The passing of Lucian Freud has given an impetus to a number of critics and writers to put on paper their thoughts on the artist. Reading through them you can get the sense of the man and the scale of his ambition and achievement. He was a singular voice in British Art and with a particular brand of tunnel vision that made him inimitable. He was after the quirky, messy detail of everyday life, compressed in the messy surroundings of his studio. He was not a painter of grand conceptions and intellectual bathos. His work was a personal response to the world but was very removed from bland retinal reproduction. His paintings and prints are always good depictions of the sitters but they always engage with the internal life of the subjects. Partly due to the strenuous nature of his sitting for the models, most spot the characteristics of studied ennui. Looking deeply involved with their own self after long conversations with Freud, with a definite sense of vulnerability and self-revelation. Anyone that had the chance to face Freud’s icy stare can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the studio with him overnight helping him shape one of his canvases. (A series of photographs by his long-time assistant David Dawson have immortalised a number of sitters in his studio, depicting the dynamics at play).
My enduring memory of Freud was his very Germanic excitement (measured but with a definite glint in the eye) when he was delivering personally a self-portrait back in 2002. He just asked very politely where his exhibition was while his assistant carried the domestic scaled portrait, just out of the studio and two days before the opening of his exhibition. A sense of panic engulfed me as that was not the kind of scenario I was expecting…Lucian Freud to come in with one of his paintings? That was just off the scale! I gathered my thoughts in a split second and managed to mumble the location of the show and offered to walk them there…while stealing a glance at the painting.
When the show opened I was lucky enough to walk around it on my own and managed to have a proper look at the portrait and its thickly encrusted wall in the background. A residue of half a century of career made concrete. Some of the eulogies may seem over the top but Freud was an artistic rebel that did not need the artworld to feel validated. His work was seen as unfashionable and simply odd up to the 1970s, only to turn über cool and almost the polar opposite of the vacuity of the YBAs in the late 1990s. To see a large gathering of his paintings and prints is to see a microcosm of Britain in the last fifty years, describing a life of emotional engagement and fascination with the nature of humanity. He was our equivalent to Otto Dix and Goya, skill and painstaking strife for perfection with a unique, signature insight.
He will be greatly missed.
More photographs of Freud in his studio can be found here: NPG, London
A fascinating short film about his studio can be found here: Newness