At the end of the twentieth century, figurative painter Lucian Freud (born 1922) came to dominate the London art scene like few others before him. His controversial work was in much demand throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, often setting sales records.
Lucian Freud, grandson of the noted psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin on December 8, 1922, the second of three boys. He was named for his mother, Lucie. His father, Ernst, was an architect. In Berlin, the Freuds led a comfortable middle-class life (in an era of grave political instability in Germany). When Hitler came to power in 1933, Lucian's parents saw how their lives could change, even for secular Jews. They immigrated to England that same year.
Freud became a naturalized British citizen in 1939. From an early age, young Freud had exhibited an interest in art, which was fostered by his family. Even his grandfather, Sigmund, acknowledged his inclination by giving him a set of color reproductions of Brueghel's Months. In London, Freud and his brothers were enrolled in a progressive coeducational private school, Dartington Hall. Freud proved to be a rebellious student, often skipping art class because he disliked the teacher. Instead of gaining an education at Dartington, all Freud acquired was a bad reputation. After two years, his parents enrolled him at Dane Court, a preparatory school that was intended to serve as an entree to Bryanston. While Bryanston was not coeducational, it was progressive enough to ban corporal punishment. Thus the unruly Freud, who loved the outdoors, spent many hours on so-called punishment runs. Eventually Bryanston tired of his rebellious behavior and expelled him. In 1937, Freud produced a remarkable sandstone carving of a three-legged horse. On the strength of this piece, he was accepted in the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Freud's truancy continued, though between bohemian adventures he produced some extraordinary artwork. Years later, when his fame was established, these and other early works were exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Critics were astounded at the maturity of the pieces, which were done when Freud was between fifteen and twenty-three years old. Martin Gayford noted in The Daily Telegraph that "between 1937 and 1945 he was already producing work imbued indelibly with that characteristic and unmistakable intensity. He was still searching for his idiom. To an extent, at that stage he was trying on different styles and approaches to see what fitted best. Surprisingly loose handling alternated with the meticulous graphic sharpness that became characteristic of Freud in the late forties and early fifties." In the Independent, Richard Ingleby pointed out how some of the early work showed the influence of German expressionism.
In the late 1930s, Freud fell in with Stephen Spender, Peter Watson, and Cyril Connolly. The latter two were the founder and editor of the avant-garde magazine Horizon, which published Freud's drawings in 1939 and again in 1944. He also began attending the East Anglian School of Art though, as usual, his attendance over the next three years was erratic. There were two major interruptions in Freud's studies at East Anglian. The first came when the school caught fire (Freud's careless smoking was most likely the cause); the second in happened 1941. Freud won a prize of £25 for a textile design and used the money to travel to Liverpool where he joined the Merchant Marine. After a round-trip crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, Freud managed to get himself discharged from the service and promptly returned to the school.
His first exhibition was in 1944 at London's Lefevre Gallery. It contained most of the work that was shown more than fifty years later in Edinburgh. Critics and patrons were treated to an unknown talent that moved skillfully from expressionism to surrealism. In these early years, Freud produced portraits and still life's—the latter being mostly dead birds. One of these, Dead Heron, has been called by Bruce Bernard, in an essay on the painter, "the first seriously beautiful painting that Freud achieved. Freud could never paint or draw an animal, however long dead, without conveying a sense of its once personal life." This is no idle comment when one considers the direction of Freud's work toward realism. After the Second World War, Freud traveled first to Paris then to Greece where he visited the painter John Craxton, with whom he shared an exhibition in 1947 at the London Gallery.
Arts Council Award
In 1947, Freud married Kitty Garman. For a time, she was his most important model. Her portraits demonstrate the refining of his style and subject matter. Much as Bernard perceived the subject's inner life in Freud's paintings of animals, Freud's realism would also be defined by his ability to transmit the inner personality of the subject. This was due, in part, to the fact that many of his models were friends and family members. Clearly Freud's star was rising. Between 1946 and 1951, his work was displayed in individual and group exhibitions nine times in London, as well as in Paris and Vancouver. Freud was awarded first prize by the Festival of Britain Arts Council in 1951 for Interior in Paddington. This work was the portrait of a friend, Harry Diamond, whose clenched fist and slightly disheveled appearance perfectly captured the inner torment of a man at odds with his station in life. Diamond was the subject of four more paintings by Freud over the next nineteen years, until a falling out left them estranged.
