Freudian slick

Lucian Freud: Etchings 1946-2004 ****


178th RSA Annual Exhibition 2004 ****


Lucian Freud has a great reputation as a painter. For myself, I am not sure that it is entirely deserved. His paintings are big and heavy. Initially, they are impressive. The paint is piled on thick, and in treating his favourite subject, the nude, his vision is what passes for unsparing in its directness.

Actually, it seems cold. It lacks compassion. He paints flesh, but it looks inert, like something in a butcher’s shop. The heavy paint covers his lack of feeling, it is not a way of expressing it. But for the last 20 years Freud has also made etchings and they tell a different story, or perhaps they reveal with more success what he is trying so hard to do in the paintings. Now the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) has put together an exhibition of his etchings that is almost complete, everything he has ever done in the medium, barring a few minor early works.

There are 61 prints in the exhibition. Although the great majority have been done since 1982, there is also a group of works dating from the beginning of his career. There was a gap of more than 30 years when he did no prints at all. Freud’s early style as a painter was sharp, austere and understated. He painted the actual, but with a surrealist edge of unease, and this is seen in his etchings, too. The etching III in Paris shows a wide-eyed girl lying in bed. She is close to us and is looking at a rose. Although she is in bed and the scene seems innocent, she looks frightened and her fear is communicated to us by her closeness, the spareness of the drawing and the very lack of emphasis.

When he took to etching again, Freud’s concerns were very different. One of the first prints he did in this second period is an etching of his mother. It demonstrates that what was uppermost in his mind was the imagery of Czanne, the way the painter manages to convey vision as a process of exploration and discovery, where different and quite independent bits of observation hang together into a whole without altogether losing their independence; and, too, he reminds us constantly that their relationship is provisional.

It might all change at any minute. Freud’s etching of his mother is a strikingly successful essay in this kind of thing. From the same date there is also a portrait of his friend Lawrence Gowing. It is almost a cubist image, one of the most abstract things Freud has ever done. Gowing was an art critic with a passion for Czanne, so perhaps we are witnesses here to a dialogue between artist and critic that helped to shape Freud’s later art. You might not think immediately of Czanne looking at all that piled-on paint and those massive forms, but it does make sense that Freud is trying to find an equivalent in his own terms to Czanne’s marvellously complex subtlety, even if in the end he fails.

The etchings continue to bear this out too. The best of them are from the 1980s and early 1990s. They have an austerity - indeed, a humility - in the face of his subject that is lacking in his paintings. For these prints, Freud has the habit of working directly from the life onto the etching plate. It is not an easy thing to do. But it is well worth it in the results we see here. In Girl Holding her Foot and Blond Girl (both 1985), you can literally watch him exploring the shapes in front of him. The internal forms are described with simple hatching. But he works round and round the contour of the figure with repeated lines that search for definition which, however, their very repetition acknowledges in the end can only be provisional.

This is the essential lesson of Czanne and he follows it with all the humility that is appropriate in a pupil for his master. Later, he becomes more mannered, just as he does in his painting. He tends to overwork his image and to fret at individual shapes till they become distorted in a way that seems wanton, not logical. Still, at their best, his etchings are very good and worth seeing.

Meanwhile the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) annual show comes round again - for the 178th time, in fact. There is a difference this year and one to celebrate. The Academy is back in the RSA, its home, and not only in the main rooms, but also in the new suite of rooms downstairs that have been created by the Playfair Project from the old Academy store rooms. It is historic, too, to see the Academy in these rooms for their footprint is in part that of the original Academy exhibition rooms that were lost when the new galleries were built within the shell of the old building 100 years ago. The return home is not without its difficulties. The National Gallery, as manager of the building, maintains an iron grip on what happens there.

Still, the new spaciousness has been used with great success by the hanging committee to make the annual exhibition look better than ever. There are almost 500 works, but it does not seem crowded. Some of the old rules have been abandoned too, so there is more mix and more informality in the hang. Instead of the president, who usually occupies the central position in the main gallery, there is The Bride, a triptych by John Bellany, a reprise of his great triptych, The Bounteous Sea. Bellany is an HRSA (honorary member). So are Eve Arnold and Antoni Tapies; Arnold is showing one of her portraits of Marilyn Monroe, and Tapies, the grand old man of Catalan art, has sent in two austere prints. In a clever piece of hanging, a group of Willie Rodger’s inimitable black and white prints hangs bedside one of Tapies’s entries. The comparison is not to his disadvantage.

There is also a significant group of invited artists this year. Among their contributions, there is a John Byrne self-portrait, and a magnificent, multi-figured fantasy picture by Steven Campbell. It is like a wild remake of one of Noel Paton’s fairy paintings, and a powerful image, but Peter Howson’s Last Supper is simply bizarre. Still, it is important the Academy is reaching out to be inclusive in this way.

Among the academy members, instead of his usual dramatic colour, John Houston’s At the Coast, Morning is a schematic landscape, a tense and wiry picture that shows him reflecting more deeply than ever on the lessons of Mondrian. It is austere and austerity seems to be a bit of a thing this year. There’s a Frances Walker’s print Tide out at Vallay and a big painting by Callum Innes. More Gothic in form than his usual compositions. There is also a very fine early drawing by Derek Clarke. There is a lovely print by Joe Ganter, Cardinal Glimpses, and one of the most austerely beautiful works by Phil Reeves, Horizontal Code. It is just a sequence of circles and segments of circles, but it sings like music for the eye.

Elizabeth Blackadder’s watercolour, Anemones and Hyacinths, is spare in economy, but is anything but austere in beauty. Barrier is a fantastic landscape in a quattrocento manner by Joe Fan, recently elected ARSA (associate member). Among the entries from non-members there is Scottish Icon, a fine Scotch Pie by Mhairi MacDonald-Grieg, a group of exquisite small nude paintings by Molly Garnier and a wood carving by Kenneth Raeburn. Head-Rhyme, a strong little abstract painting by John McLean, sits rather awkwardly on top of one of John Mooney’s complicated visual poems, La Mer Morte and Optical illusion. This is an exhibition of quality, beautifully hung.

• Lucian Freud runs until 13 June; the RSA annual show until 20 May

Back to the top of the page