Lucian Freud was a British Realist painter of German descent, best known for his visceral and unsettling portraits and figures. He was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and strove for objectivity in portraiture through his lifetime.
Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin in December 1922. His father, Ernst Ludwig Freud, was an architect and the youngest son of Sigmund Freud, the central figure in the birth of psychological study as a form of medicine. Though the family was Jewish, they were of a non-practicing, secular ideology and Freud spent his early years in middle-class comfort, living close to the Tiergarten through most of the year, with summers spent at a cottage on the Baltic Islands.
Their fortunes changes with the rise of Nazism, and when Hitler was made Chancellor in 1933, the Freuds left Berlin for the British capital, eventually finding a home in St. John’s Wood. Lucian attended the Bryanston School and the Dartington Hall School in Devon, but was expelled from both for disobedience and unruly behavior. In 1939, Freud was put under the tutelage of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, who ran a free-form school in Dedham, Essex. He spent the next three years working on and off under Morris, citing him as an influence in his decision to become an artist . During this time, he was awarded British citizenship.
By 1939, Freud had taken enough advantage of his famous name and natural charisma to find a way into the society of Britain’s homosexual elite, finding peers in poet and novelist Stephen Spender, literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly, and art collector Peter Watson. He had already published a number of illustrations in the “Horizon,” a radical art magazine, and was adopted into the coterie without issue, pronouncing counter-culturalism and homosexuality as vital elements in artistic practice.
From 1940 to 1945, Freud led a meandering lifestyle. He volunteered as an ordinary seaman on the “S.S. Baltrover” in March 1941 — after being accused of arson at his art school a few weeks earlier — a short-lived career that ended with the withdrawal of his naval license. He returned to university the following year and began work on a series of surrealist still lifes that eventually culminated in “Dead Heron.”
The Artist as a Portraitist
Freud travelled to Paris in 1947 with Kitty Garman, the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein, who would become the repeated subject of many of his paintings, including “Girl in a Dark Jacket,” and, eventually, his wife. The marriage was brief, however, and they divorced in 1952. He married again the following year, to Caroline Blackwood, whose portraits he painted recurrently as well.
Despite the variety of subjects he painted — whether friend or stranger — Freud’s work retained an uncomfortable suggestion of existential angst, full of trepidation and isolation. He moved away from surrealism to a more developed individual realistic style, most evident in the translucency and detail of facial features and expressions. “Girl with a White Dog,” “Boy Smoking,” and “Head of a Woman” are examples of his work from this period.
In 1966, Freud began work on a series studying the nude form, beginning first with the female figure — the most subversive and disturbing of his oeuvre. Insistent upon honesty more than aesthetic, his portraits seem unattractively carnal, depicting the degeneration of flesh more than any sexual splendor. This unsentimental approach often reduces the subjects to their awkwardness and physical flaws and exhibits an infinite emotional vacancy.
His attention turned to male nudes in the following decade, beginning with “Man with Rat” in 1977. These differ from his work with female models, mainly in presentation, with the male often shown lounging in his own space, still and ageless. Performance artist Leigh Bowery became one of his favored models after a show in 1990, and his portraits illustrate the masculine power encompassed in his large naked form. His death from AIDS in 1994 resulted in a slowing down of Freud’s usually prolific output.
Personal Life and Death
Freud was known for his animalistic, belligerent nature and voracious sexual appetite. He is said to have fathered over 40 children, although that number seems excessive. He was a great gambler as well, often causing brawls at supermarkets and bars when bookies came calling to collect debts. He was often cruel and secretive, withholding his private telephone number from some of his children, but not others. Despite his personal failings, he is remembered as one of the great Realist painters and the only one of the 20th century. Freud lived in Holland Park, London, till his death in 2011 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Date of Birth: December 8, 1922
Date of Death: July 20, 2011
Works Exhibited At:
National Portrait Gallery
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
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