Comment: Lucien Freud dies at 88

The works of Sigmund Freud’s grandson, a keen observer of portraits and the naked figure, reach a height of expression worthy of the Old Masters.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
British figurative painter Lucien Freud, a modern giant of representational painting and etching, passed away last week. He was 88.
His longtime New York art dealer William Acquavella said the grandson of Sigmund Freud had died at his home in London on Wednesday night after an unspecified illness.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 to an Austrian father and a German mother, both Jews.
His family fled Germany in 1933 and was naturalized in the United Kingdom in 1939.
He studied art in London and by his early 20s was already working as a painter and illustrator.
His style was figurative from the beginning, influenced by some of the artists from the second phase of Surrealism but mainly from a longstanding British tradition of representational painting that resisted the abstract trends that were sweeping the European mainland.
An important influence was Stanley Spencer, a painter who achieved minor fame in the UK but remains almost unknown elsewhere.
With several friends, including Francis Bacon, Leon Kossof and R.B. Kitaj, Freud formed in the 1950s a loose group of artists that differed greatly in style but was united by all the painters subscribing to an emphasis on some degree of straightforward representation in art. The group was later coined “The School of London” by Kitaj.
In the later ’50s, Freud’s style evolved from a refined application of paint in thin layers to a thicker, more impasto use of oils. His work remained realistic and his stylistic development did not undergo radical changes since then; moving away from the apparently surrealist juxtapositions of his early work, he concentrated on portraiture and painting from the nude.
In his later life Freud had a predilection for models who were antithetic to the idealized perception of the human body, often painting huge canvases depicting obese or aging men and women in a simple domestic setting.
Christie’s auctioneers said the shift to a fleshier, looser tone was partly due to his friendship with painter Bacon.
Referring to Bacon’s work, Freud was quoted as saying: “[It] impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life.”
Freud said of his own art: “As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”
He set a record in sales by a living artist, when, in 2008, his “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” a portrait of an obese woman asleep in the nude on a sofa, painted in 1995, fetched $33.6 million at Christie’s.
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth painted in 2001 caused controversy with its unflattering depiction of the monarch. He painted the queen with a bulbous face, rich in wrinkles and bearing an unpleasant expression.
Arthur Edwards, photographer for The Sun tabloid, said of the portrait: “They should hang it in the kharzi [toilet].” In an article about the portrait, the newspaper called it “a travesty.”
Freud’s work continues a great tradition of realistic painting in Britain, but his specific use of paint is reminiscent most of all of Old Masters such as Diego Velasquez and Frans Hals.
However, he was not out of tune with his time; among modern contemporaries, some themes in his works can bear comparison with the attitude to the human form of such painters as Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet, his stronger emphasis on representation notwithstanding.
The seemingly quick, impasto brushwork he employed was, like in the work of Hals, deceptive; his painting process was slow and each stroke, despite being decisive and apparently brutal in execution, was carefully studied.
Some of his painting took thousands of hours to bring to completion; Freud usually demanded that the model be present even when he was working on details of background and props.
Like Gustave Courbet, Freud was a consummate master in rendering human flesh. He also painted landscapes and still lifes and often his portraits include animals or pets of the sitters, but he excelled first and foremost in rendering the human form.
To the same degree they describe living forms, Freud’s canvases also contain an undercurrent of preoccupation with death: alchemically transforming oil and pigment to skin that covers sinew, bone and blood, the pictures lay bare to the viewer the potential of living flesh to wither and eventually rot.
While limited in scope of subject during a career that spanned some 60 years, Freud’s body of work, inspired by masters from painting’s golden age as well as by his School of London contemporaries, is classically valid all while being uncompromising in its modernity.