Lucian Freud 1922 – 2011

July 31, 2011
Lucien Freud, Reflection (Self Portrait)
Lucien Freud, Reflection (Self Portrait)

With the passing of Lucian Freud, British art has lost not only one of its great painters, but a legendary conversationalist. Perhaps it was a skill acquired while staring at people for hours in the studio, deciding whether or not to put a microscopic dab of paint on the end of a nose. Freud’s anecdotes, his wit and idiosyncratic philosophy of life kept many a sitter engaged while their arms and legs grew numb.

There are already hundreds of Freud stories, and his death is bound to unleash a new flood. A recent book by critic, Martin Gayford, Man with a Blue Scarf, described the experience of sitting for a Freud portrait, and the talks he had with the painter. Not only did Freud have stories about peers such as Francis Bacon and Augustus John, but reminiscences of the villains he once knew in the East End of London, including the Kray brothers.

Freud held outspoken views on other artists. He argued that Leonardo da Vinci was a thoroughly bad painter, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work was “the nearest painting can get to bad breath.”

Born in Berlin and brought to England in 1933, Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, a pedigree that some have seen reflected in the ruthless, analytical nature of his portraits. His career got off to a flying start during the Neo-Romantic period of British art that followed the Second World War, when he painted haunting pictures such as Girl with a white dog (1951-52). Yet as Abstract Expressionism and its successors cast a spell on the museums and the collectors, he was relegated to the margins.

This didn’t seem to worry Freud, who continued to paint in a doggedly realistic manner. His big revolution came in the early 1960s, when he abandoned the thin, graphic style and began to heap oils onto the canvas in a more expressive fashion. Sir Kenneth Clark was scandalised, but it this was the style that would bring Freud back into the limelight.

With the coining of the phrase “School of London” in the late 1970s, Freud enjoyed a new recognition alongside painters such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and R.B. Kitaj. He soon went on to become the most successful of this loose-knit group – which could be more accurately described as a label coined by art historical convenience. His nudes of the late 1980s, including portraits of his daughters, were greeted with rapturous acclaim, as were memorable etchings such as Lord Goodman (1986-87).

With the death of Francis Bacon in 1992, Freud reigned unchallenged as the most celebrated British artist. It was his peculiar distinction to be the only realist painter that the international art world seemed to take seriously. This meant that his works became obligatory inclusions in museum collections and sold for gigantic prices. Sitters queued up to have their portraits painted, even though Freud was anything but a flatterer. He painted everyone from the Queen to a naked, pregnant Jerry Hall. In 1993 he portrayed himself as a scraggy nude wearing only a pair of old boots.

When the National Gallery of Australia’s then-director, Brian Kennedy, went to London in 2001 to purchase Freud’s After Cézanne (1999-2000), he was chiefly impressed by the fact that this millionaire artist had holes in his trousers. The $7.4 million paid was an Australian record for a work of international art. Many believe it is not a great Freud, and we would have been better off with one of his remarkable paintings of the obese Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery. I’m inclined to agree.

Throughout his years of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, Freud seems to have maintained the same personality: a drinker; a gambler; a ladies man with a habit of fathering children. Some tabloids have accused him of having no fewer than forty offspring. When painting is one’s profession, if not one’s whole life, it’s useful to have a hobby.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2011