On Lucian Freud

I had, for many years, a hankering to be painted by Lucian Freud. Sadly, as he died nearly a year ago, this was never to be (although it would have been pretty unlikely even had he still been alive). I hate having my photograph taken (I really don’t photograph well) but I would have loved to have seen how Freud would have painted my (as it has been described on more than one occasion) unusual face.

I was glad that I made it to the Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Gallery before it closed at the end of May. His paintings are three dimensional artworks in the way that few other painters’ works are. Their sheer physicality, the course gravel of dried paint – it was truly exciting to be able to stand just inches away from them. I had an urge to reach out and hook a bit of paint off with my fingernail… but I managed to stop myself before I got thrown out of the gallery.

 close-up of Lucian Freud's brushwork

A close-up of Lucian Freud’s brushwork.

The exhibition spanned his entire career. The early works were rather careful and flat; they reminded me of Stanley Spencer and do look very of their time (the forties and fifties). As time went on his painting became thicker and freer, and his obsession with the colour and texture of human flesh became stronger. Works familiar from reproductions, of Leigh Bowery, Sue Tilley and David Dawson, were all there. And finally, Portrait of the Hound, with its heartbreaking patch of empty canvas which Freud had been working on at the time of his death, still painting until he was literally unable to stand at his easel.

Laura Cumming made a comment in a Guardian article about Freud soon after his death:

…he thought Picasso emotionally dishonest and Matisse infinitely greater because he painted the life of forms, which, he told the writer Martin Gayford, “is what art is all about”.

He lived to paint. His work has a sincerity; it’s about the paint and the gaze in the way that the work of most of the YBA generation isn’t. Their work is utterly bound up with “the market” and their relationship to it, and as such I find most of it empty, trite and shallow. Which seems to sum up modern society pretty well, so maybe we are getting the art which we now deserve.

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