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July 26 2011

Lucian Freud's Standing by the Rags: 'A kind of battlefield'

Adrian Searle examines Lucian Freud's 1989 painting Standing by the Rags at Tate Britain, and assesses the legacy of the artist who died earlier this month aged 88



July 24 2011

After Freud, the camera – fast and super-cruel – will rule supreme | Mark Lawson

With Lucian Freud's death, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen

Imagine you run the National Portrait Gallery of Britain, the US or Australia and, during an audit of the stores, panic at lacking an image that encapsulates the personality and life of Rupert Murdoch.

Supposing the News Corp jet could be parked in one place for long enough to facilitate sittings, you could commission a painter to lay the tycoon on a canvas to hang alongside the oils of Beaverbrook, Hearst and other media tycoons from the time when immortality in a gilt frame above the fireplace was as much a badge of power as a Rolls.

My preference, though, would be to screen-grab a section of Murdoch's evidence to the House of Commons select committee and display it either as a still or as a slowed-down silent loop of blinks, twitches and grimaces in the style of the video installations of the American artist Bill Viola. This decision is made easier because the contemporary painter most likely to have found something in Murdoch that he was able to withhold from the lens – Lucian Freud – is now unavailable.

This is not a declaration of the death of painting. Remarkable painters (including Jasper Johns, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Peter Doig) exist in many generations and places. But the death of Freud highlights a specific crisis in the art of the traditional portrait.

While the camera didn't quite do to the canvas what the mobile phone has done to the phone box, it put threatening writing on the walls of portrait galleries. Strong evidence of the crisis of portraiture comes from the dustjackets of biographies and the illustration of newspaper profiles. Whereas figures of the past are commonly preserved in oil, the signature image of most writers and politicians of the 20th and 21st centuries exists on either still or moving film.

There are occasional exceptions, such as Ruskin Spear's uncanny capture of the combination of cunning and avuncularity that was Sir Harold Wilson, or the presentation by Tai Shan Schierenberg (a fine traditional portraitist of the present day) of Sir John Mortimer's Falstaffian personality. But, in most cases, it is now an exposure that most exposes.

After a period in which Andy Warhol and others fascinatingly blurred photography and painting, many portraitists responded to this competition with so-called photorealism. This defensively mimetic approach is popular with the entrants to the annual BP Portrait Prize (currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery). Much more impressively, Sam Taylor-Wood – in her spooky and beautiful video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham – showed how apparently threatening technology could be harnessed to artistic advantage.

Freud's greatness, though, lay in understanding, either tactically or instinctively, that a new form of portrait was called for in the Kodak century. He rewrote the rules of life painting at every stage. Rejecting the tradition of the biographical artist as a brush for hire by the mighty, Freud in most cases commissioned his sitters – who frequently were not famous.

The key breakthrough, though, came in the relationship between his mind and their bodies. Obituary coverage has featured the ritual squeals that his picture of Queen Elizabeth II looked nothing like her but, first, it does and, second, absolute likeness should be left to the appropriately named snappers. A Freud painting, living up to the adjective the family surname spawned, was a psychological and physiological study.

Above all, Freud rescued portrait painting from its traditional sin of flattery. In this way, he continued an argument with the public that had begun with Graham Sutherland, whose picture of the ruined glory of Winston Churchill – subsequently destroyed by the scandalised family – became a symbol of the campaign by art's conservative forces to equate likeness with likability. With the Sutherland lost, the defining image of the war leader is, symbolically, a photo: the one in which Karsh of Ottawa caught a startlingly honest expression by confiscating the politician's cigar.

The camera has the edge on painters in both immediacy (able to seize a single moment the subject has not chosen) and brutal honesty: a stripping of flattery completed by the super-real, super-cruel digital images in which Murdoch's Westminster evidence was transmitted.

I would pay the $33m someone paid for Freud's Benefit Supervisor Sleeping to see Jenny Saville's naked representation of Rupert Murdoch but it is highly unlikely that either painter or subject would be interested in a sitting.

For decades, Freud succeeded in a fight that is now unwinnable. With his passing, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen.


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July 23 2011

Lucian Freud treasured the pleasures of the flesh | Barbara Ellen

The late artist should be celebrated not just for his paintings, but for sticking it to the body fascists

It says something about Lucian Freud, who died last week, that his name, turned adjective, is never going to make it into the pantheon of modern euphemisms for "we secretly think you're fat, but we're not allowed to say that, so we'll use an art reference instead". Other artists managed it, Rubens being the runaway winner. If Christina Hendricks (Joan from Mad Men) had a dollar for every time she was patronised as "Rubenesque", she could give up acting and spend the rest of her days lying by swimming pools in bikinis made of diamonds.

However, in terms of celeb-speak, Freud blew it big time by painting big people with love and honesty instead of hate and condescension. He painted flesh as it really is, instead of the tidy, firm, prepubescent, plasticised matter society demands it must be. Which is why Freud – or Freudesque – never made it into the exalted heights of celeb-cum-fashion-cum-media lingo.

Odd, then, that when Freud painted naked big people, such as Sue Tilley, from the £17m-selling work Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, or the performance artist Leigh Bowery, he would sometimes be criticised for exploiting them, cruelly turning them into circus show grotesques. Actually, the opposite seemed true.

If anything, it was celebrities, the adored, famous and thin, who came off badly in Freud's studio. The naked Kate Moss looks like she's fallen on to a beanbag at a really boring swingers' party. The Queen resembles some depressed woman in a care home who never gets any visitors and has had a crown placed on her head to give the staff a laugh.

Freud's self-portraits were the most unforgiving of all: haggard and glaring, he often resembled a pederast startled in the process of searching for internet porn. Only Jerry Hall looks vulnerable and beautiful, maybe because she was heavily pregnant and not "Demi Moore Vanity Fair cover!" airbrushed-pregnant, rather a swollen, "Mick's on tour again", cheesed-off real kind of pregnant.

I don't want to cry over Freud too much. I've read that when Hall missed a few sittings, he sent her drawings of herself with bodily fluids shooting out of all her orifices. (Do I sense that he might have had some issues?) Moreover, as a male artist of a certain stature, even when criticised, he was taken very seriously, whereas the amazing Beryl Cook's spirited, warm "fat ladies" were too often dismissed as little more than seaside postcards.

However, even those, like me, who know little about art should thank Freud for unwittingly sticking it to body fascism. I say unwittingly because clearly he had no agenda. He simply viewed his corpulent sitters as more interesting to paint than the less corpulent, just as maybe a lush foliage is more interesting to some landscape artists than tarmac or concrete.

He saw humanity and truth in lots (and lots) of human flesh –and these days that carries a resonance far beyond the art world.

We are living in thin-centric times when even male anorexia is on the rise, and if a woman is famous she must succumb to a flesh version of Crimewatch. (Fatwatch: will the newly thin Pauline Quirke reoffend with fatness again?) Bearing this in mind, it's maybe not so surprising that some might find Freud's paintings shocking. Here are people committing what is, in modern terms, a criminal act – being big – and he's not even bothered to pretty them up.

Far from any kind of thin-centric exploitation of his subjects, Freud's method inadvertently held up a mirror to society's growing paranoia and disgust about flesh. The fact that he was ever denounced as some kind of artistic "chubby chaser" says far more about us than it did about him.

When British decency is not enough

There are to be firmer guidelines about female genital mutilation. Which is timely because summer is the season when significant numbers of British girls are taken away, ostensibly for holidays, but really to travel to Africa, the Middle East and parts of the Far East to be circumcised.

In theory, this is illegal and carries 14 years of imprisonment, but in practice, while 22,000 girls are at risk each year, there have been no UK convictions. That's zero, zilch, nada, though there is plenty of heartbreaking anecdotal evidence about happy, carefree girls going on "holiday" and returning depressed and introverted.

To their credit, everyone – from government ministers to children's groups – wants to secure convictions, as well as give assistance to victims and raise greater awareness. What may also need to happen is that British people en masse have to stop panicking about anything with "religious" attached.

There still seems to be this embarrassment about female circumcision, because not only is it is a "religious thing", it is often affiliated with religions the majority of us know little about. Bizarrely, it's as if we know our ground speaking out about "white" religious extremes, such as polygamy in Utah, but when it comes to anything "ethnic", or "other", there is a tendency to freeze.

