The Secret Life of Plants in Lucian Freud’s Paintings

741647 Interior at Paddington, 1951 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 152.4x114.3 cm; Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool; ( the model, Harry Diamond (1924-2009) was a photographer and friend of the artist); © The Lucian Freud Archive

Looking at Lucian Freud’s “Interior at Paddington” (1951), a pivotal work in the artist’s practice, the viewer is inevitably drawn to the painting’s human subject – Freud’s friend, the photographer Harry Diamond. Diamond’s indecipherable expression and the loaded hesitancy of his body are so captivating that one could easily overlook the painting’s other protagonist: a man-sized yucca plant, occupying the foreground and sharing at least its equal part of the stage. 

In “Lucian Freud Herbarium,” a new book by the art historian Giovanni Aloi, the author offers an original analysis of this much-discussed painting, drawing out the full ambivalence of the relationship between man and pot plant. This is one of many great readings in Aloi’s thorough and abundantly illustrated survey of Freud’s paintings of plants. As with all good scholarly works, the reader is left so convinced of the value of the subject matter that one is surprised it hasn’t garnered more critical attention already. 

“Lucian Freud Herbarium” opens with a general introduction to the artist’s oeuvre, which points out that Freud’s figurative painting, although out of sync with the times, was not an expression of “anachronistic stubbornness.” Instead, Aloi suggests, it demonstrates his confidence in a medium that had been emancipated from depicting reality by the invention of photography, and had since become “a truly critical, self-aware, and profoundly powerful philosophical tool.” Such claims are now commonplace, but also often vague and open-ended; Aloi traces out the metaphysical stakes of Freud’s treatment of the natural world with a rare and lucid precision. 

Aloi’s argument rests on Freud’s rejection of the orthodox anthropocentric approach to representing plants in painting. Rather than enlisting nature for its aesthetic or symbolic value, the artist accords an equivalence to humans, animals and plants, which, liberated from the traditional designs of the human gaze, are depicted with a “universal nakedness” and “existential bareness.” Looking at Freud’s paintings, one can sense this intuitively; plants are not charged with doing or saying something, they are just there, in all their quiddity. 

Reading on, a concise but illuminating history of the representation of plants in art serves to contextualize Freud’s practice within a much longer lineage. The discussion begins as far back as the Ancient Greeks’ theory of mimesis, and examines the secondary status accorded to plants in European art which were typically seen as the passive counterpart to the active human subject. The author contrasts this with the Eastern tradition, where paintings of flowers (a distinct genre to botanical illustrations) can be found in China as early as the 7thcentury, and where an entirely different philosophical framework attributed greater value to non-human subject matters. 

Aloi then describes how, during the Renaissance, plants and flowers were associated with an increasingly complex network of symbolisms, with their appearance in a painting serving the picture’s narrative development. In the 17thcentury, this was developed further in still life painting in Northern Europe, and later flourished among the Pre-Raphaelites in Victorian England, as urbanization and industrialization ushered in widespread nostalgia for a lost bucolic past. In all of these cases, Aloi writes, plants were effectively subordinated in the service of “ventriloquizing human affairs.”

This brief history concludes by considering representations of plants in Modern and Contemporary art, looking at artists such as Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Steichen or Rashid Johnson who take more nuanced approaches, often complicating the status of plants as objects or subjects. This leads to a broader reflection on how climate change and the imminent threat to our future co-existence with the natural world invites novel perspectives and lends new significance to how we consider our relationship with nature.

What follows is a chronological account of Freud’s plant paintings, from his earliest childhood drawings through to his final works. Readers learn of the artists and influences that shaped Freud’s depictions of the vegetal world, as well as their relationship with the nude in his paintings. The result is a fascinating insight into an underexamined aspect of Freud’s work, as well as a new prism to consider his painterly practice as a whole. Readers might well be left with more questions than they started with, the first of which is how such an analysis might apply to other Modern and Contemporary artists. For example, how might the plants and flowers in Kehinde Wiley or Alice Neel’s portraits be understood? What conception of the man-nature relationship are they predicated on? As the climate crisis looms ahead, and artistic practices respond in turn, I suspect we’ll be talking an awful lot more about plants in the coming years.  

“Lucian Freud Herbarium” by Giovanni Aloi is published by Prestel (£39.99 hardcover).  

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.