Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lucien Freud: The Bohemian Monk and His Mounds of Feelings

Lucien Freud was a painfully niche artist. He was a realist portrait painter- perhaps the best in modern times. His realism is unwavering and is defining feature of his artistic output. Realism and portrait painting are the two anathemas of modern day art world. Advent of photography must have played on Freud’s mind when he made the genre of portrait painting his own. He set out to define realism for a realist and even a cursory look at his oeuvre is sufficient to highlight the deficiencies of photo-realism. He made human skin his arena and his weapon of choice was colour- loads of thick throbbing pigments creating fascinating mounds of feeling. If photography was ever a concern, it was not the picture postcard variety; it may well have been the family album. Lucien Freud never painted professional models. His subjects were his friends, relative, wives even daughters. “I work from the people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know,” he is quoted in the

(For credit details of above painting- see comment at OR
New York Times. From this somewhat incestuous world of indoors and intimates emerged ‘easy to admire, difficult to like’ art of this grandson of Sigmund Freud.  

Arena of skin
He never called his figurative paintings ‘nudes’ he calls them naked portraits. When painting people without any cloths, he was dealing with the whole ethos and feeling ecosystem of nakedness. He was ‘normally’ miles away from sensuality when painting these nudes. His sitters were generally the people he knew, his friends, assistant, daughters and sons. He did not capture them in any airbrushed digestible form that glorifies human body- a tradition that goes a long back to masters of classical period or even to primal cave paintings with exaggerated organs.  In Lucien Freud’s paintings ‘decorum of nudity’ is given a rude go by. His subjects don’t convey splendour of human body or the sensuality of nudity. Here he conveys the everydayness of nudity which is very discomforting to the artistic eyes trained on classical tradition of glorified nudes. He is almost clinical in getting the correct hue of human skin. He was liberal in applying paint-his principal weapon and painstaking in coercing the paint to come out with the spirit of the nakedness of the subject. It is a nakedness that is stark in its completeness, poignant in its vulnerability, almost repulsive in its details.  He is neither photographic nor pornographic. Dead verisimilitude of the photographs and cheap and easy tantalization of   pornographic are the last sensations that come to the mind of the viewers. He creates feelings that are dreary, heavy and above all true about humanity and its vulnerability. Robert Hughes wrote “in his own way Freud has done  what Velazquez did: assimilate the life of the subject to the life of the paint surface and of each gesture held in it. Very few painters can do this. It is not a trick. This is the difference between painting something and merely rendering it -- between Freud's fat woman, which is radical art of the highest intensity, and, say, Fernando Botero's fat women, which are boring essays in the pneumatics of style.”

He was not being sadistic or cruel to his subject when he painted them in such unflattering details. In fact, to a discerning eye it will appear a work of sympathy and attachment. Here comes in his insistence of avoiding professional models. He was intimate with is subjects as lover, friend or father. This intimacy excluded domination and exploitation. In fact, many of his subjects, including his daughters who posed nude for him- have found the arduous experience of sitting- that was normally long stretching to months and sometimes years and physically exacting- the best way of bonding with the artist. His extraordinarily remarkable personality often made these bonding an experience to cherish. 

The Old School Bohemian
Lucien Freud came from an impeccable pedigree. Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on Dec. 8, 1922, and grew up in prosperous circumstances. His father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect was Sigmund Freud’s youngest son. His mother Lucie Brasch, who was painted by him after his father’s death, was the heiress to a timber fortune. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Freuds moved to London. He was not a very promising students and was a difficult teenager. “In 1938, he was expelled from Bryanston, in Dorset, after dropping his trousers on a dare on a street in Bournemouth. But his sandstone sculpture of a horse earned him entry into the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He left there after a year to enroll in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting in Dedham.... In 1941, hoping to make his way to New York, Mr. Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy, where he served on a convoy ship crossing the Atlantic. He got no nearer to New York than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after returning to Liverpool developed tonsillitis and was given a medical discharge from the service.” 
 His obituary in New York Times describes him as a bohemian of the old school who set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a ‘Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly’. In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Kitty was subject of many of his early important works like “Girl With Roses,” “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Lady Caroline Blackwood. He is survived by at least 14 acknowledged children from his first marriage and from a series of romantic relationships. 

His early works were linear and thinly painted. Under the decisive influence of his friend Francis Bacon in mid 50s, Freud abandoned this style and started moving “toward the brushy, searching portrait style of his mature work, with its severely muted palette of browns and yellows.” This style kept on getting ‘refined’ into more coarse and robust style complete with more voluminous application of paint and thicker brushes. Later, he had the luck of having a flush of late renaissance of talent. I will use late Robert Hughes tribute to Freud here “Most artists, one imagines, dream of achieving a great late style -- the uprush and resolution in old age, careless of aesthetic risk, sometimes even a little mad, that carry a life's effort into profundity. Few, obviously, manage anything of the sort. The retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud, 71 (at that time), which opened last week at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, sets before us one who has.” This rush continued till very last when he died in July 2011 at 88. 

Creating art without artifice

Freud’s paintings often flirt with the danger of falling in the caricature trap. Heightened realism can get cartoonish and Freud in his time engaged with obvious caricatures (no I am not talking of queen of England whom he painted). He share with Salvador Dali the penchant of realism and love for details but he rejected Surrealism after initial forays into it. “The Painter’s Room” (1943) has strong Surrealistic traits. He was totally divorced from the weird imagination that was the mainstay of Surrealism. “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me,” he quoted to tell Robert Hughes. “That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness.” This is an astounding achievement that he survived caricature trap despite hyper reality and, may be more importantly, created art while abhorring artfulness
Artifice is what makes art differ from documentary reality. As poetry is art of ‘sweet excesses’ art also needs sweet excess. Freud achieved the near impossible task of getting this excess by being fanatically rooted in reality. He captured everydayness of his subjects. Anything more would fall in the ambit of ‘mere bit of artfulness’. The traction of artistic appeal is gained by intensity of his feeling of getting to the soul of reality. He keeps on chisel with his hog hair brush till the reality came out. This process made his pursuit of fidelity transcend mere similarity and art was born. 

This load of intensity kept him away from Non European, particularly, American fame. He wasn’t modern enough as he was a realist portrait artist and Warhol infused America was not fine-tuned enough for his dreary realistic works. It later changed. He gained respect of the New World and was made very rich too by insane demand for his paintings in the well heeled connoisseurs. 

He created art by obsessing with his subject. He was brutally slow (though his vast output may indicate otherwise). He was a monk in his studio. He was doggedly unsentimental and unwavering in teasing the soul out of his renderings without resorting to fireworks. He has come to be synonymous with intense art of high calibre and epithet of ‘greatest realist painter of modern times’ has stuck.

-Dhiraj Singh


  1. Hello, there's a misunderstanding (which others have already done), but the oil portrait posted is not a Lucian Freud'self-portrait , but it was painted by me: Luca Del Baldo.
    Please put my credits:

  2. Yes get to see the artist...enlightened