Ironically, this hesitation to condemn comes from a good place – the part of the British psyche that rightly prides itself on respecting other cultures. However, female circumcision needs to be stripped of its religious trappings and exposed for what is – the mutilation and assault of defenceless girls. These are British children, our children, and we should be protecting them properly. Our respect for other cultures is the best part of us – but taken too literally, in this context, it does not help these girls.

The curry that tikkas all the boxes

Tikka masala, long vaunted as Britain's favourite curry, has come eighth in a poll, which was topped by the far hotter jalfrezi. As the poll was in Chaat! magazine (the in-house publication of the British Curry Club), this is hardly surprising. People who love curry so much that they join clubs are unlikely to pick the bastardised dish, invented in Glasgow, which entailed adding Campbell'scorrect tomato soup to placate the weedy UK palate.

Arguably, all this poll proves is that tikka masala did its job well. Curry in Britain is a tale of two halves. On the one hand, there is the common weekend sight of groups of lager-swilling males, scarfing curries so hot their internal organs melt, as they gulp water straight from the jug and beg waiters to turn the fire extinguisher on them.

However, there are others, including me, for whom curry eating is not an extreme sport. My curry journey started with vegetable korma, moving on to the reckless spiced heights of, erm, mild vegetable curry, perhaps with a samosa if I was feeling "really crazy" (OK, fine, you guessed it, I'm a heat-wimp).

But even those daredevils who end up progressing to jalfrezi, madras or, dare I say, the Indian pudding menu, have to start somewhere.

For many, the foothills of their Indian journey would have been the tikka masala. The vast majority of Britons couldn't cope straight off with authentic Indian food, which is why the mighty TM has always had a role to play. Mock its sticky, sickly inauthenticity all you like but for many over the years it has acted as a gateway dish for the wide-ranging delights of Indian cuisine. This is an achievement in itself.

Glasgow, the entire British Isles owes you a belated apology.


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Lucian Freud: friend, good cook and man of very rude letters

Lucian Freud's longtime friend, the art critic William Feaver, remembers a passionate, shy man – a gambler, a stylish dresser and a father who nevertheless always put painting first

The first thing I will miss about Lucian is the phone going and just hearing: "Hello William". This would happen to me as many as two or three times a day, and I know that he was on the phone to other people too in this way. He would provide a kind of running commentary of what was going on in the world.

We would talk about the villainy of all politicians and the pointlessness of politics. And we would talk about dogs, too. Over the years he instilled in me a love of whippets. I was not particularly interested in dogs before I met him, but by the end there was a dog circle that we found we were in, as well as an art circle.

We had a regular routine to go through, of looking at the paintings he was working on. There would be a lot of grunting as we stared at them; he wanted me to see how they were progressing. We would also go out to exhibitions and talk about other artists and what they were doing. Lucian was a great person to go to an exhibition with, because he would slope around and go off to look at unexpected things. His boredom threshold was pretty low, I think. He did go out and travel, a little more than people may have thought: he liked going to New York for the opening of his shows, for instance, but to him, anything that was not work was ridiculous. He could not see the point of holidays.

About 10 years ago we went to Paris together to look at a Constable show. We both loved his portraits and were somehow trying to help lose, or shake off, the Constable that everyone knows. People tend to say that Constable was a boring English artist, but he was extraordinary in that he treated landscapes and portraits as if they were the same thing. This is what Lucian felt an artist should do. When it came to talking about art, Lucian was incredibly focused, and incredibly open-minded. His favourite word was "promising".

I first met him in the very early 1970s, in a gallery. I was supposed to be interviewing him, and a friend had set up the meeting. Eventually, this figure loomed out of the darkness and we went on to spend the next day going from house to house, looking at all his pictures. I remember I told him then (as he often used to remind me) that I was not at all interested in his private life. "I just want to look at your pictures," I said.

He would recall this later with an evil cackle. In fact, there was nothing monstrous lurking in his private life, although he might well have behaved badly. He was fond of his children, but even they had to accept that the painting always came first. He used to say: "I am completely selfish and I only do what I want to do." In my view, though, many of the great painters are fundamentally selfish, but they go on to give so much to us in their art. Their families may lose out, but they gain certain things as well. Lucian was a good father, and even a good grandfather, I would say, but not in a conventional way. He certainly had a sentimental streak somewhere in there. He was shy and yet incredibly outspoken at the same time, as shy people sometimes are – they do not tend to behave in the accepted way.

Lucian loved his instincts and always wanted to follow them. He would grab at things: food, a girl. And he would over-bet on the horses on a huge scale, so that he would really feel the loss. He liked to think he was above worldly things such as money, but when the big sums started to come in from his paintings then the thrill of betting disappeared for him. Once he was comfortable, the betting habit died out and he didn't really bother any more.

He used to sit down and write the most incredibly rude letters to people and then show them to me. I would usually say, "Well, Lucian, that is wonderful, but I don't think you should actually send it." But he would send it, and as he grew more famous, of course, the recipients loved getting them. Once he began to pick that fact up, he stopped writing them. I know Lynn Barber, the journalist, stuck up her rude letter from him in a frame on her lavatory wall. She had wanted to interview him, I believe, and he wrote back to say he was not going "to be stitched up" by her.

I will miss sharing food with Lucian. We had some lovely breakfasts together at his place. I would say he was a good, plain cook – an idiosyncratic cook, perhaps, but a good one. He could take a hung woodcock and pop it in the oven and it would be a very good lunch. He was generally good on the subject of wine and on food. He was a stylish man and, although not a great eater, he did like to go out in the evenings. He would have day sitters and night sitters in his home and he would usually take them out afterwards as part of the payment. He liked the Wolseley in Piccadilly, in particular. I would say it was his current favourite and had been for a while. He called it "the best room in London", so I am not surprised they have honoured him with a black tablecloth and a candle on his regular table. He liked Clarke's in Kensington, too, and, in fact, both Sally Clarke and Jeremy King of the Wolseley sat for him. Lucian used to like the River Cafe too… I have lost count of the places we have gone out to together.

Lucian had discovered this funny, un-German country of England in his childhood, so he was a bit of a connoisseur of class distinctions. He took huge pride, for example, in the fact that he knew Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary, and that he could summon up a few dukes on the phone. But he was also on friendly terms with Soho newspaper sellers, and then, of course, going to the racetrack was always a great leveller.

He believed all his paintings were a kind of self-portrait. "They are all autobiography," he would say. When I look at his work, however, I see his strange way of approaching things: slightly from the side, slightly awkwardly, but deliberately so, not cack-handedly so. When he was painting, at the point where you or I would probably say to ourselves: "OK. Stop. Leave it now," Lucian would press on. Sometimes he did this to disastrous effect, but often not. His work, I would say, does not reproduce very well and that is often true of the work of a really great artist. However, when you actually see one of his paintings in front of you the impact is extraordinary. And that impact is him.

William Feaver was talking to Vanessa Thorpe

William Feaver was the Observer's art critic between 1975 and 1998. He has written several books about Lucian Freud and curated a number of exhibitions of his work, including the major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002


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July 22 2011

Martin Rowson on Lucian Freud – cartoon

The British painter died this week at his London home at the age of 88



Reposted byhexxe hexxe

A date with Lucian Freud

He gave me oysters, champagne, and made an offer I couldn't refuse …

About nine or 10 years ago, I began an ultimately fruitless campaign to get an interview for the Guardian with the reclusive painter Lucian Freud, who died on Thursday.

He rarely did interviews – he did not even have a PR rep – so I rang his poor lawyer month after month asking her to pass on the request. She always kindly called back with his response, which invariably was a polite "no".

After about a year the message changed: he still wouldn't do an interview but he would meet me for lunch.

We ate at a quiet table at the back of Wiltons restaurant. Freud, who was 79 at the time, enjoyed pointing out that Michael Heseltine was at the table behind us. He ordered oysters and lots of champagne, but didn't drink much himself. He talked dismissively of his own family, saying he hated anything that involved "duty or compulsion", which is why he didn't go to his mother's funeral. He felt he had no ties with most of the Freud clan (was never interested to meet his well-connected nephew Matthew Freud, for instance), but was quick to add that, while it was OK for him criticise his brother Clement ("he bores me stiff"), he hated it when others did. He wasn't, I seem to remember, very nice about the Germans.

I asked him about painting the Queen and he described how he'd try to provoke her. "I'd say to her, 'That man – he's so annoying.' And she'd reply, 'I suppose he can be quite trying.' She doesn't have much passion, but I liked her." About the time of the lunch he was painting a pregnant Kate Moss, whom he described as "physically intelligent", but he complained that she was always late.

