What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince, says Freud in Feaver's catalogue essay.
Few people that saw the Lucian Freud retrospective at the
Britain this summer could deny having felt at least three of the above. The exhibition, which now moves to Barcelona an then onto Los Angeles, displays in totemic fashion the incredible body of work of the world’s greatest living figurative artist. Each of the subtle changes in his work has been chartered. It is a definitive retrospective.
Grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian grew up in Germany before moving with his family to London, aged 11, in 1933. Despite having lived his working life in London, he still speaks with a strangely Germanic accent. As a child his main interests were drawing and horse riding. He nearly elected to become a jockey rather than be a painter. Having been expelled from Bryanston in 1938, he studied at the Central School of Art. He did not get inspired by the ‘depressing sub-Academician taught painting’ and after a term left for the East Anglian School, founded by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. It was a much freer environment there. Box of Apples in Wales and Landscape with Birds (both 1940) are two surviving works from this era.
His early work largely consists of closely observed and intricately detailed stylised figures. In Girl with Roses (1947-8) the big eyes and pale skin are combined with subtle minutiae, which suck the viewer into the composition. Each hair, each blemish of the skin, is painstakingly rendered. He is fearless about a new challenge or a new subject. The dog resting its head on a girl’s knee in Girl with a White Dog (1950-1) is breathtaking and nothing passed unnoticed by the inspection of Freud’s eye. ‘Sometimes when I have been staring too hard I’ve noticed that I could see the circumference of my own eye.’ What comes through most clearly in the whole exhibition is how he has dedicated a lifetime’s work to scrutiny. He realised in the sixties that he could paint whatever he chose provided he handled the paint correctly and looked sufficiently. It was decade of liberating experiences. The first was to stand when painting, banal though it seems, which really freed him. The second was to discover the nude. From that point on the nude became the basis of his work. The most triumphal change was to abandon his sable brushes and start to use hog-hair brushes and he started to adopt a freer, more vibrant approach that transformed his work. The masterpiece of the post-sable period is, in my opinion, Pregnant Girl (1960-1). The skin is more lucid and the brusquer marks are perfectly considered. The slightly grey tainted nature of the skin has always reminded me of old plaster, perhaps that is the effect sitting for so long has on his models.
He has always restricted himself to painting family and friends. Like Auerbach, he has regular sitters who are painted a number of times. The paintings of his mother are amongst the most exceptional of the paintings on display. In contrast to his self-portraits, they are immensely fluid and he appears to have been at ease with himself and the paint. The attention to detail and smoothness in The Painter’s Mother Resting (1976) is simply astounding. Although a little superficial in places, it shows a very strong mother to son relationship. This is in sharp contrast to his relationship with himself. He freely admits that he throws away more self-portraits than any other paintings. The self-portrait is the discovery of the illusive, which is blinded by the familiar. His struggle with the paint is obvious in his self-portraits and although this could be an illusion created by cremnitz white (a dense, lead based paint), it is still unavoidable. He is fighting a battle with failure, which requires an incredible strength to win. He succeeds in Painter Working, Reflection (1993) and the layers of cremnitz are apparent, especially in the densely worked neck. His most recent, Self-Portrait, Reflection (2002, still wet at time of hanging), is one in which he loses the battle. The figure seems to have had its energy taken out of it. The failure of the artist comes out in the appearance of the paint and the image. It is hard to pinpoint the problem exactly but it just doesn’t seem to have that arresting nature, which is so ubiquitous in his other works. His grandest single portrait series are the paintings of the gay performance artist Leigh Bowery. He was huge both physically and in character. Freud captures perfectly the undulations and tones of his flesh in Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990). The foreshortening of the left knee and the shimmering torso are two eye-catching elements. ‘The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on a plate as a “composition”’. These words from Frank Auerbach brilliantly describe this period in Lucian’s painting.
‘Titian does wonderfully what is one of the most difficult things of all to do, which is to paint people together,’ said Freud. An enormous painting by his standards and a huge challenge, Large Interior (after Watteau) (1981-3) is one of his greatest triumphs. The Figures interact together, contrast against each other and hold the painting together. It is a work of art in more than just the obvious sense. The figures are delicately poised together and every element of the painting displays his dexterity and inventive handling of paint. Of his recent work, which I hadn’t seen prior to the exhibition, the two masterpieces are Freddy Standing (2000-1), which I believe will become a totem of his work in the 21st century, and Daughter and Father (2002), painted from a photo and intensely beautiful.
Many people have strong feelings against Freud. They find his work disturbing and sometimes sordid. However the uniqueness of his work and the subtlety with which he handles paint will set him in stone for posterity. Few contemporary artists have the same relentless work ethic, the same dependence on observation and the facts. He says that when he finds a technique that works he’ll abandon it and try another one. Despite having painted the body for sixty years his drive to paint is only strengthening, and his paintings do not grow tired. The exhibition brought together every subtlety and nuance of an incredible body of work. He does not hit the headlines, he is not a celebrity, but he is unavoidable as a power in contemporary art. In his eightieth year, his biological clock is ticking but perhaps he will make one more major change in his approach. Even if he doesn’t, we are lucky to have lived in the age of such a force.
Contact me if you are keen on Freud related banter.