Lucian Freud – Master of Painting

Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011), grandson of Sigmund Freud, is one of the most important and influential artists of his generation. He is considered a “master of painted flesh” and is remembered as a multi-faceted personality. Ennobled by the Queen, showered with prizes (including Turner Prize winners) and honoured with solo exhibitions (e.g. Museum of Modern Art NY, Centre Pompidou Paris).

It was a muggy late summer afternoon when my art professor Sean Scully told one of his numerous anecdotes. It was about determination, focus, passion, radicalism, and prioritization – or the things that give quality to an artistic work. His friend Lucian Freud seemed to be an ideal example. Freud had been able to persuade an attractive student to go on a date after a lengthy courtship. And after the first few hours had been promising, they decided to go to a hotel. So it happened that Freud, in the heart of London, on this rainy evening, with his brand new Aston Martin and the beautiful brunette in the passenger seat, started to lurch at excessive speed. The Aston spotted an oncoming car and both cars broke down unfit to drive.

But Freud had a clear goal in mind. He jumped out of the Aston, opened the passenger door and disappeared – leaving his business card behind – on foot and hand in hand with the student, heading for “The Savoy”.

What does this story have to do with painting?

When we leave social conventions behind (e.g. waiting for the police after an accident at the scene of the incident), when we realize that material things are only fetish (e.g. even an Aston Martin is only made of sheet metal and replaceable) and surrender to our “being”, to impulse, instinct, liveliness; then we reach a quality. Freud’s painting is about this kind of quality. It is an uncompromising way of observation and focus. Everything that could distract on this path is put aside on the left and right. Freud seeks the substance of things. At the end of this radical observation the paradox happens. Whoever puts aside all notions of something will reach the point where the true inner core comes to light. The “being”, the soul, the destiny. Unadulterated, pure, unpretentious, un-vain and clear.

This is one of the reasons why Freud repeatedly portrayed animals. He loved dogs and horses that were always direct. For Freud, humans are nothing more than “dressed-up animals.” But when he portrayed them for hours, observed them, painted them (whoever sat model for Freud had to have patience – the sum total of the sessions lasted around 150 hours, in his late portraits), he was able to peel away their vanities, their conventions and ideas. He reduced the sitters to what they were: flesh. Young or withered, but always relentless flesh. Like all living creatures. But in this dissolution Freud always found the moment of redemption, the intimacy of the sitter’s personality and finally to himself. For if Freud’s life and painting were about something, then it was always about his own ego. About himself and the space surrounding him.

Apart from this, Freud is a gifted craftsman who has mastered the métier of painting.

Tobias Vetter