With warts and all

The legacy of Lucien Freud: having captured who we really are

The artist Lucien (Lucian) Michael Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, and he received his male first name after his mother’s name Lucie. He died in 2011 as a naturalised British citizen and artist belonging to an art movement critics term realism.

We are now focusing on his art, and in so doing, we are neither taking up what appears to be the main interest for some people. Namely, the amount of love affairs and number of children he fathered in suburban London. Nor are we going to dwell on the fact that he preferred one-on-ones with most people over groups. Nor are we introducing a lot of psycho-babble owing to the fact that Lucien is the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and escaped Nazism in Germany.

Freud’s children are important to mention in one important respect only. They appear in many of his portraits and are all painted with an incredible tenderness.

The art was a labour intensive passion

Aside from his children, most of his models sat and posed for Freud for many hours. It conveniently created a unique bond between the artist and the sitter which was important for the results. The many hours ensured that Freud really knew every square inch of whom he was painting. More importantly, he also got to know more about the person’s thoughts and very sense of being.

In essence the latter is Freud’s contribution to art. The portraits are memorable. They are piercing into our consciousness precisely because so much extra is captured about the person.

Freud expressed what he observed without compromise

You would think the many hours were being spent on subtle gradients, sfumato and photographic rendition. Not so with Lucien Freud, because he chose to paint in loaded impasto. He chose to paint what he saw and never aimed to flatter anyones vanities. People were painted with warts and all. If they looked bored, sad or fat, it got onto the canvas without mercy but also with a kind of all accepting love.

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is a point in case, and it was called ‘a travesty’ by the tabloid Sun for the same reason. Now for someone who has monopolised the stamps and coins of Common Wealth to the extend the queen has, the outcome is arguably a little besides the norm. Still, it will probably go down in history as one of the finest royal portraits. If it matters one bit, the queen herself was pleased with the work. Critics, though, were divided when it was unveiled in 2001. In a famous soundbite, it was called: “thought-provoking and psychologically penetrating” by the head of the National Portrait Gallery, Charles Saumarez-Smith.

If people were not already dear to him before he painted them, they usually were afterwards

Lucien Freud painted a few people with some years in between – including himself. Whether intentional or not, it created an important stamp of time passing, of aging and of our own mortality.

Most people portrayed were very dear to Freud. That goes for his extended family, daughters Rose and Esther, and the friends and fellow artists David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Over twenty years his assistant David Dawson sat 7 times, including the final painting which was not completed due to the artist dying. Dawson in turn, observed the incredible work ethics of Lucien. He would be in the studio all weekdays first thing in the morning. He never missed a work day, and he deliberately chose models who were punctual. If people called in late, they were famously dismissed by the disappointed artist in no uncertain terms.

Freud received the accolade ‘the greatest living painter in Britain’, but you somehow feel pretty convinced that if he knew, he would probably have stayed indifferent to the tag. He would have painted when, what, and how he did any odd how.

The figurative painting technique and preferred low-profile way of living

Freud underwent a lifelong artistic development from observing the human form, and constantly perfecting his technique.

Some of his early work such as ‘girl with a white dog’ from 1951/52 features his first wife Kathleen. It is is much more rendered than his later works. Towards the end of his career he worked with much looser brush strokes plus a much more confident economy in the use of colour and contours.

But already in ‘girl and white dog’ we see some much loved recurring themes of Freud’s. One is the human gaze which draws you in. There is this fantastic almost obsessive attention to flesh and all its perfect imperfections. You notice drapery in the composition. Pets also appear in many of his paintings and the dynamics between us and our relationship with dogs, cats or horses are one of Freud’s hallmarks as well. Many portraits are also painted from a high vantage point and often with only one light source.

The incredibly private artist deliberately went under the media radar for the greater part of his life. in fact he rarely gave interviews. The stunt provided much needed time and space to explore his art. It is not hard to understand why. When he began working as an artist, figurative art was unfashionable to say the least. Modern abstract art was, however good and needed, on its way to introduce the very same dogma that it had fought against so vehemently.