To any person with an interest in the contemporary art world the name of Lucian Freud is ubiquitous. One of the last great champions of the portrait genre, his harshly realistic likenesses came to be those by which modern portraiture was recognised. In an art scene best known for its enfants terribles, Freud’s lack of self-aggrandisement was a rare quality.
Freud’s career began in the mid-1940s displaying a Surrealist approach to subject matter. His curious juxtapositions of animals, people and plants continued the tradition of surrealist work with deep psychological implications, a tradition with particularly close links to Lucian Freud, as the grandson of the great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whose theories were some of the main inspirations of the Surrealist movement.
However, this style of work was not to be the one for which Freud will be remembered. By the early 1950s, Freud was starting to show signs of his signature style, focussing on figurative depictions of those whom he loved and knew well, rendered in loose, thick impasto. His palette changed simultaneously, with flesh tones adopting a greenish caste that has since characterised his work. The most recognisable feature of a Freud portrait has to be its challenging realism. Highlighting the veins in skin, exaggerating wrinkles and rolls of fat, Freud’s works were not flattering to their subjects.
In fact, his 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II stirred up national outrage towards its harsh depiction of The Queen. The severity of her expression and the heavy treatment of her features divided opinions throughout the nation. Hailed as both a “travesty” in The Sun and “honest, stoical and, above all, clear sighted” in The Times, this portrait is perhaps the best example of how Freud’s work could divide people. Its power was not in its aesthetic appeal, but in the way in which it challenged the viewer to confront their ideas on ageing, mortality and beauty.
Freud once said ”I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be’. This uncompromising attitude set him apart and was no doubt one of the reasons for his phenomenal success. Freud’s success is best demonstrated in perhaps his most well known work, ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (2008), which fetched £17.2 million when sold in 2008, the largest amount paid for a work by a living artist.
The portrait is an excellent example of Freud’s style, he preferred to paint nudes and frequently chose to highlight expanses of flesh. The power of this image is hard to overstate, the acres of exposed flesh rendered in thick swirls of impasto emphasise their roundness, almost glorying in the excess of flesh. Freud’s work may not have conformed to stereotypical ideas of beauty but it certainly created a beauty of its own.
Whilst Freud was recognised in his lifetime, awarded the Order of Merit for his contributions to the art world, and recognised by many as the greatest figurative painter of his generation, it can only be hoped that posthumously this recognition can continue and that his reputation will encourage interest in figurative painting in the contemporary art world.
Image credit – mo pie