Bruce Bernard’s photograph of Lucian Freud in His Studio has been cannily hung as a visual preface to an impressive, beautifully arranged retrospective of Freud’s etchings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Here the painter stares at his photographer with a quizzical expression on his face. He wears a light blue shirt and loose-fitting trousers and stands with one or two pieces of necessary furniture about him – posing props, mostly – while in the background hangs a large work in progress, a double-portrait in oils. No one has captured Freud’s London studio, that strange world apart in London W11, with the acuity and sensitivity of Bernard, and here the painter comes across an almost feral creature, an artist-animal captured in his lair of creation. With hindsight, the photograph has been lent additional poignancy by the fact of Bernard’s death from cancer not long after after it was taken. Freud’s usual alert and slightly hunted stare seems shadowed by solicitude. Mortality is in the air.
Freud’s own Head of Bruce Bernard (1985) turns out to be one of the best of the many etchings in this, the first retrospective of his works in that medium. Like most of the artist’s etchings it is small in scale, a close-cropped study of a man’s face and nothing else. The painter has caught Bernard brilliantly with the etching needle, capturing the bony contours of his high and bulbous forehead, the intelligent surliness in his gaze, the slight laziness of the left eye, the puggish nose and the set, down-turned mouth.
Freud’s career as an etcher began in the late 1940s, when he was still painting in a tight, minute style influenced by Flemish Renaissance masters and the German painters of the 1920s associated with Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). A few oils from different periods of Freud’s career have been threaded through the Edinburgh exhibition, to allow for comparison between his work as etcher and painter, and the opening gallery contains his early portrait of Kitty Garman (later to be his wife), Girl in a Dark Jacket. Viewed as if through a wide angle lens, but in extreme close-up, she seems larger than life. Her frizzy hair flickers with nervous electricity, the seismograph of an anxiety lying within. Her eyes are wide, pupils dilated, and painted so closely that the patterns in their green irises resemble fine marbling. Eyes often seem peeled in Freud’s early work, haunted and haunting, and this applies to the early etchings too. Girl with a Fig Leaf (1947) is an etched portrait of Kitty, her face partly obscured by the fig leaf which she holds in her left-hand. She is reduced by this obstruction to a single startled eye, a patch of cheek and forehead and a framing fall of scribbled curvilinear hair. She might be a traumatized Eve, just expelled from paradise.
Ill in Paris (1948) is another portrait of Kitty, this time as a bedridden convalescent, her face half-crushed into the pillow of an iron-framed bed. One eye is almost pressed shut, the other is wide-open and worried, seemingly transfixed by the spiky rose at her bedside, its single leaf as sharp as a switch-blade. This hotel-room indoors, portending the airless indoor settings for so many of Freud’s paintings, is framed as a refuge from the threat of who knows what.
A bare handful of other etchings were made by the young Freud but each works to enhance a sense of the world as a potentially hostile and cruel place. Rose (1948) might depict the same flower that so troubles Kitty, with its defensively furled bloom and thorns extruded at harmful angles. The Bird, created two years earlier, is an almost diagrammatic etching, concentrating more on the bars that cage the bird than the bird itself, a pair of wings and a sad eye. Like most of Freud’s departures from his otherwise singleminded focus on the living model, this pair of prints seems to promise some coded, scattered clues to his mentality. He sees life in terms of threat, refuge, captivity and cruelty. This is not surprising, given that Freud himself had been a refugee from the murderous anti-semitism of Germany under the National Socialists. Freud’s abiding sense of the precious, vulnerable singularity of individual human beings is likely to have been shaped by the historical circumstances of his youth.
Freud’s abruptly abandoned etching at the end of the 1940s and only returned to it in 1982. His etchings of the last twenty years are marked by a greater assurance and a considerably enriched technical vocabulary – a more complex use of line, the employment of varnish to stop-out areas of highlight and create much greater variety of tone, manifest for instance in his portrait of Bruce Bernard – but the thread of the artist’s preoccupations seems unbroken. One of the earliest etchings from Freud’s “second period” is a powerfully immediate portrait of The Painter’s Mother, which seems almost dashed off by comparison with the portrait of her in oils shown beside it (Freud has said that what he likes about etching is its spontaneity: “One dip. Really quick and dangerous”). In the painting, the artist’s mother seems calm, reflective, her equanimity in the face of her advancing years mirrored in the relatively undisturbed handling of paint. The etching, by contrast, is far freer and more expressive, almost scribbled in the intensity of its making, and seemingly more responsive to the emotions behind the subject’s apparent stoicism. Here the painter’s mother has an outraged eye and seems imbued with a sense of barely suppressed anger. The lines that etch shadow into her face – gently symbolizing, perhaps, the night into which she is ungently going – also resemble capillary veins.
There is a dynamic relationship between Freud’s paintings and his etchings, which often share the same subject matter. Sometimes etching precedes picture, sometimes it is the other way round, but generally the etchings offer cropped or simplified versions of the compositions of the paintings. Freud is often rather facilely described as a “cruel” or “pitiless” artist, because he depicts the nude model in a way that makes no concessions to the cosmetic stereotypes of commercial photography – dwelling on the stretch-mark, the sagging breast, the plump scrotum and curled, flaccid phallus with a frankness that can disconcert. This is even more apparent in the etchings, which tend to isolate the figure completely, leaving out whatever piece of furniture – bed or sofa – they happened to be posing on. The effect, however, is not one of cruelty but of an intense human sympathy. It is as if Freud tries to draw his way into what it might feel like to occupy another’s body. The imperfections that the artist dwells on are not grotesque, merely facts of life. He gently measures the weight of the model for Woman Sleeping (1995), who seems almost pinioned to the ground by her own copious bulges of fat. He feels the slightness of the model for Naked Man on a Bed (1987), notes the foetal curl of his slim, small body, feels for its vulnerability. It may be a mere visual coincidence, but seen collectively Freud’s etched nudes distantly recall pictures of the inmates of concentration camps, huddled together, naked.
Among the most recent etchings, a series of male portrait busts stands out. It seems telling that Freud seems most drawn to faces that seem generously lived in. The crumpled head of Lord Goodman is a good example of this, even more so the battered, boxer’s physiognomy of a model called Ali. Head of Ali (1999) presents the human face both as a kind of crag or monument and as a map, roughly criss-crossed by the lines of its own history. While Freud was working on the plate, it was accidentally scratched one day in the boot of the car, but he printed the scratch marks anyway, the scars on the image corresponding to the scars of life. Ali stares out regardless, redoubtably vital.
Freud is also showing an exhibition of recent paintings at the Wallace Collection in London. Closely hung in a seethingly crowded, corridor-like room around the corner from the main gallery, with its Velazquez, its Hals, its Rubens, a number of Freud’s nudes jostle for space with his almost grand full-dress portrait of Brigadier Parker Bowles (both a homage to and complete reversal of Tissot’s celebrated portrait of Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby in the NPG). The overall effect is slightly bewildering, recalling visits to the madhouse at Bedlam in the eighteenth century. Questions hover, in this unusual context. Why are these people naked? Is that a real brigadier, or a lunatic who thinks he is one? The scene is further confused by the presence of some landscapes and animal pictures. One of the latter, a picture called Skewbald Mare, is perhaps the best thing in the show. Many of these paintings however seem indecisive and weak, to the point of being outright botches. In particular Irishwoman on a Bed (2004), a boneless nude smearily painted, should never have left the studio. But he has earned the right to paint some failures and sometimes painters need to lose their way a little to find it again. Like the great elm once painted by John Constable, and reworked by Freud in his most recent etching, the artist stubbornly perseveres.