This year marks the passing of one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century, Lucian Michael Freud OM CH (1922 – 2011). As a central member of the School of London, Freud was an artist who challenged the dominance of abstraction and painted exclusively in a figurative style. The National Gallery of Australia has one of his most significant late paintings, After Cézanne, 1999 – 2000, an intriguing and impressive example of the artist’s mature style.
Freud, the grandson of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin. His family moves to Britain in 1993 and later he became a citizen. Freud completed his formal art studies in 1943 and held his first solo exhibition the following year. For most of his life he painted portraits, characterised by their psychological depth and unflinching emotional honesty.
After Cézanne is an impressive and large painting that took Freud nearly nine months to complete. It stands out as one of the artist’s few deliberately ‘theatrical’ works, where the subjects act out an implied narrative. This story derives in part from the French master Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906), from whom Freud takes his theme, but is also expressed in the human drama at the centre of the work.
In the 1870s, Cézanne completed a series of small paintings entitled Afternoon in the Naples based around a boudoir scene. Freud bought one of these works at auction in 1999, and another is in the National Gallery Collection. Both works show two lovers resting on a bed while a maid enters carrying a tray. These pictures are light, sensual scenes that demonstrate Cézanne’s interest in the classical subject of the nude, and his engagement with masters such as Titian and Manet.
Freud’s After Cézanne translates the French artist’s work on a monumental scale. While his painting retains the two lovers and a maid, the mood is completely different. At the heart of the painting is a tense moment between the man and woman, who sit on a pile of crumpled sheets. Although the scene implies an intimate moment, the body language between the two appears strained. She touches him with a look of concern; he turns away, leaning on a block of stairs which seems to lead out of the work – but doesn’t.
Freud applies paint in a thick impasto style. He distinguishes between the male and female bodies in his choice of colours and technique. The women are softly modelled in a peachy pink palette, while the man is depicted in darker colours accentuated with reds and browns. The rest of the painting is marked by muted tones, with an emphasis on brown and yellow hues.
This scene, like most of Freud’s paintings, is set in his studio. More than a mere backdrop, the studio is a character in the drama. The grungy interior, with its peeling walls and dirty floor boards, adds to the tense atmosphere. The overturned green chair in the foreground mirrors the disorder in the painting, while the cabinet against the back wall suggests enigmatic secrets. Like the figures themselves, Freud makes no sense to ‘romanticise’ the room. He retains the rising damp lines on the back wall, which in this case appears like the silhouette of distant mountains.
One of the most striking aspects of After Cézanne is the unusual shaped canvas. Freud often added sections to his painting if he felt that it was necessary to complete the work. In this case, a small canvas was joined when he decided to show the maid’s entire body. Interestingly, Freud did not make the addition the full length across the top. The final work echoes the shape of the block of stairs.
Another significant change was to the maid. She was originally dressed in a gown but was later painted in the nude. This reworking can be traced in the layers of paint streaks visible around her back. By portraying her in the same manner as the two lovers, the maid is no longer a secondary figure as she was in Cézanne’s work; instead, she becomes a key player in the drama. Her presence raises additional questions about the complex relationships in the painting. Is she interrupting the scene, or is she entering it? The relationship between the three figures is never articulated.
Lucian Freud’s After Cézanne is a compelling painting with an ambiguous meaning. More than an appropriation, it is a visual re-imagining of Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples that also intensifies the human drama. Freud’s interest in the character of his subjects is emphasised by his unflinching and honest depiction. Although the painting contains few elements, every object reflects the larger sense of disorder.
In this work, one of Freud’s most ambitious and intriguing, numerous questions are posed but never answered.
Originally published as “National Gallery of Australia Collection: Lucien Freud,” in Antiques & Art in NSW, December 2011 to March 2012, p 96.