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The Anxious Artist

Bruce Wang Citizen Wang Studio
Photo by Naomi Elfred-Ross

Article By Naomi Elfred-Ross @ citizenwangstudio.com


 

The Anxious Artist

 

Yesterday morning, as I lay in my bed, trying to rouse myself, I was in my usual state of indecision about how to spend the day. I tend to function better if I have definite things scheduled into my day, but I am trying to learn how to venture into the unknown and panic inducing territory of unstructured time.

I had an idea that I really wanted to visit the Lucian Freud exhibition, at the Freud Museum, a place so familiar to me from when I worked as a community mental health nurse at the Tavistock Centre, which is very close by. We even had the odd training day there, so there was a feeling of apprehension of treading the path of, what felt like, a former life.

The other obstacle, which felt like the real test, was the challenge of getting myself there. It is just a short train ride and a walk, but since all things Covid, getting public transport has been extremely difficult for me. I feel really frustrated about this, as getting out and about was one thing I could do with relative ease before. Now, there is a heady cocktail of anxiety that doesn’t seem as straightforward as a fear of catching the virus, although this is in the mix, but more the knock-on effect of what that would mean in terms of having to isolate myself and cut myself off from the supports systems I depend on. Additionally, there is the sense of responsibility towards those more vulnerable than I am. What is more and probably most significantly, I am also haunted by regular flashbacks of the image of my mother dying from the virus, as I watched helplessly, through my cracked phone screen. I watch others as they return to ‘normal’ life with wonder, in my FFP3 mask. In many ways, I remain paralysed, despite regular efforts to keep pushing myself forwards regardless, even though my world feels like it’s been turned upside-down.

So, I was feeling quite a lot of anxiety, at the thought of the journey to the Freud Museum. However, having once been a CBT therapist, I knew that the avoidance of something only serves to confirm and enhance the fear. If I am to rewire myself, I need to act as though there is nothing to be afraid of. I must take the hand of that frightened child and show her that she is allowed to live her life. It isn’t that I haven’t used trains during the pandemic, but it never feels at all easy. So, I decided to lay down the gauntlet and challenge myself to do this. No, this journey was not essential, but I needed to do this for myself, to get some inspiration for my own practice and because I wanted to have something to share in this blog!

Lucien Freud has always been a favourite artist of mine. I even wrote my dissertation about his work for my art degree, way back in 1999. I was exploring artists who dealt with the theme of identity in their work. There is something very alive and almost brutally honest about his portraits. Freud strips his sitters, be they clad or nude and exposes the vulnerability that we all share, but do our best to pretend otherwise. It is evident that Freud spends a good deal of time getting to know and really considering his subject, scrutinising them in such a way that is not dissimilar to the work of his grandfather Sigmund. For this reason, my experience of viewing a Freud portrait, is rather voyeuristic, I can’t honestly say it is a comfortable experience and yet I feel a sense of privilege that I am permitted to have a glimpse into the world of another human being, facilitated by the Freud. We are also, of course, being invited into the inner world of the artist, as what Freud paints evidently holds great meaning for him and he has spoken of his work as being autobiographical. I wonder what artist could say otherwise? The opportunity for such an insight into the lived experience of the other reminds me of humbling experience of my work, as a nurse, when a young person would sit with me and trust me enough to tentatively take steps towards exposing their pain, sometimes for the first time.

As these thought’s passed through my mind, I felt enough motivation to make the trip to the exhibition and allowed myself to feel a real sense of pride. I was not only meeting the challenge, but I was also taking care of myself, which is something I find hard to do. As is often the case with anxiety, the anticipation of the journey caused me to feel more anxious than the actual journey itself. As I write this, 24 hours later, I cannot believe what I put myself though on a regular basis when it is so unnecessary. However, I also know that beating myself up about it only makes things worse. For me, confronting this particular fear is as anxiety inducing as jumping out of an aeroplane might be for another. In fact, sometimes I think I would cope better with the latter! So, I went through the motions which are normally involved in getting out of the house, a painstakingly long and protracted process (something that needs work). Then, putting on a favourite summer frock and painting on my best face, ready to face the world. At this stage, I am already pretty exhausted, purely because of the mental turmoil.

Reader; I made it! I was treading the boards of Sigmund Freud’s former London home. Having visited the museum a number of times, I was keen to head straight to the Lucien Freud exhibition, which was appropriately focused on his early years and family life, allowing a glimpse into the formative experiences and relationships, which shaped him as an artist. I was lucky enough to have the space largely to myself, which meant I was really able to linger and absorb the work and even though the exhibition was small, there was plenty to appreciate and digest.

Some of Freuds’ childhood drawings and illustrated letters were included in the exhibition and it was no surprise to discover he had a rich inner world and creative mind from a young age. Into adulthood, the paintings, drawings and etchings on display were all of friends and family members and so, inevitably, each work was imbued with rich and multiple layers of meaning. I was struck by the time spent and rich, generous texture of paint, almost becoming sculptural, which Freud used, particularly on his subjects’ faces. There was a strong sense of intense observation and immense emotion invested with each stroke.

I was interested to learn of Freud’s complex relationship with his parents, particularly with his mother, who he had felt suffocated by, as she had placed him on a pedestal. I know from experience that this is a precarious place to inhabit. Then there was is father, who he didn’t connect with and had experienced as controlling. As a means of escape from this intensity, he threw himself into art from a young age and into his passion for horses, which brought him a sense of freedom desperately needed. The exhibition includes a rare sculpture of a horse, made by Freud. It is, perhaps, no surprise, that later in life his relationship with women was so complex.

Freud’s relationship with his mother improved as she got older and became less domineering, after the death of Freud’s father. She then became a subject for many of his portraits. One of which, an etching, was on display at the exhibition. I recalled how I had frequently felt the desire to do portraits of my own mother. When approaching this urge, I always became too emotionally overwhelmed to be able to even approach making a start. Such complex emotions arise just thinking about it. Several times, since my mother’s death, I have considered doing a portrait of her, but as I type these words, I feel my stomach is in knots at the idea. Writing and illustrating ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’ felt like a less direct approach and somehow more bearable. The characters I created for the book were cats and this established a sufficient level of emotional detachment. Knowing this, I can fully appreciate exactly what Freud had invested in taking this step himself, the courage of such an emotional investment is immense. I thought that this was evident in the etching on display, with its expressive mark making and evident attention to capturing mood both of his sitter and of himself.

(‘The Painters’ Mother’ 1982, etching by Lucien Freud)

 

Other paintings on display brought alive the development of his family and other important relationships, as they evolved through his 60-year career. The exhibition also included Freuds love of books, perhaps another means of escape from the intensity of some of those relationships and the act of portrait painting, as well as for inspiration. This was something I very much related to, as my home would not feel like my own if it were without books. This is equally important as having a feline presence.

I am so glad that I confronted my anxiety by going to this creatively nourishing and fascinating exhibition. I now intend to keep gently nudging myself to do more of the same. I hope that gradually and over time, this will get much easier and that gradually the traumatic image that I find so hard to let go of will gently fade, as I allow my mum to rest in peace. Who knows in which direction my creative and life journey will take me then.

(Illustration taken from ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’ by Naomi Elfred-Ross)

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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