Lucian Freud's paintings are filled with raw and unvarnished life. In Naked Portrait with Reflection, painted in 1980, the subject is seen from an elevated position, a position of analysis and scrutiny. As she gazes into some unknown middle distance, the artist has looked down with his unflinching gaze and has rendered her through swirls of oils, perfectly capturing the flaws and curves of a body that, while far from any classical ideal, is shown to have its own inherent, even existential, beauty. In his recent monograph on Freud, William Feaver quoted the words of another earlier painter inextricably linked to London, Walter Sickert: 'Perhaps the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam-- a gleam of light and warmth and life' (Sickert, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 22).
It is this 'gleam' that is evident in Naked Portrait with Reflection, in the intensely evocative depiction of the flesh of the woman. The word 'naked' is itself telling: the atmosphere in this painting is not that of the nudes that feature in so much of the canon of Western art as sources of eroticism or classical ideals. Instead there is a sense of awkwardness and awareness, of nakedness, of baring all. It is by capturing and conveying that tension, that atmosphere, that Freud manages to reveal his subjects and the life that pulses through their veins. 'Living people interest me far more than anything else,' he has said. 'I'm really interested in them as animals. The one thing about human animals is their individuality: liking to work from them naked is part of that reason, because I can see more' (Freud, quoted in ibid., p. 36).
In Naked Portrait with Reflection, the tension is heightened by the discordant presence of the feet in the top right-hand corner. These add a strange narrative aspect to the painting; while the title explains that these are in fact the reflected feet of the artist at his easel, their presence nonetheless implies some event, some character walking out of the room, as though this anonymous man had been the cause of the wistful, melancholic, contemplative expression of the woman. These legs, heightening the awkwardness within Naked Portrait with Reflection, bring about some greater level of awareness both within the picture and in the viewer before it. Our intrusion into this interrupted narrative, our glimpse of this strange and disjointed scene, combined with the frankness of the artist's regard and the vaguely sinister nature of his position looking down from above the model, creates a situation in which sitter and viewer alike feel somehow prone. 'The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable,' as Freud has explained. 'And yet we are drawn to a great work by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn't free, it can't do otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest' (Freud, quoted in R. Hughes, 'On Lucian Freud', pp. 7-24, Lucian Freud paintings, exh. cat., London 1988, p.19).
The glancing, reflected presence of Freud in this painting is remarkably rare. While over the years Freud has returned to the theme of the self-portrait, he dislikes looking at his own features and has explained that he even keeps his shaving mirror at a right-angle. It is in part for this reason that many of his self-portraits are referred to as 'Reflections,' as here, and show his features as they appear in the mirror. Freud extends the searing objectivity with which he renders the world around him to his own likenesses, creating not self-portraits per se, but instead paintings of a reflected view. In Naked Portrait with Reflection, his presence is oblique, a fragment, and yet it succeeds in introducing a strange jarring tension that is even heightened by the different angle at which the reflected floorboards are shown. Talking about the rare elements of narrative content in his art, Freud explained that, 'The idea of a story doesn't bother me because everything's a story. But the idea of Symbolism: I hate mystification but I think that [...] unlike Andy Warhol, who said 'people go on asking about my work, they don't realize that they are exactly as they see; there is nothing behind them,' I want there to be everything behind mine' (Freud, quoted in Feaver, op.cit., 2007, p. 372). Certainly, in Naked Portrait with Reflection there is a sense of mystery, of a relationship begging to be analysed and unfolded, and yet the picture remains deliberately, tantalisingly and engagingly inscrutable.
