at all, they are as abstract as, say, Ivon Hitchens' fictional landscapes. This might seem a rather literal judgement. But then I am reminded of a poet's declaration:

I am a poet. I do not approximate.
One gets no sense here of any grand statement which is often found in the late works of artists approaching the end of their working lives. No rendering down of a lifetime's art. No stripping away of irrelevancies towards a summation of achievement. Just the same old tricks they've always been using. It's a letdown, especially from Freud. We want better from grand old men.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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