Lucian Freud passed away in July 2011. A short time later, a 90-minute BBC documentary, “Lucian Freud: Painted Life,” was aired. In it, acquaintances had recollections about him. Knowing little of Lucian Freud before seeing this expose, I found myself captivated by this powerful, realist portrait of the artist’s work, thoughts, life, and relationships. And while it was, granted, a snapshot depiction of a complex man, I found that for me a poignant 16 seconds near the end were the most salient part of the film. These 16 seconds captured a universal human experience.
Lucian fathered somewhere between 14 and more than 30 children. They speak with near unanimity of wanting to see more of their dad. He, however, remained aloof and controlling of any time spent with them.
This is the context in which his now grown daughter makes the powerful 16 second reminiscence. She speaks with what I would describe as a sort of loving melancholy of a simple act. “When he [Lucian] was in his eighties, he suddenly asked me to cut his hair. I loved doing that ‘cause I hadn’t ever really touched him that much. So, it was really lovely to run my hands through his hair…” Her voice fades as she begins to cry.
The gravity of this reminiscence is found by contrasting her deep longing against the life of a famous, powerful man who was an absentee father. Maybe this gravity helps to elicit more attention from us. The sensational dimension of Freud’s colorful biography might offer a springboard for that mind-opening and thought-changing characteristic which we could otherwise find all around us throughout art, literature, and our personal lives.
Open one’s mind and thoughts to what? The paradox of touching God the Father as it relates to intimacy with our earthly fathers.
Don’t all of us, like the floundering children of Lucian Freud, to lesser or greater degrees, want intimacy with our fathers? Isn’t being unable, like Lucian’s daughter, to have this longing properly satisfied at the root of so much of our struggle for meaning, self- knowledge, place in relationships, life balance, and eventually our ability to know the ultimate Father, God?
This personal, pan-human struggle and paradox explains, I believe, why even in Orthodox churches we continue to find icons of God the Father. Contemporary iconographers along with plenty of Orthodox folks are well exposed to the reasoning behind the errors in these depictions. [An excellent resource on this is Image of God the Father in Orthodox Iconography and Theology by Fr. Steven Bigham.]
But, the desire to know and to be near and to “touch” “Father” is SO strong! Its strength is well represented in the emotionally gripping recollection of Lucian’s daughter cutting her father’s grey 80-year-old hair. Aren’t these the type of powerful feelings that fuel the human part of us that could be attracted to a “God the Father” type of imagery? Do some of us get lost in the confusing mental and spiritual maze of the unsatisfied need to “touch”? Is this “need” satisfied with “God the Father” icons? It is unlikely. However, it might explain their very human origin, broad use, continuing presence, and reproduction.
I continue to ask myself questions about God and Father and god and father as they relate to life, relationships, and my own role as a father, human, and iconographer. As I have contemplated the perplexing, challenging dimensions of icons of “God the Father,” I have come to believe that they themselves are icons. They are icons of the many false fathers we look at, place in our lives, strive towards, and wish to “touch.” By “false” I mean all of those things and people (idols, really) that take the place of our only real connection to our true Father, namely Jesus. I base this conclusion on Jesus’ own concise, commanding and even judgmental words: “No one comes to the Father except through me,” John 14:6. As fallen humans, we struggle with these soul, mind, and emotion slicing, ultimate and defining words.
What hope is there for such a seemingly insurmountable, individualized, deep-rooted, father love seeking idolatry? I suspect the answer, as with all God things, might be oh so much closer and simpler than we think. I suspect it can be found in the childlike act of leaning forward and gently, authentically, and adoringly touching our lips to Jesus’ Holy icon.
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