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Freud’s view of fleshy damnation

27 September 2013

A NEW biography of the painter Lucian Freud, by Geordie Greig, is due out next week. Extracts have already been published in the press, highlighting his voracious sexual appetite and his appalling relationships with his children - of whom there are thought to be up to 40, by different women.

Freud was undeniably a great and gifted painter. What he is best known for is his relentless exposure of the human body in terms of flesh. His heads, nudes, and animals are a revelation of the fleshiness of flesh; highly and variably coloured, they are bruised, made brilliant, and exposed as though by life itself.

His relationship with his models was intense, protracted, and sometimes passionate; what ended up on the canvas was a metaphor for his possession of them, his utter determination to penetrate them to the core, and render them up as he had come to see them.

The fashion model Kate Moss once posed for him, as did one of his daughters, but many of his sitters were anonymous. Freud was a guilt-free zone in relation to women. He does not seem to have seen women really as people. Women would slip silently into his studio while he was painting, and wait in the bathroom. He would take a break, leaving the person he was painting for a few minutes, while he had sex with them.

Freud's concern to reduce humanity to coloured flesh was as intense as his grandfather Sigmund's concern to dissect humanity in terms of conflicting psychological impulses. Both shared a reductionist instinct that is ultimately inimical to any account of human beings as related to a loving God.

Sigmund, at least, was humane, even lovable. His compassion for his patients contradicted his bleak assessment of the human condition. But the truth that Lucian saw in his subjects was a truth that found little place for love. They sprawl - frail flesh, at the mercy of the painter. They disturb because they have no voice, no interior life, no relationship other than that with the artist.

Looking back to the portraits, I realise that what I see (what I am meant to see?) is humanity without a trace of God. Yet, as a believer, I cannot leave the matter there. Lucian Freud was a genius in his wayward way, and his legacy is to show us what it might mean to be damned: to be exposed as nothing but flesh, to eyes that see nothing but flesh. Kyrie eleison.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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