A painting by the British artist that will soon be auctioned felt like a radical depiction of the female form in the 1990s. But is it really? Alastair Sooke looks back to find out.

On the evening of 13 May, a large painting of a naked woman sitting on a sofa by the British artist Lucian Freud will go under the hammer at Christie’s auction house in New York, with an upper estimate of $50m (£32.4m).

By any standards, Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) is a spectacular canvas: a thickly painted, clotted study of abundant female flesh. Freud’s vision was relentlessly frank, and here he revelled in describing every last mottle, blemish, wobble and sag of his curvaceous model, the Londoner Sue Tilley, who then weighed around 20 stone (280lb, 120 kg) and worked as a supervisor in a Job Centre. “I want the paint to feel like flesh,” Freud once said.

The effect isn’t cruel, in a point-and-gasp kind of way, like those television ‘shock docs’ that encourage us to mock the obese. Instead we are shown a sympathetic figure with a remarkably palpable presence, flinging back her head as though lost in ecstasy – or, perhaps, tranquillity.

Freud’s fiesta of carnality belongs to a quartet of paintings that he made of Tilley, aka ‘Big Sue’, in the ’90s. When Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), another painting from the series, was sold at Christie’s in New York in 2008, the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought it for $33.6m (£17.2m) – then the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist. (Freud died in 2011.)

One of the most striking things about Freud’s paintings of Tilley is how much they depart from conventional definitions of female beauty. Although ‘plus-size models’ such as Ashley Graham now enjoy increasing prominence, and the voluptuous, scantily clad body of socialite and celebrity Kim Kardashian is endlessly reproduced across social media, there is still a certain look for women that glossy magazines encourage us to find attractive. And that look usually involves being thin.

Within the context of art history, though, Freud’s paintings of Big Sue do not seem so wayward. It is often said that the ancient Greeks invented ‘the nude’. But there are depictions of naked women or goddesses from earlier ages than the Classical era – and many of them exhibit a full figure.

Ancient aesthetics

One of the earliest – and best known – is a small limestone figurine, little more than 11cm (4in) high, traditionally called the Venus of Willendorf. (She is named after the Austrian village near the Palaeolithic site where she was discovered in 1908.) Her modern name is controversial, since calling her Venus invites comparison with the much more obviously beautiful Venuses fashioned by the sculptors of ancient Greece. This footless figure is, frankly, much fatter than her Grecian descendants: her pear-shaped body boasts enormous breasts and an unrealistically swollen belly, with a pronounced pubic cleft. She looks like a fleshy hand grenade.

There is still great debate about why this figurine was carved. In one infamous interpretation, the US critic Camille Paglia argued in her book Sexual Personae (1990) that “[the Venus of Willendorf] is buried in the bulging mass of her own fecund body… Her fat is a symbol of abundance in an age of famine. She is the too-muchness of nature, which man longs to direct to his salvation.”

Yet Jill Cook of the Department of Prehistory in the British Museum is not convinced that the Willendorf statuette was necessarily a fertility goddess. “She is a depiction of an obese, middle-aged woman whose childbearing is in the past,” Cook says. “When first found she was described as ‘ugly’, ‘monstrous’, and ‘horrible’, and hailed as indicative of the ‘primitive’ sexual tastes of people regarded at that time as savages. Yet I fail to see any pornographic or erotic significance in this piece. For me, Frau Willendorf has the kind of candid reality and physical ease reflected by Freud in his paintings of Sue Tilley.”

It would be fascinating to ascertain whether this little statuette, the Big Sue of her day, was ever considered beautiful. Certainly, when we look at later periods in art history, we quickly realise that beauty is never an absolute concept, but something that shifts and fluctuates over time.

The artists of the Northern Renaissance, for instance, preferred to paint naked women with elegant, slender and tapering, small-breasted bodies: just look, for example, at the way that Lucas Cranach the Elder depicted Eve before the Tree of Knowledge in a panel of 1526 now in the Courtauld Gallery in London. Closer to the Mediterranean, however, Italian artists often painted naked women with much sturdier, more statuesque frames: witness Giorgione’s Concert champêtre or the hearty nudes of Titian. Here, perhaps, the emphasis was more upon passionate, worldly sensuality than spiritual concerns.

Fleshy pursuits

The Western artist arguably most famous for depicting voluptuous women was the 17th Century ‘prince of painters’, Peter Paul Rubens. The well-nourished models in his paintings are routinely described as ‘fleshy’. While they would be unlikely to grace the cover of Vogue magazine today, Rubens’ models were once lauded as the apogee of beauty: one of them, the artist’s own wife, was considered the most beautiful woman in Flanders.

Rubens’ portrait known as Het Pelsken (The Little Fur), a life-sized nude in which his second wife, Hélène Fourment, partially drapes herself with a sensuous fur robe, is a masterpiece of eroticism and sensitivity: the artist dwells upon the dimples and folds of his young wife’s flesh. As a result, there is little about this portrait that feels ‘airbrushed’. While her pose has an element of titillating fantasy, the way that Rubens presents her is intimacy itself.

Rubens became the benchmark for later artists who, for whatever reason, wanted to paint women with ample bodies. His influence, for example, can be seen in the late Bathers of Renoir, or the large-scale nude women painted by contemporary British artist Jenny Saville.

Eye of the beholder

Even the Young British Artist Sarah Lucas has occasionally operated within a tradition that goes back to Rubens. Around the time that Freud started painting Tilley, Lucas created Fat, Forty and Flabulous (1991). It belonged to a series of works that she made by photocopying double-page spreads in tabloid newspapers. In this particular piece, we see a dark-haired woman with a body shape not dissimilar from that of Big Sue. This time though, the woman is held up as an object of ridicule by story from the Sunday Sport that Lucas used as her source: the article’s opening paragraph describes her as someone’s “marshmallow mound missus”.

Lucas, of course, wasn’t inviting us to join in the baiting. Strongly influenced by feminist writing at the time, she wanted to skewer a punitive, misogynistic society that believed that people who deviated from the ‘ideal’ of the body beautiful – or even the ‘norm’, in terms of their appearance – were worthy of scorn. Her target was the mocking tone of the tabloid newspaper rather than the woman at the heart of the story.

Freud’s portraits of Tilley also belong to a lineage stretching back to Rubens, despite the fact that Big Sue does not have the same distinctively lustrous, mother-of-pearl skin tone as the women in the earlier artist’s paintings. Unlike Rubens, Freud didn’t want his full-figured model to appear seductive.

Freud, of course, was operating in the wake of Modernism, which had vigorously assaulted time-honoured ideals of beauty. (There is no way, for example, that you would find Picasso and his cohorts painting lush ‘stunners’ as the 19th Century Pre-Raphaelites had done.) As well as harking back to Rubens, Freud’s paintings of Tilley also belong to a tradition of supposedly ‘ugly’ 20th Century nudes. Think of the women in early masterpieces of modern art such as Cezanne’s Bathers or Matisse’s Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra) of 1907, whose haunches, in particular, are wilfully distorted and misshapen.

Yet ultimately, of course, there is nothing ‘ugly’ about Freud’s portraits of Big Sue: anyone who argues otherwise is seeing them through the prism of their own prejudice rather than looking at their actual effect, which presents Tilley sympathetically. Back in the ’90s, when they were painted, they may have appeared surprising as a celebration of what was then (and is still) an unconventional type of beauty. But seen in the wider context of art history, suddenly they don’t seem so radical after all. Just like Lucas, Freud understood that beauty is an artificial and fluid concept constructed by different societies in different ways.

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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