When I asked what he did in his spare time he said "daydream". He said he was fond of dancing but claimed he didn't have the time to do it any more. Gambling had also lost its appeal, "now I can afford to lose". And he talked about death. "I used to find death much scarier when I was younger – I had more to lose. Now, when I see old people driving slowly I want to shout at them. They should live a little more because it's nearly over for them anyway."

He said he'd always been a risky driver and told me a story about arguing with Esther and Bella Freud's mother, Bernadine Coverley, in the car, and putting his foot down and accelerating without looking "just to make a point. We had a crash and I hurt her knee."

When it came to paying, he pulled a pile of £50 notes out of his pocket, most of them scrunched up like used tissues. Then he asked if I'd like go back to his house and see the painting he was working on. Without hesitation, I agreed.

First, he had to go to the dentist where I had a surreal, 45-minute wait while Freud had his teeth seen to. Then we took a taxi back to his house in Notting Hill. He ushered me into the front room, told me to wait there, and shut the door, leaving me with just his whippet, Pluto, for company.

The room looked out on a completely overgrown garden. His Frank Auerbach paintings were wrapped in bubble wrap and leaning against a wall, having just been lent for an exhibition. He seemed to take ages. I got a bit restless and had a quick snoop in his pantry, where he had little more than lots of bottled water and a few packets of oatcakes. (He didn't like to shop, he said, leaving that sort of thing to his assistant, or "slave" as he wryly liked to label him.)

Then he appeared and said the painting was ready. We went upstairs, heading, I thought, towards his studio on the first floor. But then a hand appeared on my lower back and ushered me on – upwards towards his bedroom on the second floor.

There was at least one Francis Bacon on the wall. His own painting which he had to show me was Self Portrait, Reflection, now quite a well-known work of him clutching at a loosely tied scarf or cravat. It had been placed on the mantelpiece of the room, just opposite the bed.

I made all the right noises about the work but it was about this time I realised he hadn't asked me there for my art criticism. "It looks better from back here," he said, and I turned to see him reclining on the covers. I made my excuses to Britain's greatest living painter, and left.

Family and fortune

Lucian Freud's complicated and unconventional family life saw him fathering at least 13 children, though there could be others who might have a claim on an estate worth, according to one estimate, £125m.

After an affair with Lorna Garman, a member of London's bohemian Bloomsbury set, Freud went on to marry her niece Kitty Garman, daughter of Kathleen and Jacob Epstein, a sculptor.

With her, Freud fathered two daughters, Annie and Annabel, before their marriage ended after four years.

His subsequent marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood, novelist, actress and Freud's muse born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, ended after five years with no children.

With writer Bernardine Coverley he had two daughters, Bella Freud the fashion designer and Esther Freud, the novelist.

He also had four children with another mistress and his former pupil at the Slade School of Fine Art, Suzy Boyt - Ali, Rose, Isobel, and Susie.

A son, Frank, resulted from his relationship with the painter Celia Paul.

The existence of four others, Paul, Lucy, Jane and David from a relationship with Katherine McAdam, a fashion designer, was revealed by the Sunday Times in 2004.

McAdam, who had babysat for Freud's children with Kitty, began a relationship with him while at St Martin's art college in London in the late-fifties, but later cut herself off from him altogether.

In an interview earlier this year Lucy, one of "the forgotten Freuds", said: "There are 13 children that we know of, and three of those – myself, Bella and Ibby [Isobel] – were all born in 1961". Caroline Davies


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Life writ large

Lucian Freud depicted the naked human animal, unidealised in its physical presence

He haunted the National Gallery at night, hawk-like and surprisingly slight, with his heavy, unlaced boots and knotted scarves. A warder used to say that Freud was coming to be with his people, the family of old masters. But I remember him at Tate Modern as well, darting back and forth between Matisse and Picasso in that famous stand-off show in 2002, the rest of us wondering which way he would jump. It turns out 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".

Lucian Freud was frequently described as a contemporary old master, a Rembrandt for our times. But his work was in fact a radical breach of tradition. He painted people, but not quite (or not often) portraits. He painted from life, but his life paintings were clearly not moments in the lives of those he painted – models, magnates, office workers, whippets, his many lovers, his many daughters – so much as scenes of their physical presence in his studio.

That bleak room in west London (its address carefully guarded), with its bare floor, discoloured walls and heaps of paint-smutched rags, was the constant theatre of his art. It became as familiar as his figures and their poses: huddled, sprawling, crouched or splayed, genitals dangling or parted, head thrown back or lolling, sometimes in pairs, but most often alone, bodies removed from their clothes, and perhaps even separated from their selves, their souls.

And that has always been the dividing issue of Freud's art: emotional honesty versus living form. Was he painting these people with loving scrutiny, his eye registering their individual mortality with as much attentiveness as their callouses, pocks and veins; or was he mastering their bodies as objects (or more precisely as animals, as he once declared)?

In his paintings the head would become another limb, rather than the sphere of thought; the surface of the body would be mottled, varicose, bulked up, roughed over. Even when painting the young or slender (himself included), bodies would acquire more ballast, matter and blood, until you couldn't separate the person from the paint. Freud's colours – bruise blue, livid orange, morbid green, the irradiated red of chafed thighs, the silver of stretchmarks – gave substance to the body, but also to the life of the painting.

In the late works it became hard to tell whether the magnificent brushmarks – increasingly gritty, nubbled and thick – were describing the sitter so much as Freud's ever-changing vision of what could be done with pigment.

The naked animal, unidealised and depicted with extreme concentration on physical essence: that long ago came to look like Freud's grand contribution to 20th-century painting. But he was a supreme draughtsman and print-maker, with a brilliantly tensile line. And his scenes of the 50s and 60s, particularly from his first two marriages, to Kitty Garman and Caroline Blackwood, were narratives of guilt and schism played out with devastating graphic power.

Freud has left many other masterpieces. "Big Sue" from the benefits office, her proud mountain of flesh a source of wonder and amazement. The performance artist Leigh Bowery, monumental and defiantly naked – no hiding: no surrender. I especially admire his portraits of The Big Man, where the paint rises at every level to the intimidating scale of this scarred Ulsterman, a colossal force temporarily willed into stillness in the studio chair, his face a scrum of ruck, thrust and knuckle.

Some of Freud's sitters have given a sense of his character: anarchic, a superb storyteller and intensely vigorous, working on three to four subjects a day, seven days a week. These sittings were always news. You wanted to know who or what he was painting, partly because it might surprise – Andrew Parker Bowles, red-faced and raddled, Lord Goodman in pyjamas, a horse's ass – but mainly because it was another chance to see what Freud would make.

His greatest achievement, for me, is what he made of himself. Freud is the finest self-portraitist our country has seen this past century. That terrific engagement, of physical presence essentialised: everything he gives his sitters is most potently turned upon himself.

Freud used the mirror like a combatant, laying it at his feet and bearing down upon it like a towering inquisitor. Or he would arrange three mirrors at different angles, as if trying to catch himself unawares, to see how he might look when glimpsed by someone else.

In the smallest of his self-portraits, in the National Portrait Gallery, he wedges a mirror in a window frame to try and see himself in the clear light of day. He moves to look, and the image shifts; he narrows his eyes to focus, and they shrink into a blur. What he is painting is the indeterminacy of himself – ourselves – as a reflection, something we see all the time without ever getting used to it, something that slips from our grasp.

Most trenchant, and monumental, is Painter Working, Reflection, made when Freud was 71. Naked, palette in hand, those workmen's boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he brandishes his knife like a maestro with a baton: wary, antagonistic, self-mocking, the King Lear of the studio. Identity emerges without clothes. This painting, above all, summons the full force of man's mortal presence.

See this Sunday's Observer New Review for an appreciation of Lucian Freud by his friend, the art critic William Feaver


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Freud: the best of the web

Following Lucian Freud's death, sitters, critics and fellow artists from Sue Tilley to David Hockney have paid tribute to a great portrait painter … and a 'frightening' driver. Here's a selection

Lucian Freud was a fundamentalist in his belief that thoughts of the artist should never be allowed to interfere with their art. They should appear "no more than God in nature", he once wrote. So it was probably as well that he seldom gave interviews, because there was certainly a lot to talk about. Freud was famously gregarious, and loved the good life, including expensive food and cars. (His regular table at the Wolseley was said to be set with a black cloth last night.) And "it is thought", in the cautious words of this BBC profile, that he fathered "dozens" of children.

