Lucian Freud’s anti-abstract realism fascinate high-end collectors

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Lucian Freud’s etching, Woman With an Arm Tattoo, (1996), sold at Sotheby’s Australia Aug. 23, 2011, one month after the artist’s death. Numbered 12/40 and initialed ìL.F.î, the hammer price recorded was $72,940.

mary manion on lucian freudAbstraction was the prevailing trend following World War II, but Lucian Freud (1922-2011) swam against the tide. If anything, Freud was relentlessly anti-abstract in his pursuit of warts and all realism and yet, he could never be confused with the photo-realists who emerged in the 1980s. Freud loved the particular properties of paint, not the smooth surface of appearances. His portraits were topographic maps of their subjects. He never stooped to flatter.

Along with fellow British portraitists David Hockney and Francis Bacon, Freud was among the most prized contemporary painters among high-end collectors. His death on July 20, 2011 will only serve to increase the value of his work at auction.

As the grandson of one of the most prominent refugees from the Nazis, Sigmund Freud, Lucian was no stranger to the fine art of penetrating the psychology of his subjects. Born in Berlin in 1922, he fled with his parents to London in the year of Hitler’s takeover, 1933, became a British subject in 1939 and attended art schools during the early years of World War II. The public caught its first glimpse of his imaginative drawing during this time with illustrative work appearing in the British literary magazine, Horizon. After a brief stint serving in the merchant marine on convoy duty, he returned to Britain in 1942 and devoted the rest of his life to art. His first solo exhibition in London (1944) included several of his  works published from The Glass Tower, a book of poems he was commissioned to illustrate. He travelled to Paris and Greece and occasionally set up his easel at the Dublin studio of painter Patrick Swift who would reciprocate the favor and paint alongside Freud when in London.

At first, his paintings and etchings followed classic Flemish style, crafting his subjects, mostly portraits of people and depictions of animals, through intensive study with minute attention spent on detail. Applying thin layers of paint, he achieved richly textured and precisely rendered expressions from his subjects. Rembrandt was a favorite inspiration to the young painter.

 Radiant Oils realism

During the 1950s Freud became associated with an emerging figurative art movement whose English component, often called the School of London, included Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and David Hockney (b. 1937). Bacon’s reputation was founded on graphic, emotionally raw figures. Hockney began in the School but moved toward Pop Art in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Freud’s style was evolving, his paint, once applied with precision and photo-fine in detail, was becoming heavily laden in impasto, with brushstrokes of muted tones, loose and bold. Freud and Bacon met in 1945, forming a close friendship. They frequently sat for each other’s portraits and the elder Bacon’s style had a marked influence Freud’s style. Bacon’s portraits of Freud appear often; Freud painted Bacon only twice.

Freud’s portraits of Francis Bacon from this transitional period convey his change in approach. In Freud’s 1952 rendering of his friend, Bacon looks downward and appears pensive and secretive. It is a finely detailed surface study of the sitter. By contrast, his 1956-1957 portrait shows Bacon again gazing downward, but this time glaringly absent is the smooth, slick facade. Instead, the paint is laid down thickly, creating the appearance of meaty, almost palpable flesh. In the latter painting the artist is looking into the sitter, not merely at him.

Following his interest in delving beneath the surface of his subjects, Freud painted almost entirely portraits and nudes for the remainder of his career. Perhaps an instinctive trait from his famous grandfather, whose analytical approach was all about revealing the often hidden interior from his patients, the painter Freud once said: "The subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with hope and memory".

In the 1970s he labored extensively on a series of portraits of his mother. Art historian and Freud biographer Lawrence Gowing  applauded the work and remarked, "it is more than 300 years since a painter showed as directly and as visually his relationship with his mother. And that was Rembrandt." 

His subjects were people he knew, from friends and family (and lovers) to art colleagues, supermodels and British aristocracy. His work was the antithesis of the glamour shot, with faces gnarled up in knots, features exaggerated like dark caricature and nudes rendered in rude pose. His objective was not to copy a likeness of the person as much as to scrutintize human features, wrestle with them for awhile and then exploit the results onto the canvas. 

Not surprisingly, reviews of Freud’s work are mixed. He has been hailed as one of the great painters of the 20th century; his work bold, uncompromising and truthful. Equally bold, for example, was criticism following the viewing of a very stern faced portrait of Queen Elizabeth (unveiled in 2001) prompting The Times of London’s royal photographer to remark that Freud should be thrown into the Tower.

In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Freud’s remarkable etchings, a medium the artist re-discovered in 1982. The collection of nearly 100 copper engravings included his rare and experimental works from the 1940s through 1948, when he put print making aside. The etchings, which had been little known among collectors of his work, stirred great interest.

The trend has not abated; 2008 was a record year for Lucian Freud at auction. At age 86, his painting of a sleeping nude sold for $30 million (Christie’s), making him the most expensive living artist. Recent auction results shortly before his death include Man in a Spotted Jacket (1942), a watercolor on paper done when the artist was in his twenties. Considered an important and exquisitely rendered picture, it sold for $55,725 (including buyers premium).

An etching, Woman With an Arm Tattoo, (1996), sold at Sotheby’s Australia one month after the artist’s death. Numbered 12/40 and initialed "L.F.", the hammer price recorded was $72,940.

Not bad for an edition of 40 prints, but who’s counting…

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call 800-352-8892.

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