Of all the seminars this term, it is this one that caused me the most heartache. 

Lucian Freud The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer 2004/5 Public Domain

Lucian Freud, a grandson of Sigmund,  wanted to die whilst still painting. He very nearly fulfilled this ambition, but like so many, he was stricken with serial illnesses that thwarted his plans for old age and death. 

Though both the founder of psychoanalysis and his talented grandson had a surname in common, Lucian staunchly upheld the dignity of art vis-a vis reductive or generalising accounts from science, social science, psychology. Fine paintings could neither be enhanced nor rubbished by psychobabble, however seemingly erudite. He once said of Sigmund, that he certainly read some books by his grandfather, but only for the jokes. Nevertheless hefty royalties from Sigmund’s writings were no laughing matter. They enabled Lucian to pursue art; later bailed him out of gambling debts on many occasion.

Lucian Freud was certainly one of the greatest artists of this era. Particularly interesting for me is his later work which depicted the raw flesh of  a myriad sexualities with a realism and honesty quite unparalleled. The painting above,  about the artist being surprised by an admiring model has many particular memories for me. In my middle years I would return to Venice at least once a month during Spring and Autumn, often simply to enjoy its unique ambiance; sometimes to read and write. 

Normally I avoid Venice in the summer: it is too hot and touristy for me. But returning in Autumn, always seemed magical.  The temperature is warmer than in the UK; there is the added pungent luxury of Venetos truffles and fungi on display at the city’s main vegetable market in Cannarreggio

I soon discovered that from June to October 2005 a Lucian Freud  exhibition was showing at one of the main art galleries in St Mark’s Square. Although I had seen this exhibition several times in London, I was keen to visit it again at the Correr and was rewarded a new  painting that dominated the exhibition.

According to Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian:

The paint is barely dry on Lucian Freud's latest self-portrait, titled - with a rare hint of humour - The Painter Is Surprised by a Naked Admirer.

Ten days ago, the great 82-year-old artist finished the work, after six months of nocturnal toil in his famously paint-splattered studio.

Today, it goes on view to the public, for three and a half weeks only, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, before heading to the Museo Correr in Venice for a major Freud exhibition…….

The self-portrait presented Freud with a number of technical challenges. He used a full-length mirror in which to observe himself and his model, but because he positioned the easel at some distance from himself, he would have to disengage himself from the pose to paint, "moving to and fro, doing one dab after another", Mr Feaver said.

The portrait is, in effect, a painting of a mirror image of a painting being painted - although, in fact, Freud has also added another smudged easel in the painting-within-a-painting: making it a painting of a mirror image of a painting of a painting being painted


"It's got a funny feeling; it looks as if it were done long ago," Freud told Mr Feaver. "Not the idiom: it's to do with the distance and things. It's like doing it on another planet.”

The work could, in part, be read as a meditation on the urge to paint. As Freud said to Mr Feaver: "'Dirty bastard' becomes 'Hey, he can still do it’."


By contrast the focus of an article in the Times newspaper was elsewhere namely, “Who is the naked woman in Freud’s picture?, with the journalist offering three distinct candidates. See further : 


Artist and Model at work Vanity Fair Freud, Interrupted February 2012, article by Kemp

There are a few points I would like to make about Lucian , his life, art, and work for the purposes of this seminar.

1. Many people loved being painted by Lucian- so much so that several females wanted to have his babies.... and did so. The painter’s demands on his subjects were notoriously strict. David Hockney sat for 120 hours

I would arrive every morning at 8.30 and leave at noon. My best time of day. We usually had a cup of tea first. I walked up through Holland Park and watched the spring arrive, making me very aware how uneventful they were in southern California.He works very slowly, I also knew he abandoned some portraits, and as I was going to sit a lot I did not want that to happen. So I co-operated. He liked a particular jacket and a blue shirt. I always wore them. I was fascinated to see his methods.