The legends about his ramshackle (some would say disgusting) studio were also true – as you can see from the dirt and paint that cakes the walls in this extract from Tim Meara's film Small Gestures in Bare Rooms. For a fuller profile, the best film available online is Jake Auerbach's Portraits (2004), made up of interviews with his friends and family. Part one includes, among other things, the memory of his friend, the novelist Francis Wyndham, being taken to the River Cafe in Freud's glamorous car. "You know how frightening he can be as a driver," Wyndham says. In the second part, fellow artist David Hockney remembers sitting for Freud, and is full of praise for his work. "I think they're as good portraits as have been done by anybody, actually," he says. The third part is here.

Among critics, the London Review of Books art writer Peter Campbell made a superbly detailed study of Freud's technique, following his visit to Tate Britain's 2002 retrospective. There is also this film on YouTube, which is far from slick – indeed it's annoyingly shoddy – but it does give a good summary of Freud's influences and development.

The Today programme this morning carried a clutch of interviews, including with Sue Tilley, the subject of several of Freud's portraits. Most notable among them was Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which became the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold when it was bought for £17m in 2008, reportedly by Roman Abramovic at the instigation of his girlfriend, collector and millionairess Dasha Zhukova.

Tilley also spoke in more depth to BBC Breakfast this morning, revealing that the famously protracted process of sitting for Freud was not exaggerated – taking "three days a week for nine months" in her case. "You'd think he was a very serious person," she adds, "but his excitement when he met Kylie Minogue beggared belief."

Perhaps his closest literary counterpart, when it came to documenting the grotesque glory of the human body, was John Updike. And maybe it's a fitting way to say goodbye to one of the greatest British painters ever to read this short poem, in which the writer pays tribute to Freud's work.


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My top five Lucian Freud paintings

An artist whose subject was humanity itself, Lucian Freud captured the vulnerability of his sitters – himself included

Naked Man, back view (1992–93)

Freud was sometimes seen as a merciless artist, and certainly his belief in capturing the truth as he saw it meant that his eye could see the weakness – the absurdity, even – of any sitter. In Leigh Bowery he found a vast subject, in soul as well as body. His portraits of this British performance artist, who knew he was HIV positive, and would later die from an Aids-related illness, form the greatest cycle of pictures of his career. They are also some of the best portraits painted anywhere in recent times.

The Brigadier (2003–04)

If Freud's Bowery portraits showed his compassion for a fellow human being, his portrait of Andrew Parker-Bowles is perhaps his most insolent, scathing, and melancholy study of the self. Sprawled in uniform, Parker-Bowles – the former husband of Camilla – evokes, with his red striped trousers, glamorous 19th-century images of officers and imperial heroes. But he looks exhausted, saddened, wiped out.

Reflection with Two Children (self-portrait, 1965)

Freud's many self-portraits will undoubtedly be seen as among his finest achievements. No other recent artist has embarked on such a severe and profound process of self-scrutiny over so many years, and Freud must surely himself have been aware of the analogy with Rembrandt. He always used a mirror for self-portraiture, and painted exactly what he saw, so these are portraits, rather than metaphysical self-images. In this painting the angle makes him look like a colossus towering over his two children, a troubling Freudian drama that is one of his most haunting creations.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)

This is Freud's startling modern reinvention of the recumbent nude, a genre that goes back to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and Titian's Venus of Urbino. Just as Manet made the nude shockingly modern with his Olympia in the 19th century and Picasso with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the early 20th century, so in our time Freud proved again that a painting can be timeless and immediate, beautiful and raw. Big people bring out his biggest qualities as an artist.

The Queen (2000-2001)

Freud showed his mettle when he refused to paint the Queen any differently from the way he portrays everybody else. The brutally cropped format may suggest he is going further – a hint of republicanism? – but I'm not so sure. Keeping the crown on retains the Shakespearean image of the uneasy royal head; age and anxiety are etched on this face. Freud is a great painter of what it is to be human and he shows it here, in the face of someone regal yet as vulnerable as anyone else.


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Lucian Freud's perverse depictions of magnificent muck

His painting's realism is governed by artifice - and his public persona was just as much a theatrical construction


Lucian Freud, 1922–2011: Leave your tributes

Raddled and old, a self-possessed, semi-naked fool in ridiculous shoes, Lucian Freud painted himself old and mad, looming in that awful room in west London where he spent day after day, decade after decade, scrutinising the horrible walls, the thin light as it fell on his subjects, those piles of soiled rags that he used to wipe off his canvases and clean his brushes.

He was in touch with his mortality. The paint he used was a magnificent muck, and with it he rendered ageing flesh, an Irishman's neck, a dog's fur, a baby's puddingy stare. He paid as much attention to the floorboards or the tangle of buddleia in the yard below as he would to a woman's belly, Leigh Bowery's feminine bulk, Bruce Bernard's stoic drunkard's poise, Lord Goodman's vanity, Sue the Benefits Supervisor's affected boredom.

He was interested in presence, and not only human presence: a lightbulb's glare, a dog's leg, a horse's arse, a frayed bit of carpet. The language with which he described people and things, animals and lovers, atmosphere and futility, was a frightening construction. I believe he shared more with his psychoanalyst grandfather than he liked to admit.

At the heart of his work is the confrontation between himself and others, himself and painting. His painting's realism is all artifice. They are perverse in their complications, their studied theatricality. His art was in its way as mannered as Francis Bacon's (with whom he had a terrible and irrevocable falling-out), and his public persona was just as much a construction.

Freud liked to appear dangerous and unknowable, to men at least. He could seduce and threaten. Next to him David Hockney or Howard Hodgkin are artistic pygmies. Freud worked at being great. His art has authority, even though he seemed forever stuck in a postwar London of peeling stucco and disappointed lives. He would stare at people in restaurants, turn up at a young woman's flat with a live eel in his bag, spread rumours about himself and call his lawyers at an unintentioned slight. I wish I'd known him better.


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July 21 2011

Lucian Freud dies aged 88

Tributes paid to grandson of Sigmund Freud who lived to paint and 'redefined British art'

Obituary: Lucian Freud, 1922–2011
Gallery: A life in pictures

Lucian Freud, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest, most influential and yet most controversial British painters of his era, has died at his London home.

News of his death, at the age of 88, was released by his New York art dealer, William Acquavella. The realist painter, who was a grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, had watched his works soar in value over recent years and, in 2008, his portrayal of a large, naked woman on a couch – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping – sold at auction for £17m, a record price for the work of a living artist.

Born in Berlin, Freud came to Britain in 1933 with his family when he was 10 years old and developed his passion for drawing. After studying at art school, he had a self-portrait accepted for Horizon magazine and, by the age of 21, his talent had been recognised in a solo show. He returned to Britain after the war years to teach at the Slade School of Art in London.

Over a career that spanned 50 years, Freud became famous for his intense and unsettling nude portraits. A naturalised British subject, he spent most of his working life in London and was frequently seen at the most salubrious bars and restaurants, often in the company of beautiful young women such as Kate Moss, who he once painted. A tweet from the writer Polly Samson last night reported that Freud's regular table in The Wolseley restaurant was laid with a black tablecloth and a single candle in his honour.

The director of the Tate gallery, Nicholas Serota, said last night: "The vitality of [Freud's] nudes, the intensity of the still life paintings and the presence of his portraits of family and friends guarantee Lucian Freud a unique place in the pantheon of late 20th century art.

"His early paintings redefined British art and his later works stand comparison with the great figurative painters of any period."

Acquavella, described him "as one of the great painters of the 20th century".

"In company, he was exciting, humble, warm and witty. He lived to paint and painted until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world."

The son of an architect and older brother of broadcaster Clement Freud, the painter was married to Kathleen Garman for four years. They had two daughters. His second marriage, to Caroline Blackwood in 1953, ended in 1957. The novelist Esther Freud and the fashion designer Bella Freud are his daughters from a relationship with Bernardine Coverley.

Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Starr Figura summed up Freud's divisive quality. "The ones who don't appreciate him find his work hard to look at and a bit out of step with what is going on in the rest of the world. They have a hard time categorising it."

One of Freud's most often reproduced paintings is of the Queen, who posed for Freud fully clothed. The brightly coloured portrait was donated to the Queen's collection and is one of the most controversial depictions of the monarch.

