Last week, Lucian Freud, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and grandson of Sigmund Freud, passed away in his London home. He was 88.
With a family history like his, it isn’t surprising that Lucien was brimming with talent. Though he started off his career a bit rocky (he was a gambler, womanizer, and a wild card), in the post-World War II years, he became one of the most significant artists working in Europe. His slightly abstracted, often grotesque paintings came to define a new wave of figurative art. Like the Secessionists before him, and the German Expressionists, his portraits were filled with a sense of vulnerability, intimacy, and occasionally, dread.
While you can compare some of Freud’s paintings to earlier artists like Egon Schiele and Otto Dix, he quickly created a style of portraiture that was all his own. I admit to finding his portraits incredibly disturbing—in a good way. Freud’s subjects stare out from the canvas, wide-eyed and distorted, with a fleshiness and weight that is at once exaggerated and oddly true to life. His portraits are neither beautiful nor smooth. They are not pretty to look at, but they convey something real, something human.
It’s always a tragedy when a great figure like Freud passes, but in many ways, Freud’s career had run its course. I can’t be alone in preferring his earlier work to his later portraits, though some of his most recent work is perhaps more recognizable, due to the status of his subjects. His depiction of Queen Elizabeth II, for example, is not really a traditional royal portrait, but it has gained widespread fame nonetheless. A painting he did in 2002 of a pregnant Kate Moss has the same odd combination of celebrity draw and high-brow artistic appeal.
Despite his later triumphs, when reading his obituaries I’m struck again and again by his first forays into figurative art. In paintings like “Girl With a Kitten” and “Girl With Roses,” Freud calls to mind the old masters and the traditional Flemish portraits. To me, these pieces look like a modernized version of Jan Van Eyck’s pieces, imbued with (unsurprisingly) a 20th century awareness of the complexity of the human psyche. There is something deeply psychological about Freud’s distortions, which both flatten the face and draw forth the eyes, which gaze distractedly. It feels at once both intimate and distant, smooth and slightly frayed. The subjects bare many of the markers of female beauty, yet under Freud’s brush they are thinned, flattened, and made far more ghostly.
Freud’s death is a terrible loss for the art world, but his artistic contributions will not be forgotten. As he once told his biographer, ”For me the paint is the person,” and through his creations, Lucian lives on.