Last November I saw the mammoth retrospective of Lucian Freud (who was born in Berlin in 1922, moved to London in 1933 and died there in 2011) in Vienna’s Kunsthistorichesmuseum. The only painting I really liked was a1943 self-portrait of Freud holding a white feather. Generally, I prefer his flat, often vaguely surrealist early paintings made with small sable-hair brushes to the thicker-stroked, thicker hogs-hair brushes later ones for which he is famous. In her brief biography Phoebe Hoban twice reports the switch in brushes, but does not explain its motivation, though correlating the switch with standing up to paint, whereas earlier he painted sitting down.
She also says at least twice that Freud did not like his paintings being labeled “expressionist.” Though born in Germany, his artistic influences were not German (nor were they Austrian, though I can understand Viennese seeing affinities with the nudes painted, often in strained positions, by Egon Schiele that are abundant in Vienna museums, and there are some resemblances to Kokoschka’s paintings, which were gathered in another mammoth retrospective in Vienna simultaneous with the Freud one). Lucian Freud admired the paintings of Titian (of which the Kunsthistoriches has a significant number) and his initial influence, according to Hoban, was the portrait paintings on ancient Egyptian mummy cases. Like his grandfather (whose youngest son was Lucian’s father), he was fascinated by ancient Egyptian art.
Lucian Freud is generally labeled a “realist.” Though I don’t recall any painter being labeled a “naturalist,” it seems to me that in the exaggeration of ugliness, Freud is a candidate. Since it took him six to seven months (sometimes more) of sittings lasting six to eight hours five to seven days a week, he definitely spent a lot of time looking at his models. Though he was also having sex with a substantial number of the female subjects of his paintings, I can’t imagine anyone finding them erotic, though perhaps some other sadists might or do. But I question that even those who are excited by extreme obesity could find Freud’s savage representations of the naked Sue Tilley arousing.
To me, it is one thing not to prettify the subjects (to paint them “warts and all” in the common expression), but having looked at photos (not included in the book, which at least in its advance edition has no illustrations at all) of the models with the paintings (finished or in process), I would say that Freud uglified them. His daughter (by Bernardine Coverley) Bella, Kate Moss, and New York dealer William Acquavella fared better than most.
I know that other painters admire Freud’s brushwork and that those who sat (and sat and sat, often in awkward positions) for Freud do not seem to have regretted being painted by him, though Hoban quotes one, Anne Dun who considered the experience an ordeal: “mentally painful-because the sitter has to give so much back to Lucian that the sitter in fact feels devoured and digested and regurgitated almost and it also, for myself personally, gave me acute anxiety.” His son David suggested that his father had Asperger’s Syndrome: “I don’t think he had the ability to empathize normally with people.”
The gaze, invoked in the biography’s subtitle “Eyes Wide Open” was intense and clinical. Freud said that he was “really interested them as animals”, so it seems fair to label his gaze as “veterinarian.” “Ruthless” or “relentless” would be understatements. Plus, he reveled in including rag piles on the floor in his portraits (they almost overhwlem the 1986 “Triple Portrait”).
Julian Barnes (in an article in the London Review of Books) articulated what many viewers (though not Hoban) feel, looking at Freud paintings:
“They seem cold and ruthless, paintings more of flesh than of women. And when the eye moves from the splayed limbs to the face, what expressions do Freud’s women have? Even in the early, pre-hog-hair portraits, the women seem anxious; later, they seemed at best inert and passive, at worst fraught and panicked. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?”
Hoban chronicles some of the odd compositions without providing any analysis of his compositional sense. Many of Freud’s later paintings have dogs (whippets owned by his assistant David Dawson whom Freud painted naked multiple times, a rat in another painting of a naked man) in them. In that his human subjects had to hold (often awkward) poses for months, I wonder how he managed squirming real animals. (He can’t have drugged them so long and so often!)
Though reading it made me search out photos of Freud paintings and of his models (who included Queen Elizabeth. whose twisted mouth cannot be called “realist”!), it did not make me like Freud’s hogs-hair-brush paintings. He spent a lot of time (painting literally day and night) painting, lacking the facility of his intimate friend for many years (until Freud started to be a critical and financial success) Francis Bacon, or of his later less intimate friend David Hockney (both Hockney and Bacon painted and were painted by Freud). Each of Freud’s brushstrokes was deliberate (and he was phobic about putting paint on paint, though he often extended the canvases and sometimes cut parts of them out). Though they are not monochromatic, there is so little range of color (browns with black and white predominating) that I am amazed to read that he remixed his pigments from brushstroke to brushstroke.
Both Bacon and Freud were compulsive gamblers. Hoban does not name Freud’s bookies, but mentions three times that when William Acquavella became Freud’s dealer he paid off a gambling debt of 2.7 million pounds. If that was to the Kray twins, I’m surprised that Freud lived to the age of 88 (painting until very near the end of his life; he died of bladder cancer).
Though overly reliant on reviews of shows, I think Hoban chronicles the changing fortunes of Freud’s career well. She also reports some of the anti-Semitism directed at Freud as he worked his way through a number of British aristocrats. (She does not record his own anti-Semitic snobbery, however.) The account of the relationship with Francis Bacon (with whom Freud lunched and dined nearly every day Bacon was in London for a number of years during ther 1950s and 60s) is particularly good. She does not write a pathography, though the conduct of Freud (like Bacon’s) invites such treatment. She ignores his sexual sadism and does not judge his predatoriness, his serial discarding women, or ignoring the many children he sired (he considered any sort of birth control “squalid”), but did nothing to raise.
Freud blocked biographers (including paying off one and having mobsters intimidate another) during his lifetime and was more than a bit of a recluse, not having a phone and frequently changing addresses. In addition to Hoban’s brief overview, memoirs are cascading, including Geordie Greig’s Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist and Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf (an account of sitting for the painting of that title).
A chronological view of 282 Freud works (mostly paintings with some drawings and etchings) can be viewed at