Three generations meet in Sigmund Freud’s study at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London. Lucian Freud’s painting of his mother, Lucie, hangs over his grandfather’s famous consulting couch. The woman lies as if floating in space, eyes closed, arms up in a gesture of surrender. Curator Martin Gayford, who knew Lucian Freud and was portrayed by him, says the painter had Freudian “mother issues”. Not because she was strict but because she wasn’t. A Weimar liberal who believed in radical parenting, she rewarded him for being wild and delinquent. And he resented her for it.
As Freudian secrets go, this is an anecdote rather than a deep dive. And Freud’s 1970s painting of his mum reveals no hint of either antagonism or adoration. It strives for utter objectivity, focusing as calmly on her patterned dress as on her time-furrowed flesh. We are facts, says Freud: we breathe, we copulate, we die. This painting, like all his paintings, just wants to look existence in the eye, to see his mother in her physical reality. After a while I sensed bones and organs under the dress. This is what art is for, Freud tells us: to preserve some trace of our existence. Just that.
If Lucian Freud was actually on the couch, you can bet he wouldn’t be saying much. Here is my mother. That is what she looked like. It would be scarier than analysing Tony Soprano. But you can imagine Sigmund pushing, his voice coming from the consulting couch: “Are you so sure there is no further layer of meaning?”
This exhibition is subtitled The Painter and his Family. That Freudian theme offers plenty to analyse. In Freud’s 1995 work Esther and Albie, a mother breastfeeds her baby. Her exposed breast is a blue and white network of veins and mottles, while the reddened nipple nestles in little Albie’s contented mouth. The artist identifies with the baby boy, you feel, having his mother’s breast entirely to himself. But the mother is the artist’s daughter, the baby his grandson. I suspect Sigmund would have loved this one.
Still more unsettling is Freud’s 1999 etching Head of Ali, a portrait of his son Alexander “Ali” Boyt, who explains in a wall text that when his father portrayed him he had severe drug problems. That’s why his left eyelid droops. Esther Freud and Ali Boyt are among Lucian Freud’s 14 acknowledged children from different relationships and encounters, only 10 of whom were left anything in his will. The Freud estate features on legal websites as a test case because, when challenged by one of the spurned children, courts upheld his use of the English legal device called a secret trust.
Is that relevant? Well, if you put on an exhibition about “family”, yes. Isolated glimpses of the artist’s complex, outrageous life are left hanging as we are shown sentimental souvenirs such as the cover he designed for Esther Freud’s novel Hideous Kinky – as if to prove he was a good dad after all.
Worse, the show is sexless. If Lucian and Sigmund Freud had one thing in common, it was their shared obsession with desire. Sigmund singlehandedly dragged human sexuality out of Victorian obscurity and insisted on it being the heart of our nature, in all its “vicissitudes”. Lucian gave a bravura lifelong demonstration of how many partners one person can have, male as well as female. But this show seems to think it vulgar to ask questions about Lucian Freud’s sex life or the way it drives his art. This is the Freud Museum – why be repressed?
In life, the painter preserved his privacy ruthlessly. But he has been dead 11 years. New facts are emerging: a show last year explored his gay relationships in the 1940s and it is getting ever clearer that his friendship with Francis Bacon was a great love story of sorts. As, apparently, was his later relationship with Kate Moss.
Should we ask about the sordid details of his sex life? Sigmund would. “If a biographical study is really intended to arrive at an understanding of its hero’s mental life,” he says in his 1910 book on Leonardo, “it must not silently pass over its subject’s sexual activity or sexual individuality.” Unfortunately, this show is scared to take that advice. The nude is conspicuous by its absence: the very theme that aroused Lucian Freud’s greatest works and has most pertinence in the home of his sex-obsessed granddad is avoided. I would have much rather seen one of his nudes above the couch. In staying loyal to Lucian Freud’s icy authority as a man, this exhibition makes his art look dry. There’s a photo of him showing a horse the portrait he’s painted of it. What are we meant to think, that he was a kind soul? It is fairly clear he wasn’t.
To which I would usually add: and that cruelty is what makes him such a formidable artist. But this show is so reverent, it invites heresy. The bluntness of Freud’s art is peculiarly unsuited to his grandfather’s marvellous collection of Egyptian shabti, Etruscan sculptures and Roman frescoes.
I found myself wanting to see a more imaginative artist here. Bacon painted the Greek tragedies and monsters that shape Sigmund Freud’s thought. His tangled nightmares belong in the ancient labyrinth of the mind. Lucian Freud’s meaty realities less so. His absolute resistance to story is his strength yet it is also a weakness. When he isn’t being great, he can be surprisingly slight. A drawing of Bella Freud here has no character at all.
Bacon, Picasso, Rothko and Rego all created Freudian mythologies and dreamscapes. By contrast, the Lucian we see here stays in his studio, that cold room in Paddington, painting facts, facts, facts.