1952 was something of a watershed year for Freud. The now-divorced painter married his second wife, Caroline Blackwood. He also produced two portraits that are considered to be early masterpieces. The subjects of these paintings were his friends, the artists Francis Bacon and John Minton. Freud and Bacon had met in the 1940s and remained friends until Bacon's death. They were often linked professionally, though their personalities would suggest theirs was something of an odd couple relationship. Bacon was the outrageous extrovert, while Freud preferred to shun the limelight. Freud's 1952 portrait of his friend, oil on copper, generated a great deal of excitement but unfortunately has not been seen in public since 1988 when it was stolen from Berlin's Nationalgalerie. Freud also did an interesting drawing of Bacon (1952) that reinforces his friend's scandalous reputation. The portrait of painter and illustrator Minton, is a shock to look at. The subtle tones and fixed stare of his subject reveal a general malaise that is conveyed to the viewer. In addition to these, Freud painted his wife, Caroline. She dominated his canvasses until 1954. That year he exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale along with Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson.
In the mid-1950s Freud began to change his technique: hog's hair brushes replaced sable, and for a time there was an increased use of pigment. This was his most exploratory period. During this time he exhibited very little. By the mid-1960s he had moved toward the dominant, but by no means sole, theme of his work—naked women (and later men). Seeking for years to liberate his subjects, he did the obvious, but with Freud the obvious was never done tritely. His technique was to make one aware of the brush strokes and the paint. His realism in these naked portraits—Freud, himself, preferred the word naked over nude—was deemed existentialism by the critics. In fact, the portraits were not even portraits in the classical sense of the word, as Freud generally painted the whole body. He subverted the definition further in Double Portrait (1985-86) of a reclining young woman and a dog. The woman has her arm over her face. But these are certainly portraits in the Freudian sense. Michael Kimmelman in Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere quoted Freud as saying, "Normally I underplay facial expression when painting the figure, because I want expression to emerge through the body. I used to do only heads, but came to feel that I relied too much on the face. I want the head, as it were, to be more like another limb."
The "School of London"
In the 1970s, Freud diverged from this philosophy by painting a series of portraits of his widowed mother that concentrated on her face, thereby showing the tortures of her loneliness. As for landscapes (or actually cityscapes) Freud, in this period, chose the waste grounds of Paddington. In the middle of the decade, the painter R. B. Kitaj coined the phrase "School of London" to refer to his work and that of Freud, Bacon, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff. Kitaj was referring to colleagues whom he felt were world-class painters though the label was so convenient that it stuck, despite the demurral of some critics. Whether a ploy or not, it benefited Freud's career as galleries began to show his work more often. In 1977, his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Tate. This renaissance continued to gather steam in the 1980s. By the end of the decade the School of London was a hot item. Throughout, Freud affected a distance toward the public response to his work that was not dissimilar from the distance he as a painter affected toward his models.
International Prominence: The Met Retrospective
In the early 1990s, Freud enjoyed one of his most productive collaborations when he painted a series of naked portraits of the performance artist, Leigh Bowery. These portraits of the obese Bowery stand as Freud's response to his own previous series of naked women, for Freud has shunned the ideal at almost every turn and yet still managed to convey beauty and simplicity. Amidst this series, Freud was given a major retrospective by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1993). Mark Swart, in the fourth edition of Contemporary Artists, wrote that this show "brought to a head a long-standing debate surrounding Freud's approach to the figure. His advocates view him as an inheritor of a tradition that includes Watteau and Ingres, painters who managed to capture the elegance of the human form without losing its earthly qualities, while his opponents dismiss him as a skilled draftsman too mired in solipsism and egomania to express anything other than a monotone conception of depressing and humiliating sexuality."
The notion of Freud's solipsism has dogged him throughout his career but he himself (as quoted by Marina Warner in a 1993 article in the New York Times ) belies this: "[Professional] models would have some idea of posing in itself—which is exactly what I'm trying not to do. I want them to be themselves. I don't want to use them for an idea I've got. I actually want to do them. Even their identical twin wouldn't do at all."
Earlier that year, the reclusive Freud—he seldom traveled from London—had refused an honorary degree from Oxford, claiming he was neither an Oxford graduate nor a graduate of any university. He was simply, as art critic Robert Hughes declared, the greatest realist painter of his time.
Further Reading on Lucian Freud
Bernard, Bruce and Derek Birdsall. Lucian Freud. Random House, 1996.
Contemporary Artists, fourth edition, edited by Joann Cerrito, St.James Press, 1996.
The Daily Telegraph, March 26, 1997.
The Independent, April 8, 1997.
The New York Times, December 4, 1988.
Sunday Telegraph, February 14, 1993.