Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A painter on a painting: ‘Girl with a Kitten’ by Lucian Freud

Artist Catherine Beaumont looks at Lucian Freud's 1947 "Girl With A Kitten":

Image: Tate - http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12617_10.jpg

‘Girl with a Kitten’ by Lucian Freud, is to me as an artist, a very fascinating painting. It is a portrait of the artist’s first wife, Kitty Garman, who was the daughter of famous sculptor Jacob Epstein. Freud painted her in 1947, a year before their tempestuous marriage. The painter’s future wife is cloaked under the anonymous title, ‘Girl with a Kitten’, highlighting that this is a double portrait, equally of the ‘girl’ and of the young kitten who is clasped strangely by the neck.

The enigmatic pair are painted in muted, ashen colours, a myriad of dove greys and soft blues, set against the dark swathes of Garman’s mahogany hair, which seem frayed and static from the intensity of the painter’s gaze. The colours are a precursor of Freud’s later impasto flesh tones that would become so acclaimed, yet in this painting they appear restrained like the tight grip of the sitter on the kitten’s neck.

What so thrills me about this painting, as an artist and as a curious human being, is how impenetrable this portrait is. Freud structures the portrait with a three quarter profile of his future wife, with her gaze averted, making her inaccessible, yet he places the kitten staring directly out of the centre of the canvas. With such a direct gaze, it makes me feel that the kitten is more than just a passive addition to the painting, but an emblem of Kitty Garman herself. However, this is surprising as it is so unlike Freud to use symbols in his work, claiming that his ideal in art is to appear ‘in his work no more than God in nature’. But why is the kitten’s gaze so direct and unblinking? Why does it stare with such intensity at the viewer? To me it seems that the kitten plays with the sitter’s name, linking ‘kitten’ with ‘Kitty’, giving the anonymous ‘girl’ an identity and pairing their feline eyes and heart shaped faces.

If this is so, it would make me feel that it tells us more about Garman and Freud’s relationship. In the painting, the girl seems absent, with a look of almost horror in her eyes. She is distant from her grip on the kitten, which makes me wonder if this grasp reflects not herself but the artist’s grip on her, his ‘Kitty’, as her future husband. The look of tension in her eyes makes me think of ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”… I feel that Garman becomes a possession of the artist, as in the Duke’s ruthless collection, to be collected with many other women that he would love and paint. In this piece, it seems to me that it captures Garman’s dawning realisation of her partner’s turbulent nature, suspending perfectly this line - ‘Then all smiles stopped together’…

On the other hand, on closer inspection you can see that Garman’s eyes are painted in startling hazel green, whereas the kitten’s eyes are a lucid pale blue, which more closely resemble Freud’s eyes.

Source image for second detail:

Perhaps then, the captured kitten is not Kitty Garman at all, but represents how Freud felt trapped and suffocated by this serious, pre-marital relationship.


Sackerson said...

JD comments:

Nice piece by your new guest poster. Freud was rather strange and enigmatic but was a very good painter. His grandfather was barking mad in my opinion and it probably runs in the family :)

This is an example of the enigmatic mind of Freud -
"his ideal in art is to appear ‘in his work no more than God in nature’"

That's a very ambiguous statement because there are two opposing points of view on that: the orthodox scientific (Newtonian) idea that God created the universe and left it to look after itself or the much older idea that God is the animating spirit in nature (quantum theory is inclined towards the latter idea)

Hockney had this to say about Freud's working methods-
"His palette is perhaps eight colours. He never put the tops back on the tubes so the paint cakes up on them and he flicks this off on the wall with a swipe. He has been doing this on the studio wall for the last 40 years so it is thick with many years' layers. Like a wall in the life rooms at the art schools of the Fifties that I knew, but this was all done by the same hand - a rare and beautiful thing in itself."


I know the feeling. The paint gets everywhere no matter how careful you are and he just stopped worrying about it :)

Paddington said...

No, quantum theory does not support that assertion. Unless you wish to posit that God is bound by the laws of probability.

Sackerson said...

JD directs us to an old post by someone else, containing this about Freud:

"Above all else, art requires that the confusing detail be stripped away, but not altogether lost – it must be be synthesised through the painter’s own understanding so that each element becomes a metaphor and an expression, and the unity of these self-made parts is a process in the mind of the artist. It is this mental contribution which makes art a worthwhile attempt to build some kind of rapport between creator and observer, and which quite negates the value of photorealist art, whose creators can no longer be distinguished from one another.

"This is why it is pointless to try to paint anything with which you are not capable of becoming emotionally involved. The late Lucien Freud, surely one the the most devoted and able painters of the 20th century, was alert to this essential need; he once attempted a portrait of a distinguished gentleman but gave it up as hopeless after a few sittings. When asked why, he exploded, “how on Earth could I paint with that man in the room?!”

"As a result, the most powerful art expresses the emotional state of the artist, which requires some mastery of the mechanical processes, but also a unique perception of the subject itself. A portrait painter must have some connection with his model, even if it only forms during the process. Freud’s own sessions were known to extend for months: small wonder his paintings capture every physical nuance of his subjects and evoke such a thorough knowledge of their form. His figures look strangely drained of their souls; perhaps, being an atheist, he saw them as only flesh and blood; this too is an honest expression."

- https://iaincarstairs.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/synthesis-and-understanding-the-spirit-of-art-tom-thomson/

Catherine said...

Hi JD, that is so very fascinating! Thank you so much for responding to my piece! I am thrilled that Rolf asked me to write it.

It is very interesting that Freud should say that his ideal is to appear in his work 'no more than God in nature', as like you have wisely said in your quote, he was quite a firm atheist, so that is very strange. He also said that the highest achievement in art 'is not to make us laugh or cry, or to rouse our lust or our anger, but to do as nature does; that is, fill us with wonderment.'Perhaps it is this wonderment from his devotion to his work that evokes such spiritual feelings in him?

I think that is so beautiful as well, that the most powerful art reflects the emotional state of the artist - although it takes a very brave artist to display their true emotions in their work on display to the public!

Thank you for the link to the articles on Freud, they seem absolutely fascinating! Also, have you come across the book 'Man with a Blue Scarf', by Martin Gayford? I am sure you have most likely read it, but it is a really gripping insight into the very lengthy and psychological process of sitting for one of Freud's portraits!

Thank you again, and it is lovely to meet you all,

Sackerson said...

JD responds:

I saw the response from Catherine and I had heard of Martin Gayford's book although I haven't read it. You could ask her to do more posts. An artist is always worth listening to, much more so than the art journalists. Very few of the critics are worth reading: Robert Hughes, Brian Sewell and Peter Fuller have all died so there are not many left as far as I know.

This is one of the best books on painting that I have:


It is somewhat quirky and unorthodox but it is very good. I will not say that it has influenced me but it has certainly had an effect on the way I paint. Chapter 6 there, which can be downloaded, could have been written with Freud in mind. :)

Catherine said...

Dear JD,

Thank you so much for your very kind comment, I am so thrilled that you liked my response to the piece! I would absolutely love to write more!

I have had a look at the book - very interesting! I love the beautiful rich colours of the plates! I will study it in depth!

Thank you so much for your wonderful support, and I am sorry my reply has been so glacially slow - I have just been curating quite a big exhibition, so I am just recovering, haha!

Hope you are very well, and thank you so much for your comment,