Art critic and presenter Tim Marlow said Freud was a "very special man".

"He looked at the world was as if he was painting it but when you saw his paintings you saw how he really saw it," he said.

"He was the sort of person who had a twinkle in his eye but he would also look at you in a daunting and scrutinising way.

"He was very funny and very dry. He never lost his sharpness."

Viewpoint

Lucian was the most hilarious man I'd ever met. I met him briefly at a club with [mutual friend] Leigh Bowery, and then he took me to lunch at the River Cafe. There were a group of us and he told a joke about how a whale wanks, complete with movements.

A few weeks later he asked if he could paint me. Leigh had already put the idea into his head, so it wasn't a surprise. The first picture was done at night. I'd go after work and he'd paint till 1 or 1.30 in the morning, and it was agony lying there on the floor. First Leigh was in the picture, then he went to Scotland and one of Lucian's whippets took his place.

The next three paintings were in daylight, which was better. I'd arrive, we'd have some breakfast and a chat in the kitchen – that was the bit I loved, the setting up. Lucian was a good cook: he used the best ingredients and did very little to them, gorgeous bread, gorgeous fish, cooked plainly. Then he'd say: "Sue, perhaps you could wash those dishes – I think you use that green stuff in the corner." We'd leave them to pile up. He had a cleaner who came three times a week.

He would paint with us both facing the canvas, so he'd look at me and then turn around to paint. I trained to be an art teacher, so it wasn't all new to me, but I'm very shoddy, very slapdash, and it taught me that it is real work: each painting took nine months, and he was seeking perfection right up to the moment he finished.

There was a big break between paintings because I went on holiday to India and got a tan, which he hated beyond belief: we had to wait till it was gone. Every picture he painted was to test himself, to do it in a different way.

Sometimes he was very chatty, sometimes he was very quiet – I always thought he should have been on the telly. He'd say terrible things about people, but he never saw that he was really rude. I was always a bit jealous: he did exactly as he pleased. He was funny, miserable, horrible, kind, mean, generous, every character trait mixed up in one person.

The last time I saw him was about two years ago at his birthday party, at Johnnie Shand Kydd's house. Someone told me he and I had fallen out, which I didn't know, so I was a bit nervous about seeing him. I was shaking when I went up to say hello, and had I offended him, but he said "Of course you haven't", and patted me on the head.

I was lucky to spend time with someone who cared so much, and who worked so hard. He wasn't cruel – he painted what he saw. What strikes me most is, I look at my fat ankles and my fat feet every morning and I think they look just like that painting. Even the skinny girls don't look good, do they? He painted out of love.

Sue Tilley, model for Benefits Supervisor Sleeping


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Lucian Freud - a life in pictures

British painter Lucian Freud was known for his penetrating gaze and uncompromising paintings of nudes



Lucian Freud, 1922–2011

British realist artist whose later portraits drew comparisons with works by Courbet, Titian and Picasso

The original, unnerving, sustained artistic achievement of Lucian Freud, who has died aged 88, had at its heart a wilful, restless personality, fired by his intelligence and attentiveness and his suspicion of method, never wanting to risk doing the same thing twice. The sexually loaded, penetrating gaze was part of his weaponry, but his art addressed the lives of individuals, whether life models or royalty, with delicacy and disturbing corporeality.

Freud had a reputation for pushing subjects to an extreme. But unlike the American painters to emerge in the 1950s, his approach was in the western tradition of working from life and brought about with painstaking slowness, rather than unleashed virtuosity. Photographs taken in the studio by his assistant, model and good friend, the painter David Dawson, show Freud working from a roughly sketched charcoal form, the paint slowly spreading outwards from the head. Some canvases were extended, others abandoned while still a fragment.

Portraits of his maturity drew comparisons with equally shocking works by Courbet, Titian and Picasso, the feelings exposed registering as both brash and profound. The recorded stages of Ria, Naked Portrait 2006–07, his last large female nude, indicate the suspenseful build-up of pigment on her toe and the radiator; heavy incretions represent her curls and flushed face.

By 1987, the critic Robert Hughes nominated Freud as the greatest living realist painter, and after the death of Francis Bacon five years later, the sobriquet could be taken as a commendation, or it could imply an honour fit for an anachronistic "figurative" artist working in London. Art critics since Freud's first shows in the 1940s have had difficulties situating his achievement; the common solution has been to apply adjectives to the painted subjects in a way that reflects little more than personal taste, the writers telling readers whether the person portrayed was bored or intimidated, scrawny or obese, the paint slathered, crumbly or miraculously plastic.

Others, however, eschew this moralising tone and are prepared to be startled. Aidan Dunne, for example, reviewing the exhibition in Dublin in 2007, recognised how a single blonde model, "unmistakably" herself, in 1966 led Freud to push "the bounds of decorum in terms of mainstream depictions of the human body considered not as a generic type but as, to use his own term, a "naked portrait". Freud painted three versions of this fine-boned young woman on a cream cover, seen from above, each one a masterpiece. Her pictorial availability seems to some degree predicated on the artist's subtle way of incorporating in his paint strokes the upheavals and new perils that would enliven traditional gender relationships.

Freud was born in Berlin, to Ernst Freud, an architect and Sigmund's youngest son, and Lucie Brasch. The family lived near the Tiergarten, with summers spent on the estate of Freud's maternal grandfather, a grain merchant, or at their summer house on the Baltic island of Hiddensee.

Realising the Nazi threat to Jews, his parents, Lucian and his brothers – Stephen and Clement – moved to England in the summer of 1933. At Dartington Hall, Devon, and then Bryanston, Dorset, the boy was preoccupied by horses and art rather than the classroom. He enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, in January 1939 but found the laid-back atmosphere repellent and rarely attended classes.

From 1939 to 1942 he spent periods at the unstructured school founded by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines in East Anglia, first in Dedham, Essex, and then at Hadleigh, Suffolk. Morris proved a sympathetic mentor, one whose confidence and application gave Freud a sense of what it might mean to be an artist. In March 1941 Freud signed on as an ordinary seaman on the armed merchant cruiser SS Baltrover, bound for Nova Scotia. The ship came under attack from air and then by submarine, and on the return journey he went down with tonsillitis.

By the age of 18, the charismatic, talented young man with a famous name had attracted friends such as Stephen Spender and the wealthy collector and patron Peter Watson. Freud began visiting Paris, first in 1946 while on his way to Greece, where he stayed for six months, and again in 1947, with Kitty Garman, niece of his previous girlfriend Lorna Wishart, daughter of Jacob Epstein and the subject of one of the first major paintings, Girl in a Dark Jacket 1947. His connections in Paris extended to people linked to the arts in the 1930s, such as the hostess and collector Marie-Laure de Noailles.

The handful of surviving postcards contain no mention of postwar deprivations as he offers Méraud Guinness Guevara witty accounts of the installation of André Breton's surrealist exhibition in Paris in 1947, designed by Marcel Duchamp and Frederick Kiesler, and thanks for her hospitality in Provence. Freud expresses admiration for the "malevolence" the French showed to foreigners.

On familiar terms with Alberto Giacometti and Balthus, and, to some degree, Picasso, one senses that the young Freud was marked for life by seeing how single-mindedly, and self-critically, these already famous artists pushed forward their art. When he moved in 1943 to Delamere Terrace on the Grand Union canal, the first of five addresses in Paddington, London, several of his Irish working-class neighbours became models, especially the brothers Charlie and Billy. A large picture with a spiky palm tree and a tense, young Eastender, Harry Diamond, comprises a poignant drama about survival, Interior in Paddington 1951.

Paintings of Freud's two wives – Garman (whom he married in 1948 and divorced four years later) and Caroline Blackwood (whom he married in 1953 and divorced in 1957) – and other intimate friends are filled with suspense and pain, apparent in the strands of hair and a hand raised to the cheek as much as the wide eyes. The pearly skin of these subjects becomes more translucent and the detail extra-perfect. In an article written in 1950, the critic and curator David Sylvester questioned the perversity of feeling in Freud's latest portrayals. "It is impossible to say whether this indicates the incipient decline of an art whose talent flowered remarkably early or simply that every new departure implies growing-pains."

By the time of the Venice Biennale in 1954 – Freud shared the British pavilion with Bacon and Ben Nicholson – the question of prodigy versus an ultimately significant artist was being argued regularly. Freud's only involvement with the art colleges came though accepting William Coldstream's invitation to join the new staff at the Slade in 1949 (he made occasional appearances in the studios until 1954).

