Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011)
Described repeatedly as a modern master, Lucian Freud will be long remembered as a contemporary art icon and a poster boy for figurative painting in Britain. The Painting Imperative pays tribute to Freud and his outstanding contribution to 20th and 21st century art.
It’s hard not look at the career of Lucian Freud with awe and admiration; he did what all painters want to do – follow their core artistic instinct and be respected for it. In an increasingly conceptual British art world Freud held fast to the traditions of his genre, flying the flag for figuration and painting, he persistently made work that explored contemporary concerns without the need for shock and overstatement.
He worked consistently and quietly, creating works of outstanding artistic merit and cultural relevance in his London studios (Paddington, Kensington and Holland Park) for more than 60 years, painting intense and unflattering nudes and portraits. But his work carries something much greater than mere painterly skill embedded in its strokes and as a result his work has been an inspiration to very many younger artists who were educated in a contemporary, postmodern visual arts context.
Being able to carry the weight of painting’s history into the new millennium and remain relevant is tough, and perhaps one work stands out to show just how tough a painter Lucian Freud actually was. In 2001 Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II sparked much dissatisfaction and was considered unflattering to the British Monarch. With its heavy impasto style, this close up, warts-and-all portrait defies all conventions of Royal portraiture; there’s no thrown, mace or ermine collar, and in eschewing these props Freud made a more powerful painting, a contemporary portrait that should be seen as a defining example of not only Freud’s skill as a portrait painter, but of his understanding of the contemporary cultural world.
There is a subtlety and intelligence to this work. Choosing to represent the Queen wearing the crown that is found in the ubiquitous postage stamp was a stroke of genius. Freud took an image familiar to every single citizen of the British Isles and through his skilful hand stripped away the ‘public face’ veneer and presented the woman beneath that heavy crown of the Monarchy. It’s a tiny painting, merely 9’’ x 6’’ in size, a diminutive representation of an immense persona, the contemplative, serious, tired face under the weight of the crown filling the canvas to the edges; the Monarch contained tightly within the restrictive dimensions of the painting, restricted in her position, her propriety.
It was Freud’s hope that his portraits would be a ‘truth telling’, perhaps that’s why this portrait is considered by many to be more a catastrophe than a masterpiece, it revealed too much. But what it really revealed most of all was how Freud was undeterred by his sitter, her position, undeterred by the postmodern focus of the art world around him, following his convictions and his instincts to make a painting that speaks volumes. Some might say that the artist’s hubris won over in the battle between sitter and painter; after all, this was not a commissioned portrait but a gift to the Queen from one of her subjects, which perhaps gave Freud the freedom to paint her as he wanted, not how she wanted. But Freud’s sitters knew his style, and knowing he would peel away their layers to see their vulnerabilities, strengths and fears before lathering these back onto the canvas with impasto paint in a way that created an even truer likeness than the sitter could ever have imagined, they presented themselves willingly. So did Queen Elizabeth II.
It is this skill and confidence that makes Lucian Freud and his work awed and respected, and his legacy as a great painter is secure. In a quick fix art world it is comforting to know that some artists spent time at their craft and that days, weeks, and in Freud’s case months were spent in conversation with subject matter and material to make the work truly great. An inspirational figure, Freud has set the bar high and will remain a yardstick to future generations of painters for many years to come.
If you would like to get face to face with the work of this master painter then now is the time as exhibitions of Lucian Freud’s work have already begun to fill gaps in Museum programmes. Some notable current and upcoming exhibits include:
MOMA, NEW YORK Lucian Freud: In Memoriam 8 works on show (second floor)
TATE BRITAIN, LONDON Special Display: Lucian Freud 3 Aug – 25 Sept 2011
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON Lucian Freud Portraits 9 February – 27 May 2012