Purchased with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and anonymous donors 1990
Since the 1960s the nude has been an important theme in Lucian Freud's work. The intense attention to the particularities of each body has led some critics to place these pictures in a tradition of realist nudes, which begins with the paintings of Gustave Courbet (1819-77). While many have commented on the disturbing accuracy of Freud's figure painting he himself has argued for 'truthfulness as revealing and intrusive, rather than rhyming and soothing' (quoted in Lucian Freud Painting and Etchings, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal 1996, p.10). Intense scrutiny rather than idealisation is an important theme within Freud's work.
Like many of Freud's pictures Standing by the Rags was painted in his London studio. The motif of the mound of rags first appeared in Red Haired Man 1962-3 (Erich Sommer Collection) but only became commonly recurrent during the late 1980s. The rags, which are in fact heaped in front of a hidden radiator, are used by Freud for wiping brushes and have been interpreted by some critics as a coded sign for the artist's presence in the image. Jeremy Lewison has compared the smeared paint on the rags to blood and other bodily secretions.
The degree of attention given to the detail and texture of the rags is equivalent to that given to the figure. The shallow spatial depth of the picture makes it difficult to tell whether the woman is standing against or lying on the rags. She is positioned with one arm at her side and the other raised. Her head is twisted so that it rests on her right shoulder. Although the model was asked to find a pose that would be comfortable for her to hold over long periods, it nonetheless seems awkward. Lewison has compared it to that of the female figure in Ingres' Angelica Saved by Ruggiero (National Gallery Collection, London), a painting that Freud included in 'The Artist's Eye' exhibition held at the National Gallery in 1987. The pose is also reminiscent of the figure of Christ being lowered from the Cross in old master paintings of the Deposition.
The paint has been applied with a stiff hog-hair brush to create a textured appearance for the whole painting. The model's face, breasts and genitalia are rendered in a particularly thick impasto, which heightens their physical presence within the overall scheme. The physicality of the model is further enhanced by the warm, dark palette used for her body compared to the cool tones of the rags. In contrast to the ivory smoothness of a classical nude, the flesh of Freud's model is sagging, mottled and flushed.
Standing by the Rags is one of Freud's largest paintings of the nude. Unusually it re-appears in the background of another painting, Two Men in the Studio 1987-9 (private collection, reproduced Lampert, p.109. cat.no.47 in colour). In that painting a male nude is shown standing on a mattress with his hands behind his head while another man lies under the bed sheets. Behind these two figures and to the left is Standing by the Rags and to the right the actual mound of rags depicted in the painting.
Bruce Bernard and Derek Birdsall (eds.), Lucian Freud, London 1996, reproduced p.273, pl.231 (colour)
Catherine Lampert, Lucian Freud, Recent Work, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.113, cat.no.49 (colour)
Jeremy Lewison, 'Lucian Freud's 'Standing by the Rags', National Art Collections Fund Review 1990, 1990, pp.91-3