NAKED CLAY: DRAWING FROM LUCIAN FREUDBy Barry HillShearsman Books, $25
Nanjing Night Net

THE late Lucian Freud had a four-word manifesto, URGENT SUBTLE CONCISE ROBUST, scrawled upon his studio wall, but most people’s impressions of him are less exact and combine a challenging stare, thickly painted, confronting nudes, and some vague gossip about how many children he may have fathered.

Not entirely the wrong impression, but not the whole picture, which as Barry Hill shows in this marvellous book, you won’t see unless you look.

Naked Clay is art history, autobiography, existential struggle, all woven through 60 years of Freud’s paintings from 1944 onwards. What does it mean to be naked, to look at, to be looked at, possessed? Can art justify the severity, or tenderness, of such a gaze? These are the questions Hill asks, as the paintings do.

Naked Clay is on one level a classically proportioned art book: a precise and perceptive examination of one man’s oeuvre. The fact that it is conducted entirely through poetry almost escapes notice, even when Hill is working small lyrical wonders on almost every page.

And yet there is only one painting to be seen, on the cover of the book: Girl with White Dog from 1950. ”The girl with the white dog/as still as the door closed behind her/is daydreaming of mice/in a drawer of socks.” Or is she? You can look at the image and decide – if you think it important.

Inside the book it’s all text: readers well acquainted with Freud’s work will read the poems in one way, as will those who choose to go and find the images for each poem on the way through. Reading the paintings as I did without seeing them, with only vague memories and a kind of texture in mind, the poems were nearly always enough.

But then there was Large Interior W9, with Freud’s ailing, depressed mother in a chair, a woman naked in bed behind her: ”If one has been quietly weeping/the other will not have seen./The lover has made a grandmother/of Mother, and Mother might not know./And there, under the chair/is a pestle and mortar/its weight like the spirit of a woman/set down after pounding.” Surely no painting could match that poem, but it did, even on a laptop.

True, Hill says, a little later, with the long central poem In Sight of Death but remember those questions. Have you really thought them through? And he then does exactly that, allowing neither Freud, nor himself, nor us, to avoid the issue or displace it with mere aesthetics.

Hill wrestles for 20 pages with the body, real and painted, with art and with poetry’s presumption to interrogate and explain it, and with his mortal self. There’s a kind of exhaustion at the end, and while the answers aren’t any closer, the parties somehow agree to differ.

After this the book relents, seems almost to sigh, ending with a tribute to the poet’s parents that is half mea culpa, half love song. After a long journey to London and back and through the years, the poetry settles, is somehow more accepting and resigned: ”the body becomes subject to fact/or settles into being/a constellation of resentment, grief, memories struck dumb … The best a poem can do/is keep scrubbing itself clean/withstand the furnace, refuse the insipid.”

Hill has honoured Freud’s scrawled manifesto to the letter in this urgent, subtle, concise and robust book.

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