Wednesday, 16 October 2013

EC Dissertation - Lucian Freud

LUCIAN FREUD  (1922 – 2011)


Lucian Freud was born in Germany in 1922 and moved to England in 1933 with his parents who wanted to escape the tyranny of Nazism, which was about to impact the whole of Europe and beyond.  

Apart from his portraits and life paintings, and indeed early still life compositions, Freud produced many etchings, which he continued to do throughout his career, but it is his oil portraits and nudes for which he is renowned, and, by many, he is regarded as the leading figurative artist of the 20th century.  Nonetheless, his work has not always been favourably received.  His portrait of the Queen is a case in point.  It was said to make her majesty look unhappy and old.  Bearing in mind his modus operandi it would be surprising if he had painted a flattering picture because one of his bon mot was a  wish to paint a searching picture not like the person before him, but a painting of them.

During the 1940s, after undertaking his initial artistic training at the Central School of Art in London, Freud is said to have spent some time at Benton End (a house now in private ownership) near Hadleigh, Suffolk, which was the home of Sir Cedric Morris and Lett-Haines, founders of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.  An interesting portrait by Sir Cedric Morris of Freud when he was a young student of 19 years of age may give an indication of the influence Morris might have had on Freud’s work.  It is a portrait that scrutinizes the sitter, a feature that was to become a significant element in Freud’s own portrait and life paintings.  The portrait is full-face three quarter length and is arranged simplistically without a sophisticated background or props, relying on the gaze of the sitter to draw us into the portrait.
Lucien Freud by Sir Cedric Morris,

Freud was later a student at Goldsmith College and after that he formed a group with other figurative painters which included Francis Bacon, Ronald Kitaj, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Robert Colquhoun, Michael Andrews, Robert MacBryde and Reginald Gray, which became known as the School of London.  These painters were effectively going against the flow, in terms of movements, as Expressionism and later Abstract Expressionism were taking off, certainly in America at that time. Most of these artists painted in a representational style, contrasting only in each individual artist’s method of seeking to pursue a deeper more convincing truth.  I wonder about the cross-fertilization of ideas learned from each other, surely one of the joys of working in close proximity to other artists.   I am thinking of the extensive and heavy impasto employed by Frank Auerbach in much of his work almost obliterating the subject, Francis Bacon’s visceral painting techniques, and maybe Robert Colquhoun’s palette. It is likely that even sub-consciously, some techniques and methods would have been taken up by each and every artist.  We see throughout the history of art that ideas spark from one artist to the other so that, through innovative modulations and departures, a new style evolves and flourishes.  Cubism is a case in point having started with the work of Cezanne, and subsequently revealed through Braque, Picasso and Gris.

 Singer-by-low-larger, Robert Colquhoun
Self Portrait, Robert Colquhoun (
Lucian Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud and it is interesting that perhaps this heritage enabled him to explore personality through form rather than tapping into the psychology of his sitters through visual expression, i.e. as Rembrandt did, but ultimately the scrutiny of character is palpable. 

During interviews on BBC Television with his numerous daughters and family members I gained an insight into this rather aloof father and grand-father.  Like Picasso, Freud had many liaisons and some 14 children as a result.  He was married twice, first to Kathleen Garman, daughter of the sculptor, Jacob Epstein. The marriage produced two daughters, then after a divorce he later married Lady Caroline Blackwood in 1953, an heiress of the Guinness Beer fortunes.  They subsequently divorced in 1959, after which he was said to have become almost suicidal, according to his friend Francis Bacon.  Freud was drinking heavily and becoming involved in brawls.  His second wife was said to have been the only woman who broke his heart.

The media pundits had not always acclaimed his work, some criticised it as indicative of misogyny because of the overt exploration of flesh and non-flattering paintings of women.  He was far from that in my view, I see his work as crushingly honest in his attempt to explore the quintessential structure of the human body - flesh and bones and form laid bare. From the ‘50s onwards he concentrated on painting, nudes and portraits.  His early work was representational with fine brushwork, whereby he cleaned his brush after every stroke to maintain the purity of the skin tones. The style at that time is in an almost Surrealist manner, for example Girl with the White Dog. Those detractors who see his later work as uncomfortably stark can see that his style has developed through a highly trained eye capable of sensitive, searching and candid refinement of detail.

