“I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” – Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud was a German-born British painter of half Jewish descent, later turned into a draughtsman, figurative artist and was regarded as one of the greatest 20th century portraitists. Freud was born in 1922 in the city of Berlin, but moved back to London in 1933 due to World War II warfare. In one way or the other, Freud was influenced by the two historical cities since his formative years. Back in Britain, Freud attended the Central School of Art in London briefly, then went to Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham from 1939 to1942. The artist eventually enrolled in Goldsmiths’ College, a part of University of London for further art studies.
In terms of artistic style, Freud started with abstract painting and practised abstract expressionism often. Later, Freud found deepened interests in figurative paintings and made a name for himself as a great portraitist. At the start of his professional life, Freud’s paintings were commonly small in size, practiced surrealism and arguably, showed traces of influence from German Expressionism which was denied by Freud personally. Another characteristic of the artist’s works is that they often depicted people and animals in juxtapositions, composing formations of closeness and colligation among the subject matters.
Freud, alongside other British artists, were considered the “School of London”, which consisted of a loose collection of individual artists based in London at the same time, in the figurative style. The group came together during the boom years of abstract painting and abstract expressionism, imaginably contributed to and motivated each other as well as the whole of figurative art development in London in that era. Some artistic elements like the colour use of varied flesh tones were built during this era and carried through Freud’s matured style. Apart from that, Freud also adored muted colours and established a set of line works, claiming thinly painted, precise linear style as his personal artistic element.
“The subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really.”
By the 1950s, Freud’s paintings developed beyond simply mastered portraits, but drilled into presenting realism through his paintings. He was also obsessed with psychological penetration in his works; be that for himself, the subject matters or for the audiences. In particular, he enjoyed life studies, in the process asking models to sit for extended periods while in punishing sittings. It is said that Freud would request models’ presence even when painting the background portion of the portrait, reflecting that the artist truly valued time spent interacting and studying his subjects, even during moments deemed unnecessary to most. In one instance when painting his first wife Kitty Garman, Freud revealed that he “would sit very close and stare. It could be uncomfortable for both of us”. It was almost like Freud enjoyed the discomfort, a weird yet intense sensation incidentally produced in his art-making. Perhaps it is also the closeness and seriousness of his observation that makes Freud’s works so accurate, precise, detailed; as well as facilitates Freud to become a phenomenal portraitist, crucial to figurative art and irreplaceable among the greatest of the 20th century.
Throughout Freud’s career, he was inspired by many muses. One of whom marked the strongest impression has to be Sue Tilley, also known as “Big Sue”. Not only did Tilley’s bulkier physique stand out from the subjects of typical portrait models, the series with Tilley also casted people’s attention on Freud’s excellent handling of flesh tones, light and shadows in depicting human figures extraordinarily realistic, and the symbolic angle from a high viewpoint among his later works.
“It’s flesh without muscle and it has developed a different kind of texture through bearing such a weight-bearing thing.”
Freud saw beyond the stereotypes and set standards of beauty in art and society in painting Tilly and many other muses of his. It is the innovativeness and creativity in the artist, alongside his passion and obsession for details, that made him the legend he is.
Text by Venus Ng
Cover Illustration by Alan Cheung