Factory, North London, is one of a highly important but rare group of urban landscape paintings that Freud painted between 1970 and 1972. This small group of intensely observed and dispassionately objective portraits of the cold reality of the London landscape, are among the most memorable and powerful of all Freud's works.
Emptied of Freud's normal subject matter, the human figure, these townscapes depict the bleak London landscape from the perspective of a distanced observer, one who is gazing absent-mindedly out of a train or classroom window, or, in Freud's case, out of his studio window. (Factory, North London in fact depicts the rear-view from the flat of a friend of Freud's in Barnsbury Square, N1.) The seeming arbitrariness of the view Freud chooses, its extreme ordinariness, is a vital part of what makes these works so striking and unforgettable. Their apparent emptiness is misleading, for the lack of any human figure in these works belies the fact that every seemingly unremarkable and ordinary detail has been intensely observed and in some way rendered and incorporated into the painted whole. Although the human figure itself is absent, these urban landscapes are anything but devoid of life for they are literally filled with human detail. From the detritus of an urban wasteland to the carefully locked doors and half-open windows, the angular lines and rhythms of the city architecture are disrupted and broken by a myriad of messy human interaction with the environment. Of particular note in this respect in this paintings are such subtly observed details as the two half-empty milk bottles left on the window ledge of the factory or the keenly observed and rendered broken glass fence running along the top of the factory wall. Freud's style is, as he has often observed, the avoidance of style. This is not the "hyper" or "super" realist painting of surface reality that was, in the late 1960s and early 70's, currently in vogue, but a gritty urban realism of the highest order. It is a form of realism that, like the Neue Sachlikeit (New Objectivity) of the 1920s, unnerves the viewer in the piercing accuracy of its vision, for nothing is more provocative in life than a telling of things the way they are.
Painted between 1970-1972, Freud's urban landscape paintings have come to define a period of transition in Freud's work - a period that coincided with and may even have been instigated by the death of the artist's father Ernst Freud in 1970. Freud was not especially close to his father, but his death inevitably provoked a period of reflection for the artist. "The subject matter of my paintings" Freud has said, "has always been dictated by the way my life has gone, and I noticed that when I was under particular strain, I didn't feel so like staring at people or bodies all day' (Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, 'Seeing through the Skin', Guardian, 18 May 2002).
It is tempting to see Freud's newly developed interest in the urban wasteland of the townscape outside the window of his studio or living space as a reaction to his father's death, and his decision to paint the everyday architecture of his home city as some kind of reflection on his father. Architecture was, after all, both Ernst Freud's life-long trade and passion. But to do so, as some writers have hinted, is probably to read too much into Freud's choice of subject matter during this period, for, Freud's decision to paint these remarkable urban landscape paintings may have been a lot simpler. In talking about the transition of his art in the late 1960s Freud described a growing restlessness and unease with his former working process, combined with a need to maintain his sharp realist focus. "My awareness that I wanted to work in a different way was fired by a period of unhappiness that made it impossible for me any longer to paint sitting down. You know how you can't sit down when you're unhappy? I was aware that my work wasn't a vehicle for my feelings...No, that is not quite right. I didn't want my work to carry feeling in an expressionist way... I had never questioned before that my way was the only way I could work. I saw there was something wrong about the distance between how I felt and the way I was working. I felt that I was doing art work ... I felt... I'll just look out the window." (Lucian Freud, cited in Lucian Freud, Lawrence Gowing, London, 1982, p. 136.)
It is precisely this feeling of looking out of the window that is generated by Freud's urban landscapes. Their one overriding quality is their extraordinary piercing realism. The view presented in a painting like Factory, North London, is one of a kind that anyone who has been in London, has undoubtedly seen, but, it is a view that, because of its mundane ordinariness, is almost never paid attention to, never really looked at. By doing the complete opposite, by bringing the intense gaze of his painter's eye and his often lauded powers of concentration to bear on such a seemingly unremarkable scene, Freud demonstrates the remarkable richness of even the most banal landscape. In Factory, North London he paints the most ordinary of buildings in such a way that, like his nudes, the physical detail of its exterior, hints at the animated life within. Grubby and deserted, this impersonal and drab building seems ravaged by the life that, though temporarily absent, goes on within it. Inanimate and silent however, it is also an empty shell that coldly reflects the questioning gaze of the viewer. In this respect it can to some extent be seen as a meditation on life and the passing of time and perhaps even as a memento mori.
Like the great urban landscape paintings of the past, such as Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch's back-yard views of life in 17th Century Holland, there is clearly an element in Freud's urban landscapes of the scene being used as a microcosm and metaphor of human life. In Factory, North London, a distinctly rear-view image, the worn machinery and discarded equipment emphasize the absence of the human in a way similar to Stanley Spencer's 1932 picture The Blacksmith's Yard, Cookham. Yet, there is never a sense in Freud's work of lapsing into sentimentality, the picture presents the cold reality of life continuing outside and beyond the human being in a direct powerful and highly evocative way.