Lucian Freud, Girl with the white dog (

 Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor
Lucian Freud, Detail, Benefits Supervisor

 I was lucky enough to go to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Freud’s Retrospective in February 2011, and remember when I first saw the vast canvas of Sue Tilley, the ‘Benefits Supervisor’,  a canvas almost 60inches by just over 86 inches

My initial reaction was one of awe, tinged with a disturbing element of disgust, I suppose because of the penetrating monumentality of the work. However, because I passed the painting several times whilst viewing other paintings I became more familiar and eventually thought it quite beautiful, sensual and alive with the sofa echoing her curves.  It exudes a feeling of indolent corporeality.  Freud loved to use Cremnitz White and apparently purchased practically the entire stock that was available at the time.  Because the paint is lead based it was difficult to source, and still is today, for safety reasons.  The paint has a yellowish tinge and is quite thick and buttery, it probably contributes uniquely to the distinctive flesh colour that Freud achieves. He obviously felt it was important to use it and I think this was probably mixed with the Umbers, Siennas, Ochre, Naples Yellow, so-called earth colours, all of which contribute to the creamy warmth of live flesh. I think I also see Viridian for shadows in Head of a Woman (Hartlepool Museum), and possibly Indian Yellow, although some of the modelling shadows look grey, though I don’t doubt there are subtle hints of purple too.  The impasto texture, which is varied throughout his work from smooth, dragged, layered, stippled, to built-up patches, is dynamic in its exploration of the skin’s small imperfections that help to render the flesh so convincingly. It is this technique that provides a gritty almost tactile quality in Freud’s work, which is a feast for the eye.
Lucian Freud - Portrait Leigh Bowery
Another of Freud’s exhibited works which I enjoyed was the paintings of Sue Tilley’s friend, Leigh Bowery, whose form is depicted with equal depth and realism, it has the same visceral quality that enables us to almost smell human scent.  Freud said he wanted his paintings to be “of” the person not “like” them.  It is a subtle distinction but goes straight to the heart of his work ethic.  Lucian Freud Quote "I get my ideas for pictures from watching people I want to work from moving about naked. I want to allow the nature of my model to affect the atmosphere and to some degree the composition. I have watched behaviour change human forms".  It is evident from this quotation that Freud sees the person as a real person interacting with the environment not a person posed in a static almost unnatural position.  He wants to glean as much as possible from his sitter’s presence in the room, allowing them to relax into a natural state rather than a pose.  It is possible to see this with most of his life studies.  Freud was a stickler for demanding commitment from his subjects who were required to sit for maybe several hours at a stretch.  It appeared to be a requirement before undertaking the painting. Often his subjects were friends and family so he was able to observe at close hand, their whole being.  It is interesting that sitters are sometimes portrayed as being asleep, bearing in mind the hours they have been in situ, it is not surprising.

 It is possible to see Freud’s penetrating gaze in photographs, I also sense a timidity, almost a vulnerability together with a steady determination. 

In his self-portraits it is possible to detect the darker side of his character.  There also seems to be a limit to what he permits the viewer to see, ‘this far and no further’ which appears to mask a degree of shyness.  The works are rigorous, muscular and without flattery yet captivating in their search for truth. The second portrait is resolute and the gaze is intense.  His charm is not portrayed but we know he had that element in his nature, particularly in view of the number of mistresses he is said to have had.  Interestingly, the background is the same colour as the Colquhoun self-portrait. After Freud’s death, Sir Nicholas Serota, in a BBC Radio 4 interview said that Freud “had a searching gaze and was methodical” and this appears to be evidenced by the portraits.

Throughout his life, Freud was on the edge of society, a lifestyle, similar to the that he may have experienced with Sir Cedric Morris and Lett Haines whose social lives were what might have been considered at the time in the realms of the dark side.  Certainly Freud seemed to frequent the slightly seedier areas, and was I think drawn to the people who frequented those parts because they were probably larger than life characters.  But there was a dichotomy.  He compartmentalized life, and he was known to have joined the Princess Margaret set occasionally.   It is apparent from the interiors and props in his studio, particularly the old couch in the painting of the Benefits Supervisor, that he lived to paint rather than painting to live. Having said that I believe he enjoyed good food, and Sue Tilley mentioned in a BBC interview that they would sometimes go to a restaurant for an expensive meal.

House-plants and animals were frequently included in some of Freud’s earlier paintings, especially in the ‘60s. Later his work depicts roofs through the windows of his studio, but these were secondary to the main thrust of his composition, which was the portrait or nude, the surroundings remind one of Art Povera.

His mother, a German Jew, has featured in his work.  He did a series of paintings spending thousands of hours on them after she had attempted to commit suicide.  Like many of his other paintings his mother was painted reclining in bed. The painting of his mother resting is sensitively painted and is less fierce than his usual style, it depicts a frail old lady dressed in white, gazing into empty space, and one is reminded of holocaust victims in those bare surroundings.  It is said that such paintings illustrating a son’s relationship with his mother had not been seen since Rembrandt.  Strictly speaking I don’t consider that is the case because we have Whistler’s mother, which is a beautiful filial painting, depicting a mother’s piety and bond with her son: An Arrangement in Grey and Black.

Freud then, was an enigmatic private man whose work has revived the credibility of figurative work, which in the 20th Century was rejected by Performance Art and Conceptual Art. For that the art cognoscenti must surely be assured and in some cases pleased, but more importantly it puts Freud in the pantheon of great artists.

Sources: Wickipedia; Your Paintings; Dominic Guerrini Lucien Freud Prints Website (Biography); Artdaily website on National Portrait Gallery Freud Retrospective, – Sir Cedric Morris portrait of Freud,, BBC Radio 4, Wikipaintings



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