(A short comparative essay, 2015)
Awkwardness clashes with comfort when these two paintings are side by side. Lucian Freud’s hauntingly beautiful “Girl With a White Dog,” (1950-1) leaves you with a sense of unease upon intruding on such a personal moment, immediately you are drawn to the woman’s eyes, wide and anxious yet her expression is hard to place. She stares out of the painting, her hand resting her left breast with the right exposed. A white pitbull looks up from her lap lazily, the detailing on it’s fur is pristinely clean, clinical perhaps, as is the woman’s dressing gown. The meticulous texture on the chosen subjects means the eye requires no more than is there to hold it’s interest. Here, no water flowing upwards or meting clocks are necessary to give the situation a surreal quality, the dog’s comforting placement is enough to juxtapose the lonely mood.
Mother and Child Lying Nude, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 124.7 x 82 cm, (1907).
The same sense of unease cannot be said while viewing “Mother and Child Lying Nude,” by Paula Modersohn-Becker (1907). There is a tenderness captured within the paint. The painting embodies traditional motherhood wonderfully, flooding the mind with imagery of protection (the arm shielding the baby’s head), connection (the two figures connect to each other like a jigsaw, the lines along the baby’s side run into it’s mother’s leg and stomach creating a gentle fluidity) and nurturing (the baby’s head nuzzled to the chest). The bold brush strokes and simplified style reflect the excitement and passion Becker felt while working on this piece. “I am becoming something!” she wrote to her close friend while developing her most famous work. She practiced the figures of mother and child using charcoal and watercolours, extensively preparing to execute a major work. There is also a sense of liberation within the piece; Becker was a proud artist and her ego was considered unfeminine at the time. However, this ego was the drive behind her exploration into motherhood and womanhood, without the constraints of the male gaze which can sexualise the figure.
Freud was known for his close connection to his models. In the case of “Girl With a White Dog,” it was the closest, as his wife modeled for the piece (as well as in other works). She was pregnant during the sitting though this is not apparent from only looking at the painting. Becker’s models are unknown: the painting is not about them as characters but about what they represent and what Becker can express through them. While both paintings are drawn from a female source they do not share much else apart from the powerful emotions they can inspire.
Girl with a White Dog, Lucian Freud, oil on canvas, 95.4 x 120 cm (1950-51)