Obituary: Lucian Freud 1922-2011
An appreciation of the life and work of Lucian Freud
Painter of man mountains, Lucian Freud spanned the twentieth century like no other British artist, with solo shows at the ages of 20 and 80. Born in Berlin in 1922, son of architect Ernst Freud and grandson of Sigmund Freud, he moved to England in 1932, studying at Central School of Art and Goldsmiths College before being invalided out of the Merchant Navy in 1942. A constant, shadowy presence on the London art scene for more than 60 years, he seemed perpetually to inhabit the halflight of his own pictures: always seemingly either on his way to or from that famous garret studio, where he slaved away heroically in front of his patient sitters for days and months on end, forging their flesh from oil pigment and hog-hair brushes.
Alongside Francis Bacon, Freud epitomised the painterly postwar return to realism that came to be known as The School of London, by depicting anguished bodies and wide-eyed or crumpled faces, unsure of their place on our newly configured, battle-scarred little island. At the end of the '40s, critic Herbert Read dubbed Freud 'the Ingres of existentialism' and rightly so, because he was steeped in the art historical traditions of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Watteau, while also able to channel the anxieties of Nietzsche, Kafka and, dare I say it, granpapa Sigmund.
Far from eschewing all that was modern in art, Freud displayed a tactile understanding and command of scale in his figuration that was every bit as daring as the New York abstraction that was seen to be winning the art world's own Cold War across the pond. Of course, he outlasted all the big art movements like a persistent, weather-beaten, old oak tree, witnessing the rise and fall of pop, minimalism, conceptual art, performance and the rest. It's as if he stayed indoors to paint while everyone else scurried about trying to rearrange the wheres and whyfores of making and showing art. Where would key painters of the Young British Art scene such as Jenny Saville and Glenn Brown be without the example of Freud? And where else would Sarah Lucas have found inspiration for her famous portrayal of womanhood, 'Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab', of 2002, but in Freud's 'Girl with Fried Egg' of 1980?
Stylistically, Freud didn't entirely sit still either. From the '50s onwards he freed up his early hyperrealist style and began to pile up paint in nodes and knobs that bulged and pulsed from the surface like angry gnarls of skin. From afar, these folds and rivulets flatten somewhat and make perfect sense, as though Freud had trowelled layer upon layer of his own experience on to the canvas, as well as the distilled lives of his muses (who ranged from his wife and children to Leigh Bowery, the Queen, Kate Moss and himself).
He once said that 'The subject must be kept under closest observation: if this is done, day and night, the subject - he, she or it - will eventually reveal all.' Freud's great skill was in this shocking ability to lay bare. 'As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person' was another of his famous dictums, but you could even take away the letter 't' from that sentence and it would still sum up his uniquely penetrating, psychological strain of portraiture.