“You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas, and to concentrate all the interest on this single figure and still keep it living and alive”—Lucian Freud
(L. Freud, quoted by R. F. Johnson, “The Later Works 1961-87,” in Lucian Freud Works on Paper, exh. cat., South Bank Centre, London, 1988, p. 17).
Drawn in 1989, this exquisite portrait of a young man possesses an emotional and aesthetic intensity that far exceeds its seemingly simple execution. Executed in charcoal, it is the strength of Freud’s gaze and the degree of detail to which he depicts every inch of this anonymous figure that allows us to form a connection with him, despite not really knowing who he is. Lying face down, with his head buried in what appears to be the crevice of cushion or pillow, the figure is presented in serpentine fashion. His left leg is crooked at the hip to produce a dramatic right angle as it stretches out towards the upper edge of the sheet, while the left leg falls away towards the lower edge of the composition. The arms mirror the same pattern as the left arm stretches upwards, while the right tapers away. Freud lavishes most attention on the central core of the body, allowing the extremities of the subject’s limbs to disappear into a haze of spectral chiaroscuro. The taught musculature of the figure’s back is defined by a series of soft graphite marks, while the silhouette of the young man’s body is delineated by stronger, darker lines that outline the defined outline of the torso, legs and buttocks.
The exceptional detail contained within Naked Man on a Sofa is the result of prolonged period of looking and study. During his notoriously long sittings, Freud would spend hours carefully examining every inch of his subject’s appearance resulting in a beautifully nuanced rendition of the different physiological elements—the skeletal frame, the musculature structure and finally the skin itself.
Yet this portrait is much more than a physiological rendering of a man’s body, it is also a psychological one too. As curator Robert Flynn Johnson explained “The art of Lucian Freud possess a power to involve the viewer intensely, almost to the point of intrusion, in aspects of the artist’s life on which he levelled his severe artistic scrutiny” (R. F. Johnson, “The Later Works 1961-87,” in Lucian Freud Works on Paper, exh. cat., South Bank Centre, London, 1988, p. 15). Naturally, when looking at another person it is part of our human psyche to focus on the face, to the detriment of the rest of their body. In fact, in Western society, we are actively discouraged from looking too closely at a naked human body for risk of being accused of a lascivious act. Thus by rendering his sitter as an anonymous subject, in Naked Man on a Sofa the viewer is invited to become part of the artist’s inscrutable gaze.
The naked male body has been an important subject matter for Freud throughout his career and his paintings of his naked men, including his friend and assistant David Dawson and the London cabaret performer Leigh Bowery have become major works within his oeuvre. But rather than merely portraying it as an object of beauty or desire, Freud’s depictions are concerned with very contemporary issues. Both his paintings and drawings of the human body are concerned with our ideas of sexuality, of getting old, or fat, or thin—precisely the things that make us human.
With works such as Naked Man on a Sofa, Freud continued a long and established dialogue that artists have been having with the human form ever since they began to replicate it on the walls of their caves in southern Europe. As the 20th-century progressed, painting or drawing the human figure fell out of fashion with the artistic elite who, with a few notable exceptions, seemed determined to relegate it to the art historical canon. Freud however was resolute, and he determinedly pursued this noble tradition to become one of the most accomplished portraitists of the century. “Being able to draw well is the hardest thing—far harder than painting,” he once said, “as one can easily see from the fact that there are so few great draftsmen compared to the number of great painters—Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, just a few” (L. Freud, quoted by K. Rosenberg, “A Painter Stripped Bare: Lucian Freud Drawings’ at Acquavella Galleries,” New York Times, May 10, 2012).