Art is analysis and projection. Art is perspective and choices. Art is narrative. Art is conscious and unconscious. Lucian Freud, grandson of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, paints a portrait of his wife, Kathleen Garman entitled Girl with a Kitten. She herself is the daughter of an artist, Jacob Epstein. Freud plays on her name: she is Kitty, and so he poses her with a cat. She appears to be throttling the cat, but it is the artist writing the narrative and so he is the one choosing to throttle the cat, yet when we examine the painting closely there are details to suggest that the cat is a paragon and the wife may be the aggressor: compare the eyes, compare the perfection of the cat’s hair to the wilder hair of the wife, compare the colours, the deathly pale of the wife, the warmth of the cat. So who is who in this relationship? Who the innocent, who the guilty party?
The entire portrait is chilling, the palette is icy. This is not a flattering portrait and one wonders how the wife would have felt when she saw the finished product. She is not a wife in possession or in repose, and if there is sentiment, it is certainly not sentimental. The bland background and the softness of her blouse heighten the intensity of her glaring faraway eyes. Her knuckles are tense with adrenalin. This is a portrait of a tempestuous relationship between the woman and the cat (or between man and wife). But the narrative is unresolved, as in a dream or a nightmare. The elements are disturbing and that too is a function of art, to unsettle, to challenge, to undermine the conventions, to go against the grain, to stick it in the eyes and mind of the observer.
As with so many canvases, the wealth of detail has to be examined in person. A reproduction can never do justice to textures, so there really is no alternative to paying a visit to Tate Britain in Pimlico to see this masterpiece for yourself.
Lucian Freud, grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922 and came to Britain in 1933. In 1946–7 he travelled to Paris and Greece. On his return to London in February 1947, he began a relationship with Kitty Garman, the eldest daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein and the model and collector Kathleen Garman. The subsequent marriage between Freud and Kitty was short-lived – they wed in the spring of 1948 and divorced in 1952 after having two daughters. Girl with a Kitten is one of eight portraits that Freud made of his first wife.