It became convenient to account for shifts in Freud's work by focusing on his early reliance on drawing and to cite the influence of painters from northern Europe such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Albrecht Dürer, or even to suggest a false comparison with the Neue Sachlichkeit painters (active in Germany in the 1920s but unknown to the young Freud) and overlook others as relevant as Paul Cézanne and Chaim Soutine. The significance of the change from sable to hogs' hair brush and flake white to Kremnitz white in the late 1950s was exaggerated. Freud was attracted to Bacon's merciless wit and risk-taking, admiring his impulsive handling of paint, yet curiously it was Bacon who tried repeatedly to fix an image of his younger friend's physical magnetism.

By the end of the 1950s Freud's fraught personal life contributed to a visual restlessness, and he began standing to paint, letting the raked perspective exaggerate the anatomies of his subjects. A greenish-yellow palette and vein-marked skin made the subjects, such as Woman Smiling 1958-59, superficially less attractive; the paintings exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in London in 1958 and 1963 were harder to sell.

Freud's obsession with gambling on horses and dogs brought on debts and dangerous threats, although many of the most singular paintings are of fleshly men within the racing fraternity. The journalist Jeffrey Bernard, describing Freud's afternoons in the betting shop and evenings with the rich and distinguished (including "Princess Margaret's set"), wrote admiringly: "He has cracked the nut of how to conduct a double life." The artist's slightly leering face and naked shoulders appear between the fronds of a giant Deremensis, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening 1967–68. A superb, dangerously over-worked, standing self-portrait, Painter Working, Reflection 1993 portrays the ageing artist wearing only unlaced boots, holding a palette and knife (he was left-handed), addressing the viewer like a silent actor; invariably paint applied imaginatively to the planes of walls and floor reads as though a leitmotif for the prevailing mood. Each millimetre, he insisted, had to become essential to the whole.

In the 1980s the bodies of the nudes pressed into the surrounding space, their three-dimensionality and almost modelled impasto describing deeply contoured forms like those within Freud's favourite bronzes by Rodin – Naked Balzac and Iris. Freud spoke of his curiosity about "the insides and undersides of things".

The reserved Bella Freud placed diagonally on a red sofa (1986) is one of the artist's masterpieces. Leigh Bowery and Freud had a mutually sustaining friendship that went on until just before the performance artist succumbed to an Aids-related illness at the end of 1994. Bowery's "wonderfully buoyant bulk was an instrument I felt I could use in my painting"; "yet it's the quality of his mind that makes me want to portray him". In front of Titian's Diana and Actaeon in 2008, he explained: "When something is really convincing, I don't think about how it was done, I think about the effect on me."

Several paintings approach allegory revisited as parody, beginning with Large Interior, W9 1973 (his mother and his lover), and the heavily promoted Large Interior W11 (After Watteau) 1981–83, with its awkward (and memorable) conjunction of five people from the artist's intimate life. Sitters sometimes came separately, as with Evening in the Studio, where the model Sue Tilley sprawls on the floor in the pose of seaside postcards with captions such as "Roll over Betty". The shuttered interior in Freud's house in Notting Hill was recorded in several large paintings, one now in a Dallas museum: a long-time friend, Francis Wyndham, sits reading in the foreground, whippet at his feet, and in the space beyond, a hybrid Jerry Hall/David Dawson nurses her son.

Annabel Mullen was painted with her shaggy-haired dog Rattler and reappears seven years later with a pregnant belly in Expecting the Fourth 2005 (only 10x15cm), and in a larger etching, limbs still like a thoroughbred, as described by one of Freud's favourite authors, Baudelaire: "vainly have time and love sunk their teeth into her".

Freud's exceptional ability to convey tactile information is evident in early drawings, especially those of gorse sprigs, a dead heron and a bearded Christian Bérard in a dressing gown. A similarly heightened, highly poetic, sensibility invades the etchings that began in the 1980s, black whorls and stippled textures fanatically worked, the artist relishing the "element of danger and mystery" that accompanies slipping a heavily worked plate into acid.

International exposure increased after the 1974 Hayward exhibition, nurtured by Freud's admirers, particularly William Feaver, curator of the Tate retrospective in 2002, and the dealer James Kirkman. The revival of interest in painting that emerged around 1980 led to outstanding British artists being ringfenced with an inappropriate label, the School of London. Freud thought his close friend Frank Auerbach the best British painter of his lifetime. Auerbach understood how no original concept or idiom could be credited with the mesmerising reality of art: "I think of Lucian's attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter, he would come off the tightrope. He has no safety net of manner."

A retrospective organised by the British Council reached Washington, Paris, London and Berlin in 1987–88, and the "recent work" exhibition created by the Whitechapel Gallery in 1993 drew crowds in New York and Madrid as well as the East End. Freud's representative from 1993, William Acquavella, had a buoyant, unwavering reckoning of the artist's worth – in others words in the league of 20th-century masters. In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised an exhibition with great impact, titled The Painter's Etchings, Freud's place in postwar art history admitted through a side-door rather than placed in the canon.

The completion of a single picture turned into a newsworthy event. In 1993 a Daily Mail front-page headline asked: "Is this man the greatest lover in Britain?" A disconcerting recent painting, the artist working while "surprised by a naked admirer", fed readers' curiosity about the octogenarian's love life. The rather sensational Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) achieved a record auction price for a living artist in May 2008, £17m, by which time Russian oligarchs had joined the wealthy North American collectors who had already replaced upper-class British patrons. The promotion of pictures at auction sometimes gave unfortunate prominence to the failures, notably the truncated picture of a pregnant Kate Moss.

The artist related his acceptance of the Order of the Companions Honour in 1983 and the Order of Merit in 1993 to his family's debt to Britain, the country that allowed them naturalisation in 1939. Freud described the move to England as "linked to my luck. Hitler's attitude to the Jews persuaded my father to bring us to London, the place I prefer in every way to anywhere I've been."

Queen Elizabeth II sat for a small portrait in 2001 which Freud donated to the Royal Collection. He selected the pictures for the important Constable exhibition that opened in Paris in 2002, respecting the artist's "truth-telling. The way he used the undergrowths to suit himself – things being soaked in water and so on – was a way of looking at nature that no one had really done before."

The portraits Freud made of his mother, beginning in 1972 and ending with a drawing from her deathbed in 1989, are a remarkable elegy of ageing and depression. When his children (15 or so were recognised) began leading independent lives, most of them came to sit for him and he was proud of their talents. Bella Freud is a fashion designer and four others are successful writers – Annie Freud, Esther Freud, and Rose and Susie Boyt. Contrary to what has been written about anonymity, the identities of at least 168 sitters have been revealed in various interviews, commentaries and published information.

Thinking about the women who were closest to him for the longest duration, one realises how reticent they preferred to be, particularly Baroness Willoughby d'Eresby and Susanna Chancellor. Any biography of the artist that is written with the claim to analyse character or feelings is doomed.

The list of those he knew and affected would be enormous (and incomplete), the narratives lopsided, with anecdotes and memoirs exaggerating their author's familiarity. Freud's own, sharp recollections are both exciting and skewed. He recently spoke of how it amused him to hold the heads of schoolmates under water, but his occasional violence was countered by a precise, rather Germanic use of language and good manners.

An admitted control freak, who lived alone and liked to use the telephone but not give out his number, Freud kept relationships in separate compartments. He lived with the same aesthetic as that of his work – fine linen, worn leather, superb works of art (and a few cartoons), buddleia and bamboo in the overgrown garden and the residue of paint carried down from the studio. In this setting, he sustained until the end his ability to make portrayals of many of the people and animals who mattered to him (the one still on the easel, Portrait of a Hound), paintings that face-to-face are all-consuming and oddly liberating.

Lucian Michael Freud, artist, born 8 December 1922; died 20 July 2011


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July 07 2011

A nation of abstract art snobs?

There's strength and truth to be found in abstract expressionism – British sceptics need to get over their puritanical hauteur

Britain has never "got" abstract art. Even articles that appeared this week marking the death of Cy Twombly attracted comments of the "my child could do that" variety. It is tempting to dismiss these attacks as philistine, but that would be to ignore an eminently respectable and artistically sophisticated British tradition of disdain for abstract painting.

