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Lucian Freud: The Silence of Two Plants
[ Artist in Focus )
We will be lending Lucien Freud’s Unripe Tangerine to the Garden Museum for their upcoming exhibition, Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits. To celebrate we asked Dr. Giovanni Aloi, curator of the exhibition to tell us a bit more about Freud’s relatively unknown paintings of plants.
Across the many books charting Lucian Freud’s incredibly prolific career, his paintings of plants are only referenced in passing. I have talked at length about this curious omission in my book Lucian Freud Herbarium, which focused entirely on his plant paintings. There are many reasons why Freud’s paintings of plants have been overlooked and none have to do with their quality. Like much of the artist’s output they are outstandingly original. But flowers and plants have for a century been associated with femininity. Influential 17th-century art historical hierarchies placed paintings of flowers and plants at the very bottom of both commercial and cultural interest. As a result, art historians have marginalized plants in art as nothing more than a curiosity.
Of course, there are some exceptions. The wonderfully textured and wondrously intricate Two Plants, painted between 1977 and 1980, is rather well known and it is the only painting of plants that Freud talked about at some length. It was acquired by Tate just as it was completed, a testament to the painting’s originality. But when it was first shown, people did not seem to know what to make of it. Freud recalls “When it hung at the Tate, I went there once and stood near it and I saw people looking at the painting and going past it and then looking at the one after it as if there had been a sign saying ‘This Way to the Next Picture’; and I thought I wanted it to be quiet but not as quiet as all that”. What Freud meant by quiet remains open to speculation. He might have referred to the tonal muteness of the painting, its lack of narrative, or even the impression that it might altogether lack a subject because it only represents plants.
But he was certainly right, Two Plants is quiet in more than one way. It is actually very quiet—its subdued nature, the flat composition, its deep timelessness, the silence enveloping the plants—it is easy to feel lost in front of it—lost in front of its vegetal greatness.
Paintings of plants abound in the history of Western art. They became popular after the protestant revolution of the 16th century forbade north European artists from painting religious figures. This instilled a major art market crisis that artists averted by replacing saints and martyrs with symbolically charged portrayals of animals and plants. Symbolic meanings were derived from sacred scriptures and biblical apocrypha. They were meant to educate protestant viewers of northern European countries and subsequently became fashionable in Italy, Spain, and France. The protestant church saw religious images of sacred figures as idolatrous, spurring never-ending controversies over the use of icons in worship. Faced with the impossibility of painting sacred figures, artists found in the silence of plants a precious opportunity.
Daffodils—some of the earliest flowers to return every spring—spoke of rebirth and resurrection. Daisies told stories of innocence, beauty, and love. Strawberry flowers professed the value of chastity. Cherries, red carnations, and poppies evoked the bloody passion of Christ. At times a combination of colour and scent was bound in a symbol: the whiteness and fragrance of lemon blossoms, lily of the valley, and jasmine, for instance, incarnated the purity of the Virgin.
Here lies a paradox: western art has trained us to look at plants only so that we could hear our own voice. Over time, this approach has implied that plants are never enough for what they are. Humans must fill their silence so as to make them speak of important matters like religion. The symbolic meaning of Dutch still-life paintings was somewhat Medieval in essence, it implied that God’s presence pervades every fiber of this world and that everything speaks the greatness of his masterplan. Despite their beauty, Dutch still-life paintings are emblematic of what has gone wrong in our relationship with nature.
History has taught us that art is the reflection of culture. However, things are much more complex. Art is the making of reality itself, not its aftermath. It is the very matter through which we process our experiences of the world. While at first, artworks might seem to reflect a philosophical or theological position, the images created by artists manifest our perception, crystallizing it as truth and perpetuating it in our minds. Regardless of the subject, man-made images in any medium are always part of a formative feedback loop that reinforces who we are and who we are not. This is where the true cultural value of art lies: art is world-forming. The best artists are makers of truth.
A vivid example of the world-forming ability of art can be found in the representation of the female nude across western art. The subtly pacifying and suggestive postures, the submissiveness, the fragility, and the paleness that has characterized centuries of female nudes is not only a reflection of the male gaze but a set of codes that, over time, has dictated the essence of femininity—how women’s bodies ought to be and behave. Lucian Freud’s reinvention of the female (and male) nude, as exemplified in paintings like Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, (1995) featuring a gorgeously corpulent Sue Tilley or Eight Months Gone (1997) immortalizing a pregnant Jerry Hall provide opportunities to rethink limiting and dated conceptions of female beauty. Freud’s reinterpretation of the male nude similarly proposes a radical reconfiguration of masculinity based on vulnerability. His portraits of London-based actor, pop star, and drag queen Leigh Bowery show a solemnly vulnerable and yet pride-brimming body engulfed in the kind of deep-seated sense of self-acceptance that only someone who knows themselves intimately well can truly own. No patriarchal heroism is in sight.
As the representational tropes that have defined the classical idea of female and male beauty derived from Greek and Roman classical art, the parameters that still today shape our expectations of the vegetal world were set by Dutch still-life painting.
Both have miseducated us to fetishize perfection and to value the bold freshness of youth above all.
Both have thought us that we must read ennobling messages in the harmony of form.
Both still haunt our taste and desire today in ways that often go undetected until we stumble across the work of an artist like Lucian Freud whose determination to see through and past the structures that constrict our thinking allows us to lift the veils of cultural impositions.
When it was first exhibited at Tate in 1980, Two Plants puzzled because the plants Freud chose to paint don’t have anything to say about human affairs—they are too plant-like: as silent as plants can possibly be. Helichrysum petiolare (licorice plant) dominates the painting with its densely clad, felted foliage while Aspidistra elatior (cast-iron plant) slits the canvas with elongated swaths of unbroken, bronze-green. Neither appears in the history of still-life paintings, they don’t speak of human virtues and vices. And neither are they painted by Freud in the style of botanical representations—the kind of perfected and objective imagery that scientific illustrators generate by merging multiple individuals of the same species to produce an impossibly perfect specimen.
About this painting, Freud said “I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying”. It took Freud three years to complete this painting—three years spent following the ebbs and flows of each stem and leaf to produce a unique kind of plant portrait that captures the movements and growth of plants in a way that no other medium could. “They are lots of little portraits of leaves, lots and lots of them, starting with them rather robust in the middle—greeny-blue and cream—and getting more yellow and broken”.
This is what makes Two Plants so enigmatically intriguing and yet impenetrable. By rejecting classical symbolism and resisting any kind of perfecting, Freud effectively painted a plant portrait—the result of an extended and intimate engagement with a plant under a constant state of heightened focus. In and of itself, a plant portrait is never just a picture of a plant. It is an opportunity to slow down and be present—to align ourselves to the rhythms of a vegetal existence we once were a part of and to enhance our sensitivity to the difference that the alterity of a radical other always entails. A plant portrait is a matter of alignments, a mapping of proximities, an unspeakable dialogue, and at times, a leap into uncharted relational territories that only unravel in the deepest kind of existentialist silence.
Two Plants tests the boundaries of our empathy asking us to look again and again, harder and harder until we can begin to forget ourselves a little in order to meet the other halfway, not imposing on them our voices and ideas but by making space for them to be themselves, even if at first the encounter seems awkward or even utterly futile.
 Feaver, William. 2019 The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years – 1968 to 2011. epub. p.262
 Feaver, William Vol.2 p.262
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits opens at the Garden Museum on 14th October and runs until 5th March 2023. It is curated by art historian and author of Lucian Freud Herbarium, Dr. Giovanni Aloi.