David Hockney in Lucian Freud's studio 2002 - A spread from Lucian Freud: A Life

Dawson 2002 

All people who met him were immediately fascinated ... He was thin, he wore very  well-tailored, well worn clothes.

It was a very memorable and enjoyable experience


Nicola Bowery modelled around three years for Freud who worked frequent night shifts 

The night paintings would start between 18:30-20:30pm depending on whether it was dark enough to continue and the light was right, as in winter it got dark early, but it was more variable in the summer. Lucian would always cook us dinner of partridge, lamb chops or oysters or lobster with a green salad and a raspberry vinaigrette, followed by custard and raspberry jelly tart I can't remember the name of. Lucian thought that a well-fed model would be more docile and settled, and would sit for longer sessions at a time. These night paintings would go on until 1-2:00am, and Lucian would give us money for cabs home. A typical painting by Lucian could take 6 to 9 months for him to complete.

Whilst sitting for Girl in the Attic (1994/5), Nicola’s husband became seriously ill and died unexpectedly within five weeks. Following Leigh Bowery’s death, 

Lucian continued to paint this picture, and basically looked after me by demanding me to come and sit for him and getting me a job with his daughter Bella Freud. The two of them kept me very busy, and with my family's help I managed to overcome my total devastation and grief of the death of Leigh, whom I loved with all my heart.  


2. Long sessions, tediously slow work, months of being observed and engaged in free-flowing conversation, often in a reclining position, all this sounds to me just a little bit like analysis….. but without Sigmund’s rule of abstinence. Some sitters, including this women who initially disliked him, did become lovers.

3. It might be tempting to attribute some hidden charism to both Sigmund as well as to Lucian and speculate about the intensity of their male gazes and/or seductive curiosity. Nevertheless the subject or model is also creative. Not a work of art maybe, but as author of an equally incredible act of transformation. The ear, eye, nose, or touch metamorphoses into a well rounded o object with its promising entrances, exists, fascinations. In the apertures a space is created -opened up- which offers love, wisdom, knowledge, satisfaction ….more than you will ever need.

4. Next I would like to return for some final thoughts to The Painter surprised by a Naked Admirer. What initially amazed me about this work of art, were its many ironies. I don’t think the painter is at all surprised. On the contrary there seems to be something very contrived -almost manufactured or even staged- about the poses of both the painter and his admirer. Moreover, I have the impression that the artist in this picture -especially his face- seems somewhat wooden, almost non-emotional, and therefore not particularly surprised. The great painter of human flesh, seems to have “failed” in this self portrait. His hands and face seem to have a texture and colouration a little bit like the wall, which over the years had been the receptacle for excess paint on the artist’s brush. Is Lucian Freud himself becoming paint? And what are the hands doing? Are they about to engage in some painting? Is holding a pallet knife ? But maybe not: perhaps the hands have become gestures like the face. 

5 Finally I refer once more to the comments of Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian. She noted how Freud used a full length mirror through which he observed both himself and the admirer. In order to paint, he had to break his pose. He also added an easel and other bits and pieces of art paraphernalia to this work of art. The mirror and additions resulted in “a painting of a mirror image of a painting of a painting being painted” .

People attending this group may have heard about Lacan’s so-called “mirror stage” . This notion, is in effect a metaphor. When looking in a mirror, a child begins to create a sense of “my body and me” that is -to create a psycho-physico identity. Lacan, like Melanie Klein, believed the infants' psychic world to be essentially chaotic. With the mirror stage  a sense of self, identity, and differentiation from others is set in motion. It is an act of sheer imagination and creativity. I believe the presence of a mirror and mirror-images in the painting of an 82 year old man, is not accidental. 

When you look carefully at the painting clearly there is a “reflection” of the painting in the painting itself. But where is the mirror… (and the series of reflecting mirrors) which made this portrait possible. Has it disappeared?? There is something almost comic here: which Charlie Chaplin exploited in his “mirror maze scene” from The Circus of 1928.


