In 2010, my last year of high school, I entered the Centre Pompidou for the first time in my life. My visit was part of a student trip to Paris organized by my French teacher, monsieur Parmentier – a man with a somewhat legendary status at my school whose classes made my first year in university a walk in the park.
I knew little of modern art, but I thought I should change that. It was a good introduction which left a lasting impression on me. How much only became apparent to me this year when my grandfather passed away.
Back to Paris. That day I strolled through the museum with a friend of mine. We walked past Kandinsky and Klein and who knows who eventually reaching the top floor. A large sign announced the exposition of Lucian Freud’s work. It was the first time I heard of him, though the obvious association his name evoked had a strong connectionwith monsieur Parmentier’s classes and triggered my interest.
I don’t remember my initial evaluation of his work, but it was probably negative. At the time I was still fiercly of the opinion that the measure of art ought to be its ability to be pleasurable. My first impression, which has not substantially changed, is that Lucian Freud was a painter of the ugly. Many of his paintings depict people at their least gracious. The subjects of his nudes have shapes which are at best mundane and at worst border on the grotesque. Bleak bony bodies, spotted skin, craggy faces, and hanging breasts and bellies are recurring features in his work. It is difficult to imagine that his models belong to the same human race as the fit polished divines from advertisement and online media. But they are – the definite proof perhaps being his portrait of fashion model Kate Moss.
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)
Regardless of my initial reaction to his work, I began to appreciate it more and more over the years. His exploration of the human body with all its flaws can initially disgust, but with contemplation his paintings evoke sympathy or even tenderness. Moreover, Lucian Freud’s preference for the nude, which helps to underline our base nature, secularizes our bodies. A human is no longer a somehow “higher” being. We are reminded that in addition to being gifted with reason we are just conventional animals underneath the sun with hide and hair like many other species. Unsurprisingly dogs – the most domesticated, but nevertheless unmistakably bestial pet in human society – regularly feature in his work. Asleep we are no more civilized than a dog. Our flesh and sexual organs no more dignified.
The link with the work of his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, is obvious. As John Gray explains in The Silence of Animals Sigmund Freud’s thought was marked by a refusal to “flatter the human animal” and had as aim to teach us “to live without consolations”. Extrapolating from Sigmund Freud’s work, John Gray concludes:
Human beings are more likely to find ways of living well if they do not spend their lives aiming to be happy. This is not to say we should pursue happiness indirectly – an idea also inherited from Aristotle. Rather, we are best off not looking for happiness at all. Looking for happiness is like having lived your life before it is over. You know everything important in advance: what you want, who you are. Why saddle yourself with the burden of being a character in such a dull tale? Better make up your life as you go along, and not be too attached to the stories you tell yourself on the way.
Likewise, Lucian Freud seems to drive us towards an aesthetic experience which no longer concerns itself with the search for beauty. Our bodies are, more often than not, disappointing in one way or another when held to this standard, but in his paintings they just are. It, to quote John Gray once more, “does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”
David and Eli (2003-2004)
A short note before I continue. There is a danger of exhibitionism in describing such an initimate scene as a person’s deathbed. For that reason I have chosen for a minimalistic description which might mean my argument loses in clarity. Be that as it may, an exhaustive account would be both impossible and needlessly sensationalsitic. That being said I can start my account.
It was a Saturday. I had just entered the house and walked into his bedroom only to walk into an uncomfortable situation. His pants were down and my instinctive reaction was to divert my view. Still, I continued into the room. My mother was sitting on a chair next to the bed, looking at him. I got over my embarassment and as I looked the familiarity of the image struck me. His pose, his bleak colour, the anguished expression of his sedated face, and all the women around him – my mother, aunt and a nurse. It unmistakably was a Pietà – the depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Christ’s dead body.
His face was white and he slept, with his mouth open, while breathing heavily. Shortly I looked at his stomach and his crotch. Here the skin was grey rather than white and a small beer belly – which might also have been loose skin, since he lost so much weight in such a short time – hung slightly over his right leg. A thick plastic tube hung over it to drain away his urine. Instead of shocking me the sight now moved me.
Later that day, my grandfather was moved from his bed to a hospital bed. I stood at its head, looking down on my grandfathers face. In order to improve his breathing he had been turned on his side. Nevertheless, his every breath took obvious effort. Looking over his unshaved face, his chest moving upwards and downwards accompanied by a loud sound, my perception of him changed again. I did not focus on him as my grandfather, the man I love and cherish, or even at all as a person. The great and futile effort of his unconscious body to stay alive instead confronted me with the undeniable fact that my grandfather was a biological mass trying to continue its existence.
When I had the chance I sat on the ground next to the bed and held his hand in mine. I said nothing, but instead studied his face laboriously for minutes. He was wearing his false teeth, on his own insistence earlier that day when he still was conscious, which gave his face a slightly distorted look. It was his idea of dignity: to die with your false teeth. This, his stubble, his dry lips, his heavy breathing, his yellow face, the spot on his forehead which had just started healing, his closed eyes, his every feature I tried to observe as well as I could.
After these visits, as I stood in front of a window in my mother’s house, watching the neighbourhood being covered by a thick layer of white snow, that I thought of the undeniable aesthetic way in which I experienced my grandfather’s deathbed. The moments which moved me did not involve speech or thought, but perception. “How, though, could I be moved by such ugly situations?”, I asked myself. The question remained with me for the rest of the day when suddenly the answer popped up in my mind: Lucian Freud.
The eventual change in my perception brought about by Lucian Freud’s paintings has not brought beauty to the death of my grandfather, but it has made it less ugly. His work offers no direct consolation, but it has taken away barriers obstructing it. Instead of being disturbed by the sight of my dying grandfather I could feel and express my love and tenderness for him.
* * *
 Which is remarkable for a man who seems to have been extremely unpleasant on a personal level.
Joop Molenaar passed away on February 12th 2017, aged 82.
The painting featured above this article is titled Two Japanese Wrestlers by a Sink (1983). For the complete image click here.