In a justly famous collection of essays called Art and Illusion, the leading art historian of postwar Britain EH Gombrich argued that western painting is the pursuit of reality – that in effect representational painting has a scientific vocation. This is a translation to art of the empiricism that goes back in British philosophy to John Locke. To look is to discover (although Gombrich showed how what we see is coloured by what we expect to see). If art is about trying to see things how they really are, what is the value of abstraction? For Gombrich it basically had no value at all.

It was not only theorists who believed this in postwar Britain. The best artists did, too. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud fearsomely depicted real life as they found it – real human life, with the figure at the heart of the matter, the lonely human predicament their weighty concern. Bacon loudly dismissed the American abstract painting of the 1950s as looking like "old lace". Freud paints to this day with total commitment to reality and no interest whatsoever in abstraction.

So British sceptics who think abstract art like that of Twombly is just a load of visual guff can claim a tradition on their side.

Why, then, are we so different from Americans? In the same postwar years that saw British art dig itself into a realistic trench, US painting became heroically and famously abstract. From the moment Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, the New York abstract painters were revered, renowned, and part of modern American national identity. The US and Britain were very different places at the time: America was at the height of its wealth and global power, and abstract expressionism suited the confidence of this epic society. Britain was living through the end of empire; everything was shrinking. Gloomy realism suited the times.

Having grown up and become fascinated by art in a 1980s Britain where abstract modernism was still laughed at, when at last I got a chance to see American art in depth in New York, it was one of the most liberating, beautiful and profound experiences of my life. I recognised some deep strength and truth in abstract expressionism that I did not find – and still do not – in most modern British art. From Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, even our "modern" artists seem stuck in the fussy world of the figurative, while American painters such as Rothko transport me to a heightened reality.

It is actually impossible to argue with someone who refuses to experience the power of abstract art, because to feel it you have to let yourself go a bit. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. British sceptics cannot bring themselves to trust the mystery of aesthetic experience. Even that phrase "the mystery of aesthetic experience" is about to be mocked ... but it is your loss. This scepticism must, in the end, go back to the Reformation and its fear of graven images. Somewhere in your psyche, abstraction-haters, when you look at Twombly's lush colours you see a medieval stained-glass window: and the puritan in you wants to smash it.


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June 11 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work – review

Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does art have its uses, other than to civilise, enlighten, stimulate, console? Purists would say certainly not. Art has no function whatsoever. But anyone visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, where the notoriously closeted Government Art Collection is being shown in public for the first time in its 113- year history, will discover that this is not the case. Art can be a cunning form of diplomacy.

Take one of Bob and Roberta Smith's fairground-like signs, brightly painted in chip shop colours and currently hanging in the first tranche of the collection at the Whitechapel (there are several more selections to come). 'Peas are the New Beans,' it says, advancing a silly paradox about legumes, but punning on the bean-counting profession as well, at least if you have a mind to spot this.

And plenty have, it appears. When Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury he hung the painting outside his office, to laugh the waiting accountants and civil servants out of heaven knows what negativity. Apparently it worked every time; full pictorial efficiency.

Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, previously at the UN, used to invite hostile nations into his office to dwell upon the beautiful cobalt ground of Claude Heath's Ben Nevis on Blue – all dots and doodles (Heath draws with his eyes closed) and just shy of figuration. Which was extremely helpful during some particularly heated negotiations on Iran, where the painting was used as a kind of soothing time-out for eyes and mind. "Agreement," according to Sawers, "was reached an hour later."

And so it continues: an Anish Kapoor for the high commission in New Delhi to demonstrate how far Britain and India have come together (world-class artist born in Mumbai, resident in London: perfect symbol); Thomas Phillips's magnificent portrait of Byron posted to the British embassy in Athens, where he remains a hero for taking part in the Greek war of independence; the latest Britart sent to impress smart Parisians, if not to shame their euro-pudding artists. These are works to impress, co-opt and persuade.

So the subtitle of this particular selection, At Work, may be coarse but perfectly apt. It really is as if the artworks are part of the staff, sent out to work as ambassadors for British culture with extra responsibilities during a crisis. And viewed this way – the works at the Whitechapel are put in political context – it no longer seems quite such an affront to the public to be coughing up for a collection it never actually sees.

A good deal has been written about the invisibility of the GAC. I wrote some of it myself, around the time of Blair's triumphant entry into Downing Street when there was so much press coverage of New Labour receptions, who was in, who was out, and we sought the secrets of the art equivalent: what was displayed (Cool Britannia), and what removed (Old England), from the walls of No 10. For the GAC supplies not just embassies and consulates across five continents but scores of ministerial offices in London as well. Of its 13,500 works, more than two-thirds are displayed at any given time. It is the largest, most widely dispersed collection of British art in the world, and it keeps on moving as governments change and new ministers make their selections.

Hansard is full of questions about how much it drains the public purse, how much of it is mouldering away, how much has been clandestinely sold (none at all). Behind these questions is the lingering grudge that, unless we happen to be ministers, their cronies, or belligerent kids from Jamie's Dream School granted an audience with the PM, then we will never clap eyes on the mandatory Lowry or the dingy oval view of the Thames by the deservedly neglected William Marlow selected by the Camerons.

What's ingenious about At Work is that it replicates these selections so that you see the art but also the implicit self-portrait. So Boateng chooses Osmund Caine's striking group of second world war soldiers from 1940, the whites playing cards in uniform, the blacks separate and naked. Nick Clegg goes for an outsize thermos flask standing alone at a gloomy picnic, surely a post-referendum choice. Ed Vaizey, current culture minister, and Save 6 Music campaigner, continues to show his contemporary credentials by pushing Tory Tracey Emin.

Most piquant of all, Peter Mandelson has chosen a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I that resembles Margaret Beckett. It's an awful painting, flesh like Bakelite; but along with a photograph of Lucian Freud painting Elizabeth II, a statue of the artist-diplomat Peter Paul Rubens and one of Cecil Stephenson's designs for the Festival of Britain, we have two queens, a super-urbane diplomat and a memento of Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather (and chief sponsor of the festival), which allows for some self-serving allusions to his own grand projet, the Dome, in the exhibition leaflet.

The choices of Sawers and Dame Anna Pringle, our woman in Moscow, are much stronger as art: Walter Sickert, Heath, some bittersweet space-race Pop by Derek Boshier and Bridget Riley's beautiful Reflection, bought for the British embassy in Cairo partly because her sheaf of stripes was inspired by the colours of tomb walls in Upper Egypt, but also because the abstraction dovetailed felicitously with Muslim culture.

All these works were purchased on a shoestring budget, just to add to the complex GAC criteria: works must be cheaply acquired, they must act as an extension of the diplomatic service and fit with all sorts of unusual environments. The result is a most quirky collection that has no major Bacon, Hockney, Sutherland or Freud, no Turner, no Constable landscapes, few museum stereotypes. But which is rich instead in great works by Sickert, Joan Eardley and Paul Nash.

That eccentricity went out with New Labour and the hyping of Britart, which is extensively represented in the GAC. This is not reflected in At Work, though one sees how successfully the Emins and Michael Landys have crossed the floor, because so much of the recent art is commissioned to be site-specific.

What you do see at the Whitechapel is just how fine a face the collection gives to Britain at home and abroad, from Edward Burra's satirical drawings to Bridget Riley. Of course, there is no need to put good art on the walls of our government buildings. But what this first show reveals is just how civilised it looks as our national image instead of a flag or a framed photo of the latest dictator.

'At Work' is at the Whitechapel until 4 September, with further GAC selections then running until September 2012, then at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery followed by Ulster Museum in late 2012-13


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March 31 2011

Lucian Freud portrait up for auction

Woman Smiling, Freud's 'turning point' 1959 painting of former lover Suzy Boyt, up for auction at Christie's in June

A portrait by Lucian Freud of a contentedly smiling woman, regarded as a turning point in the development of the style that made him one of the most instantly recognisable and expensive contemporary painters, is expected to fetch up to £4.5m when it is auctioned by Christie's in June.

The estimate is an indicator of the meteoric rise of Freud's prices: the last time Christie's sold the painting in 1973 on behalf of Ann Fleming, wife of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, it fetched £5,040.

Woman Smiling is an exceptionally cheerful portrait for Freud, of Suzy Boyt, an artist herself. She was a pupil of Freud's at the Slade art school before she became his lover for a decade, a friend for much longer, and mother of five of his many children, including the novelist Susie Boyt.

