Freud Naked Man with Rat

Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat (1977-78).

Comment on Kitty Hauser’s piece in Public Works, The Weekend Australian, October 25-26 2014, p. 11.

One of the most challenging and “shocking” of Freud’s large-scale paintings – 91.5 cm square – it was quite surprising to see it in full colour in the Weekend Australian. The painting is reproduced in some of the published books on Freud’s oeuvre but for some reason I had never realised it was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in 1984. This is another of those super-mysterious Australian art-acquisitions about which I am thinking of writing a short study. My interest in Evariste Luminais Sons of Clovis 11 (1880) has been mentioned elsewhere, and I am writing a preliminary outline. The research I have done to date on Clovis (including at the excellent library at AGNSW) has revealed a lot of short comments and magazine and newspaper reviews published at the time of its purchase in Paris in 1886 but little detail on this surprising decision by the AGNSW – we don’t know who was involved, how it came about, why it was this particular painting and not the second, almost identical version which was acquired, and so on. I imagine the answers, if there are any, must lie deep in the archives, but if there is material there, it should be accessible.

The second example is perhaps the most obvious, the controversial acquisition of Blue Poles (1952) by the National Gallery in Canberra in 1973. This seems to be generally attributed to the innovations of the new “It’s Time” Labor Government. Prime Minister the late Gough Whitlam personally approved the purchase even though the Gallery then did not have authority to sign off on purchases of over one million. James Mollison, the director, believed the painting would be a great start to the new national gallery, at a time when it did not even have a building. The painting was purchased from the collector Ben Heller of New York for the unprecedented sum of 1.3 million Australian dollars. (For some reason the sum of $2 million is now often attributed to the purchase). Clement Greenberg, New York art critic, was Pollock’s particular champion, and had given a lecture on the worth of Pollock’s abstract expressionist works which was challenged by the local theorist Donald Brook but supported by the Melbourne critic Patrick McCaughey.  Local response was largely one of outrage, involving the retelling of various stories current in books and magazines about the circumstances of the painting’s creation. “Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece” said one newspaper headline.

Some other less famous but contemporary paintings purchased by Australian galleries include pieces by Willem de Kooning at the NGA, including Woman V of 1952-3. Australian public galleries continue to invest in old masters: the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Correggio’s Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist (1514-15) from Sotheby’s London for $5.2 million, the single highest priced acquisition in the NGVs history.

Naked Man with Rat is a very interesting case. I think there is only one other early Lucian Freud painting held in an Australian gallery: And the Bridegroom (1993).   I mentioned it earlier in the context of the small exhibition at AGNSW of treasures from the Lewis Collection. So I guess it isn’t really in the same boat, i.e. the picture was bought by Lewis and then bequeathed to the Gallery, along with the much smaller painting Susie Sleeping (1988-9). It is perhaps a stranger painting than Naked Man with Rat, but both are outstanding examples of the bizarre quality of Lucian Freud’s vision and technical approach, and it is amazing that these two, at the least, are in public collections in Australia.

and the bridegroom

Lucian Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993


Paul Cezanne,  Afternoon in Naples, 1975.

The NGA also holds Freud’s After Cézanne, a variation on the theme of Paul Cézanne’s L’Aprés Midi à Naples (Afternoon in Naples) (1875), which was purchased in 1985. This was one of Freud’s “day pictures” which he painted in nine months from December 1999 to August 2000. The painting is famous in part because of its peculiar composition. It was initially painted on a rectangular canvas, but when Freud found there was not enough room to put in the upper half of the maid’s head, he added some additional canvas. This is a completely unexpected mode of approach to composition, which normally takes the boundaries of the canvas on its stretcher as the limits of what can be displayed.

Freud after Cezanne

                                         Lucian Freud, After Cezanne,1999-2000

As far as Naked Man with Rat is concerned, the commentary by Kitty Hauser is short but to the point. She has some good gossip on the painting – this is unattributed but no doubt came from one or more of the books recently published on Freud – I suspect from the excellent and informative book by Georgie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian (2013) – but also identifies the genre as portraiture, rather than a “nude”. Yes, the subject is naked, but the purpose is to create a portrait, without clothes. The subject is Raymond Jones, an interior decorator from whom Freud borrowed money to settle a gambling debt. Repayment was in the form of this portrait. The viewer is gripped by the very strange posture of the figure, the floppy genitals almost at the very centre of the composition and then the rat (and its tail) which is at first hardly noticeable and then impossible to ignore.

I am not sure what to think about the details of the involvement of the rat in this painting. What ethical obligations does the artist have to his subject, even if it is a rat?   This rat was dosed with sleeping tablets dissolved into a dog’s bowl of Veuve Cliquot for the entire time of the painting’s completion. Freud was notoriously slow and extremely thorough in his work. At the end of it, this rat was without doubt an alcoholic and addict. Nothing in the literature which mentions this picture gives us any further information about the life (and death) of this nameless rat, but we must agree that it is one of the heroic figures of contemporary art, truly martyred in the interests of great art.

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