To penetrate with sympathy

The heady optimism many artists felt at the end of World War I was not echoed by their colleagues in the aftermath of World War II. British artists emerged with gloom and pessimism to focus on a world which, for the first time in history, threatened mankind's existence. Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and Lucian Freud, among others, found their work permeated with a brooding melancholy. Sutherland painted thorny crowns. Bacon saw his sitters in expressionistic isolation. Moore was haunted by the uneasy sleepers of the London bomb shelters. And Freud discovered the more hidden fears inside the minds of his friends.

Lucian Freud's work is purely autobiographical. The people he paints are those who are close to him, and they are painted in the rooms he lives in. ''Whom else,'' he asks, ''can I hope to portray with a degree of profundity?'' Curiously, this choice to work from a very private life seems to have resulted in paintings that reflect the wider problems of the world outside.

Out of Freud's paintings the sitters stare fixedly. They do not transfix the viewer with the peristalsis of fear but search beyond in an unfocused reverie. The eyes do not see because inner dreams have taken over. The chairs and plants that Freud chooses for his sitters are given the power to haunt. Triffid-like plants threaten (thorns poised and stinging) their origins as much in the imaginative world of the sitter as in the literal world outside.

By seeking to peel away the layers of disguise that we tend to assume, one might think that Freud's perception would be increased through the distilling nature of memory. But he says, ''I am never inhibited by working from life. On the contrary I feel more free; and I can take liberties which the tyranny of memory would not allow. I would wish my work to appear factual not literal.'' The final sentence of this statement is the key. Facts about a person can only be elucidated if the search goes beyond the surface of skin and bone and scrutinizes the psyche.

Lucian Freud has turned the popular idea of portraiture on its head. People crave an image of themselves or their loved ones which either concurs with their own views, or reinforces a shallow idealistic image. Freud's portraits startle us with their candour. His remorseless eye demands that each sitter lose his protective disguise. Such a prospect causes most people to scuttle instinctively for cover, like soft hermit crabs caught outside their shells.

Yet Freud is not without affection and sympathy. His eye is cold because he has believed his duty as an artist is to discover the blemishes as well as the beauties of his sitters. His ''Portrait of Caroline'' reveals a concern that is sensitive enough to depict what lies beneath her fixed gaze. Though he exposes her inmost sadness, he expects the viewer to feel an empathy with her - like a candid encounter with a looking glass.

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