While Freud rarely figures within his own compositions, he is nonetheless a constant and emphatic presence; it is this presence that dictates the ambience within the picture. As viewers, we are placed in his position, but we are also the self-conscious trespassers in a moment of intimacy, as is so often the case in the incredibly perceptive and penetrating pictures that Freud painted of his daughters during this period. In Naked Portrait with Reflection, it is not only the woman, but also the relationship between the painter and his model that is presented as a living thing. Looking at the picture, the reality appears to be brought home of Freud's statement that, 'You're living and your relationships grow and mature or decay' (Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, 'Lucian Freud: Life into Art' pp. 12-50, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., ed. W. Feaver, London 2002, p. 43). It is telling that Freud himself rejects commissions, choosing to paint people who are either close to him or who interest him, hence the series of naked portraits of his daughters. 'I've got a strong autobiographical bias,' he has explained. 'My work is entirely about myself and my surroundings' (Freud, quoted in Feaver, op.cit., 2007, p. 18).
In Freud's paintings, the personal aspect of his relationship with his sitters is mingled with the entire nature of the relationship between the artist and the model, and this focus is emphasised by his tangential appearance in the corner. This is a glancing inclusion, but is as telling as the presence of Van Eyck in the mirror of the Arnolfinis or of the King and Queen of Spain in Velazquez' Las Meninas. It is in stark opposition to Picasso's expounding of the theme in drawings, paintings and prints spanning many decades of his career, which were often whimsical, romantic celebrations of his various muses and of art itself. In Naked Portrait with Reflection, Freud is self-effacing, rather than the self-mythologising Picasso. The composition means that the sitter appears to be looking away from the artist, from the reflection, adding emphasis to the sense of narrative and even recalling the Camden Town interiors of Walter Sickert. The loitering, hovering presence of the artist in the corner, seen with floorboards at a different angle from those before the sofa, is almost spectral.
There is a strange contrast between the floorboards within the 'reflection' and those in front of the sofa, increasing the sense of jarring disjointedness. Where within the mirror the grain of the wood is characterized by an extensive, light-coloured warp and weft, the floorboards in the foreground have been rendered with dynamic parallel brushstrokes, the texture of the brushwork doubling for the wood. These bold diagonals function almost as arrows leading into the picture space, carving out an area of the canvas and of the studio alike while also heightening the visual impact of the body itself as it zig-zags down the canvas. It is telling that Freud himself admitted, perhaps referring to the downward angle from which he so often views his subjects, that, 'My world is fairly floorboardish' (Freud, quoted in ibid., p. 30).
The deftness and simplicity with which he has captured the nearer floorboards is incredibly painterly, as is the flesh, which conveys even a sense of warmth, of physical presence. The angle of the light, providing crisp shadows around some of the forms of her arms and legs especially, combines with the earthy colours of the floor and the sofa to thrust the body into relief to some extent, again emphasising Sickert's 'gleam.' The quality of light, and hence of inner flesh, in the flesh in Freud's paintings from the mid-1970s onwards owes itself both to the use of thicker brushes which had come about around 1960 and also to his discovery of Cremnitz white, a heavy, flaky pigment that lends some of the sense of substance to his pictures and which would become so influential in the development of the idiosyncratic appearance of his greatest naked portraits.
The sense of life that fills Freud's canvases, which makes them such piercing visions and which people associate with existentialism, is itself underscored by the tactile, palpable quality of his brushwork. In terms of its impression of mass, of the varying textures of the surface, and also in terms of the clear dynamism with which he has captured some areas of the picture, with sweeping brushstrokes occasionally evoking a stretch of the leg or the grain of the wood, Freud has infused Naked Portrait with Reflection with its own vitality. 'I want paint to work as flesh,' he has stated.
'I have always had a scorn for 'la belle peinture' and 'la delicatesse des touches'. I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn't want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does' (Freud, quoted in Gowing, op.cit., 1982, pp. 190-91).
Crucially, the painterly quality in Naked Portrait with Reflection is the result not of frantic expressionism. The evolution of the painting was gradual. While there is a sense of cut and thrust in some of the brushstrokes, it is clear that the surface of this painting has been built up gradually, the painstaking product of Freud's notoriously long sittings. It has grown gradually, slowly, almost organically, emerging as a strange extension of the atmosphere of the studio, of those long hours that painter and model spent together.