Freud had already been married twice when they met, and had painted both his previous wives many times. At a major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2001 many visitors were struck by their air of impenetrable gloom. Caroline Blackwood, his second wife, said of one of her portraits that she didn't mind being made to look so miserable, but she did mind looking "so distressingly old". Girl With White Dog shows his first wife, Kitty Garman, cradling an equally unhappy bull terrier.

By comparison Boyt looks downright cheerful. The portrait was described by the critic Robert Hughes as "the turning point" in Freud's work.

Francis Outred, head of postwar art at Christie's, said: "This is the work that pioneered the style of painting for which he is most praised and recognised, using thick, expressionist brushstrokes and swaths of impasto to build a human physicality. Freud has here literally sculpted in paint the flickering smile into an enigmatic, fleeting presence."

Christie's regards the painting as the most important work by the artist to come up for auction since Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, his painting of a monumental nude usually known as Big Sue, which made a world record for a living artist of $33.6m (£21m) in New York in May 2008 . It is believed to have been bought by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.


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January 19 2011

Kitty Godley obituary

Artist and muse, the daughter of Jacob Epstein and first wife of Lucian Freud

All her life, Kitty Godley sat for portraits. When she was a child she was drawn by her father, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, while as a young bride her haunting beauty was recorded in several paintings by her first husband, Lucian Freud. In old age a triple portrait of Kitty, who has died aged 84, by Andrew Tift won the 2006 BP portrait award. 

The Freud pictures – Girl With a White Dog (1951-52), in the Tate collection, perhaps the loveliest and least unsettling of them – show a dreamy, rather frightened-looking Kitty, narrow browed and wide-eyed. Like many admirers of these pictures, I had always imagined that the artist had exaggerated the size of his subject's eyes. When I first met Kitty, while researching a book about her mother's family, the Garmans, I was taken aback to discover that her eyes really were that big. Kitty gave an impression of great fragility and delicacy, with her soft, rather tremulous voice and slender, elegant hands, but there was also a hint of steeliness.

Kitty was born into high bohemia, the second child of Epstein's lover Kathleen Garman. The sculptor had a wife and child across London, while Kathleen lived in an unheated studio in Bloomsbury with one of her many sisters and an infant son. Such conditions were thought inimical to the raising of a family, and Kitty was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Margaret, in Herefordshire. A younger sister, Esther, was later dispatched to a family retainer. 

Margaret and her faithful companion, the former governess Toni Thomas, instilled a lifelong love of books and nature, while Kitty's wild and ravishing young aunts Lorna and Ruth became her mentors. Kitty used to watch from the window of her bedroom while her aunts danced the Charleston barefoot on the lawn in the summer dusk.

Lorna married in her teens and then became the lover of Laurie Lee, breaking up with him when she began an affair with the young Freud. Both men went on to marry nieces of Lorna's. Kitty was to have two daughters by Freud, but the marriage ended in the early 1950s when Freud met Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was to become his second wife. Lorna retained an influence over her niece, who followed her into the Roman Catholic church.

Kitty had stayed on with Margaret when the household moved to South Harting, Sussex, only joining her mother in London in her late teens when she took up a place at the Central School of Arts and Crafts to study painting under Bernard Meninsky. Kathleen was highly critical of her daughter. "I think she wanted her daughters to excel," Kitty recalled, "but she didn't want us to succeed, because she had to be the queen. I was frightened of her because of her temper and she did say searingly sarcastic things."

Thus discouraged, only in later life did Kitty venture to paint and draw again: delicate still-life pencil studies of plants and wild flowers, and small, exquisite paintings. An exhibition of her work, Kitty Garman and Co, was held in 2004 at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, West Midlands, home to the Garman Ryan Collection, which includes important work by Epstein as well as Modigliani, Picasso and many others. Kitty's pictures were displayed alongside work by her daughters, Annie and Annabel, and her granddaughter May Cornet. The show brought her tremendous happiness. 

Kitty's brother Theo had suffered from mental health problems and died in distressing circumstances in 1954, aged 29. Later that year, Esther took her own life. In later years Kitty often recounted the story of Epstein's wife having shot Kathleen with a pearl-handled revolver. In Kitty's imagination this event had occurred while Kathleen was pregnant with her. In reality the shooting happened three years earlier, but her reconfiguring of the date contained an important truth. Kitty, however vulnerable, was a survivor. Of her mother's children, she was the only one to attain old age.

Her second marriage, in 1955, brought new joy. Her husband was the startlingly handsome Wynne Godley (younger son of Lord Kilbracken), immortalised by Epstein as the figure of Saint Michael spearing the devil in the sculpture at Coventry Cathedral. An oboist whose chronic stage fright necessitated a change of career, Wynne turned to economics, becoming professor of applied economics at Cambridge University. With Wynne, Kitty had a daughter, Eve, and created lovely houses, first in London, then in Denmark and upstate New York, and lastly at Cavendish in Suffolk.

Kitty's was a nervous disposition, but her house was an oasis of calm, full of buttercups in old glass jars, William Morris wallpaper, glossy wood, shells, tapestries and mirrors. Tea was served in paper-thin china. Art and books mattered. She loved the Italian renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli (one of whose Madonnas she resembled), Henri Fantin-Latour, Henry James and, above all, Proust.

Kitty had a great freshness and originality of outlook, always forming judgments of her own. These were sometimes eccentric, always apt. She was highly observant and there were flashes of wit, well demonstrated in her long letters. She was modest, loyal and kind. Annie Freud (whose poetry collection, The Mirabelles, is currently shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize) describes her mother as a woman of accoutrements, narrow ankled, wearing fine calf-skin and smelling of lemon-scented cologne. The dementia of her final years did not diminish her gentle sweetness.

Wynne died in 2010. Kitty is survived by her daughters. 

William Keegan writes: Kitty never took to air travel. During the long period in the 1990s when her husband was at the Levy Economic Institute in upper New York state, the two of them would cross the Atlantic on cargo boats. One fondly remembered instance of her extreme nervous sensibility was the occasion when Wynne delivered the university sermon (on economics and the public weal, not religion) at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and the provost, the philosopher Bernard Williams, held a picnic afterwards. It was an idyllic summer day, but the occasion was too idyllic for Kitty. "This is too beautiful," she declared out of the blue. "I just have to leave." She duly departed in the middle of lunch.

• Kathleen Eleonora Godley, artist and muse, born 27 August 1926; died 11 January 2011


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December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives."


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September 30 2010

Book sheds light on Lucian Freud

Man with a Blue Scarf, a book assembled from a sitter's conversations with Freud, paints a clear picture of a private man

Lucian Freud has some intriguing opinions about other artists. He has no time for Leonardo da Vinci. He wonders if Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, bought by the National Gallery after a popular campaign, is really by Raphael at all because "normally I can't bear Raphael, but I like that one a little bit". His own hero is Titian, whose paintings mean infinitely more to him than the works of Poussin – let alone Vermeer, whose people he thinks bizarrely absent.

How do we know all this? No, Freud hasn't started his own blog. Instead, the famously reticent painter imparted these views to a friend, the critic Martin Gayford (who does blog, over at Bloomberg). In his new book, Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford tells how – having known Freud for years – he finally popped the question: would the greatest living painter of portraits paint his portrait? He was surprised when the answer was yes, and that Freud wanted to get cracking right away.

When he paints, Freud talks, and he likes to go to a restaurant with the sitter after each session to carry on talking. So finally, after all these years and with his subject's full cooperation, Martin Gayford is able to give readers the eloquent and pugnacious voice of Lucian Freud – on art, artists and life. In reviews of the book, which are very positive, it is the quotes from Freud that tend to steal the show. But this book is not just for Freud fans, or a sombre intellectual document for art students.

The fascination of Freud's persona and ideas comes across so well because of the writer's skill. Freud's style is unmistakable. Gayford downplays his own, but actually it is his craft as a storyteller that turns what were actually a fractured series of encounters – in the sense that all life is a series of fractured encounters – into a gripping, dramatic read. It is, I think, a new style of art writing in which the critic does not assume the lofty position of a pontiff or professor, between artist and public. He is unpretentious and natural, and above all wants to capture Freud as a person, not just a painter (or maybe, since the book is very directly about the making of a work of art, as a person painting).

If it is Freud who dominates the book, it is Gayford's achievement to bring him out and to do so with wit and humour as well as acute intelligence. Man with a Blue Scarf is literally inimitable – no one else is going to get this opportunity – but it contains a lot that critics and even novelists can learn from. It's the real deal.


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