Lucian Freud, painter, died on July 20th, aged 88
ASTONISHMENT, even disgust, often greeted Lucian Freud’s paintings when they first appeared. In “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” a mountainous friend lay snoozing on a sofa, one blubbery breast cupped in a hand, revelling in rolls of fat like a beached whale. In “Naked Man with Rat” a surprised fellow fondled a rodent perilously near his engorged genitalia. Female nudes—sometimes the artist’s own grown-up daughters—lay rudely splayed, or tangled up in sheets. Bare flesh, vulnerable, cushiony, shiny, lumpish pink-white thickly shadowed in grey and blue, was everywhere. The best painter in the world, as he was often said to be, seemed intent on rubbing the world’s nose in human ugliness. His candour was shocking.
What viewers did not always realise was that Mr Freud wanted to shock himself. Each portrait was a risk. Every time he approached a sitter—thrusting a piece of torn sheet into his belt as an apron, scraping a clean space on his heavily encrusted palette, knocking the dried paint off the tube-ends in a swipe across the wall—he felt, he said, like a diver on the edge of the board. He had no idea what would happen. As he loaded the brush with paint and made for the canvas, nervous and lithe, he was dicing with extraordinary danger, just as when, in younger days, he would shut his eyes and dash out into traffic to see if he could make it, or when in poorer times he had hazarded all his money in gambling dens, deliberately staking every last penny and then walking home, springing with happiness, everything lost.
Each portrait had to depart utterly from the last, a surprise even to him. Each painting had to be better. Not necessarily “like” the subject—he did not set much store by likeness, just as he hated commissions and hackwork—but somehow being the person, alive in the paint. Sittings for him took months and years, interspersed with witty conversations and dinners at the Wolseley in which he would keep on observing, translating each tic and expression into a single muttering brush-stroke—“Yes, a little,” “Slightly,” “More yellow,” until, in laboriously fastidious layers, the person appeared. He was a beady-eyed prober, like the foxes he loved or his favourite whippet, Pluto, whose long-legged grace often appeared in his paintings as counterpoint to some fatter, redder human shape.
Queen and gangsters
His method reflected the draughtsman in him. The boy, transplanted at ten from Berlin to England, drew all the time; the young artist, defying the 1940s scorn for figurative art, did work that was linear, flat and infinitely detailed, with cross-hatched tailoring on his portraits and painstaking attention, worthy of Dürer, to the fur of dead monkeys and the tangled hair of his girlfriends. It all changed, suddenly, in 1959, with “Woman Smiling”. From sitting down, he now leapt to his feet; swapped thin sable brushes for hog-hair and fine canvases for rough; stopped drawing, went straight to paint, and overturned everything that had seemed to be Lucian Freud before. He refused to be predictable, just as he refused to be influenced—for more than a painting or two, at least—by any other artist. He knew what he liked: Constable for his bold, thick paint, Courbet and Ingres for their pinkly voluptuous nudes. But his school was always his own.
It was a school of interiors, centred on his studios in Paddington and Holland Park: bare floors, old rags in piles, worn armchairs and cast-iron beds. The only landscapes he noticed were window-views of houses and his own squalid gardens, full of buddleia, which he also painted. Through his door came an extraordinary mixture of people: drunks and gamblers from his underworld life, Kate Moss and Jerry Hall, Francis Bacon and David Hockney (both friends), the Duchess of Devonshire and Lord Goodman, performance artists and men with razor scars on their faces. The queen, on a velvet chair, perched among the rags for a grim, blue-chinned portrait. Not everyone took their clothes off, but he wished they would. Even make-up, even earrings spoiled that “Oh!” of the completely bare. He liked human beings to be as naked as the horses he also painted, animals like them. He thought he painted them considerately, lovingly exploring the tones and the textures, whatever his detractors said. After all, they were mostly family or friends.
He himself remained intensely private. His studio numbers were unlisted and he moved around between them, refusing to be tied to one place. There were many women, a couple of wives, myriad children, acknowledged in his paintings far more than in his life. He moved in a fashionable set and danced at the best clubs well into old age; the gossip-sheets chased him, but he refused to talk to them.
Every so often, though, he tried to confront himself. It was usually as a blurred face at the back of a painting, behind a huge plant, or casually in a hand mirror. He found mirror-light odd and flat; he would squint in the paint, as if it hurt him. Only in 1993, in “Painter Working, Reflection”, did he try something full-length and comprehensive. At 71 he faced the canvas, scrawny, grey-naked, palette and brush in hand, with just a pair of unlaced hobnail boots on his feet. To guard against splinters, he explained. But also, most probably, to try to shock himself with the truth.