But there is something a little scary at work in Lucian’s painting. The mirror disappears visually, but yet remains as an unpainted presence. Here is an object O, very real because imaginatively created it but also absent.  There are no mysteries beyond or behind  round O objects, they all belong to their creators.  In transference, in love, one remains in one’s own O object. It does not belong to anOther.

Mirror images might differ dramatically from the subject they “mirror”.  Like love, they too can be very scary. Here is a clip from another mirror maze scene, this time from It Chapter 2 released in 2019


Your rounded objects for love, pleasure, and hate need your creativity to exist and function. But they always remain your objects, created specially by yourself, for yourself. They are your images, your mirrors, your lenses.


The conversations following this presentation were truly helpful to me.

Where is the mirror?

It was a relief  to hear that others could not detect any direct representation of the mirror Freud used to observe his model, himself and their environment. On the other hand, the entire completed canvass proclaims its hidden presence.

Invisibility of the "small o object"

Art helps me to appreciate the complexity of human beings and helps a little with psychoanalytic theory. Definitely not vice versa.

1. My use of "round O object" is indebted to Cormac Gallagher's translations of, and papers about, Lacan's psychoanalysis. One would have thought that o objects are so crucial for an individual's loves and transferences, that they would be massively obvious to both the individual and onlookers ( whether analyst, artist, interviewer, audience). I would now argue that a "rounded o object" might not be present  at all much during an analysis. May be it will be "hidden" or concealed by what Freud called "repression". Maybe like Vesuvius it is just not particularly active at the moment.

2. The discussion about Lucian's existing but non-present mirror, helped me to appreciate more the object petit a. It is massively influential and crucial for the construction of an individual's love phantasies, but if it is not accessible to speech it is as good as good as absent -or hidden. Like some mystics said of their god, he is not present like everything else is present. He/she/it is beyond both human talk and intellectual understand. Something similar can be said of transference and love.

An object petit a is like a quantum object: it does strange things. Sometimes intrusively present, but often absent. A human subject cannot control this class of objects -it is rather the reverse. Observing and theorising about their effects on beings that use language, is insecure and unstable. Why is the Cheshire Cat present, absent, then present as bits and pieces? Like the rabbit hole Alice manages to slip through (another round o-hole) it may not be easily found again Also it leads to any strange number of compartments, odd scenarios, distortions containing other subjects, different logics, along with odd mathematics, sciences, and biologies. Why do babies change into piglets? The cook's explantations are not at all convincing, though she had strong hunches, intuitions, senses, that such a thing would most likely happen to the unfortunate infant.

One transference-loves (and hates) amount to non-standard objects and the languages used to portray them has its own evanescences. The demand to be told the truth about love can be as eager and as anguished as "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me???"

3. Blind prejudice led me to assume that the "o" was always on the body -like some sort of orifice or inscribed mark. Years of familiarity with Lucian Freud's art led me to think that flesh was the Extrance point for him and most humans. Since the Venice exhibition, I incline more to the view that the artist's mirror was Lucian's object petit a. The implications for psychoanalytic theory and practice are many. One is that objects petit a may well be prosthetic, add-ons to the body including, as with Lucian Freud, aviewing aids, which can be anything from the noble or curved mirror, the camera obscura,  to modern digital imaging enhancements.

Artist, models, and performing hysterias

The performative dimensions of hysteria implicated clinicians, audiences, and sufferers from the outset. However hysteria may have originated and functioned, for the afflicted individual it was experienced as real suffering. Nineteenth century practitioners -whether mesmerists, hypnotists, water-spa technicians- performance and fees were as important, if not more important, than the promised cures. There was also something "cathartic" about these performances for practitioners and afflicted alike - as well as audiences and readers.

It seems to me there is something very definitely performative about "painter surprised" too.

Flesh and Touch (to be completed)

Flesh, Waste Products, and Paint (to be continued)


Popular posts from this blog