Issue 146, Spring 1998
Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922. When Hitler came to power to 1933, Freud’s parents perceived the danger for German Jews and moved the family to London. An unruly child, Lucian acted like “a wild animal,” according to his father. They sent him to progressive public schools and, afterward, to the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting, an institution he accidentally burned down one night while smoking. The school was forced to move to Suffolk.
Perhaps because of this inadvertent act of arson, Freud sailed off with the Merchant Navy in 1942. After only three months away, Freud returned to school. Drawn to such classically minded masters as Dürer and Ingres, Freud developed a characteristically fiat, linear style, which from the early fifties he gradually transformed into the more painterly, vital, and more sensuously impastoed manner of his famous portraits.
The London art world began to take notice of him during the war: the Lefevre Gallery first showed his work in 1944. Around this time he befriended such figurative painters as Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, forming a group that would later come to be called the London School. His 1952 portrait of Bacon remains an early triumph. “Since he painted this,” Robert Hughes declared, “Lucian Freud has become the greatest living realist painter.” Apparently others agreed—the portrait was stolen in 1988 from an exhibition in Germany.
In the public mind Freud is a fetishist of flesh. He lingers on its grotesqueries—ripeness, signs of decay, blue veins beneath the skin, bulges—like a child at once horrified and transfixed, staring through his fingers. By contrast the etchings that follow show Freud’s lush regard pared down to line and volume. We’re still confronted with his almost prurient attention to physical detail, and yet, without the distraction of color, Freud manages to sharpen the emotional and psychological thrust of each image.