The Creative Genius – Lucian Freud

The Creative Genius – Lucian Freud

At the bottom of a dull white sheet, a shabbily-drawn brown line emerges and almost meets the two ends of the paper. On top of this brown line, stand nine black houses with brown doors and roofs. A black crayon re-enters the scene to draw chimneys on top of these roofs and then, freeing itself from the entrapment of these dark chimneys, red smoke makes its way outside into the open sky and merges with the air. ‘Chimneys on Fire’ was made in 1928 by a young Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, a name that the world is well-acquainted with. Six-year-old Lucian couldn’t have thought at that age that one day he would be hailed as a creative genius. One can perhaps assume that the reason he didn’t think this was not because he believed that his artwork wasn’t worthy of praise, but because Lucian was known not to have believed much in thinking. For him, too much analysis led to paralysis. 

In the words of one of his biographers, Geordie Greig, who wrote Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist, Lucian Freud is a witty, caustic and a curious figure who was incapable of doing anything dull. Popular for his obsession with representing elements of reality in his artwork, Freud constantly strived to produce works that did not merely mimic reality, but artworks that had a life of their own. In 1954, ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, a piece that he published in a literary magazine called Encounter, revealed how obsessively he wished to grant his art its freedom:

“It is this very knowledge of life which can give art complete independence from life, an independence that is necessary because the picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

William Feaver, the author of The Lives of Lucian Freud, stated that the artist considered ‘Girl with Roses’, a portrait he made of his wife, Kitty Garman in 1947-48, to be his “first real picture”. Later on, in the late 1970s, a rose made its cameo again in one of his paintings and this time it was his daughter, Rose Boyt, who posed naked for the ‘Portrait of Rose’.

Lucian’s popularity and critical acclaim could not shield him from getting embroiled in controversy. He began to be perceived as a problematic figure in the 1960s and was seen as an artist obsessed with lust; it is said that in one year alone he had three children by as many different women. Many thought of him as a man who had no interest in conventional family life and reduced him to an artist obsessed with creating nude art. When he painted his 14-year-old daughter naked in a portrait called ‘Naked Child Laughing’, it was seen as an immoral and reprehensible act, although Lucian Freud seemed not to have cared much. Though the work of art became quite controversial, Annie Freud, the daughter who posed for the picture, did not feel revolted by it. “We actually had a wonderful time; it is the picture of me by Dad that I most admire,” she told Vanity Fair.

Feaver is of the view that the artist made people more memorable than they actually were. Freud wished for his portraits to be of the people, not like them. This may remind one of Oscar Wilde’s renowned works, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, where a fabulous portrait of a beautiful man called Dorian Gray starts to become gruesome with the passage of time. The more sinister Gray is, the viler his portrait becomes- it’s as if the portrait is not an inanimate piece of art but Dorian himself.

Before founding and practising psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was a biologist. Perhaps this had a subtle influence on Lucian and led to his special affinity with animals. He would skip school to tend to horses at a stable and claimed that the horseman who looked after these animals was the first person he really loved. Later on, his works began to feature birds, rabbits, lobsters, puffins and of course, horses. In 2002, he told the curators at Tate Britain Museum that his nude portraits were influenced by his liking towards animals: “Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason, because I can see more ... I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals.” He was able to bring out the rawest form of his sitters in the portraits that he made of them; this is made evident from the nude painting he made of an iconic Australian performer, Leigh Bowery, known for his “flamboyant and outlandish costumes and makeup”.

Despite being an artist whose works were and are extremely popular amongst art collectors who bid millions to obtain a framed piece, Freud was very shy, private and liked to be alone. He once said in an interview that his mother, Lucie Freud, of whom he drew many portraits, told him that his first word was ‘allein’ which means alone in German. In the documentary, ‘A Painted Life’, dedicated to him, the narrator states, ‘‘He kept his private life as mysterious as possible; what he wants us to know is all there in the painting.’’ Freud mostly drew portraits of people he had an equation with and most of his works are in private collections. Some of the pieces that he made had a personal essence to them; an etching he made in 1948 has the following written on it: “For Bebe. From Lucian. Christmas 1948”. 

Freud also had a strong aversion to lights and cameras. In 1993, he was presented with the Order of Merit, an award given for distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture. When he was asked to be present to be photographed with 23 other meritorious individuals and the Queen of England, he shielded his face with his left hand and prevented the camera from capturing his face. The one person that he did strongly trust was his assistant, friend and occasionally a sitter for his nude portraits, David Dawson - the man who worked for him for 20 years and to whom Freud left his house after he passed away in 2011. To this day, David keeps the artist's studio in the same condition as when Lucian Freud was last painting there - an easel with no canvas, notes reminding Freud of his appointments and the paintings he had to make, tubes of paints scattered on the floor and his last artwork, ‘Portrait of the Hound’, reclining against a wall. 

Lucian was critical of abstract art and believed that artists who deprive themselves of representing life in their works deny themselves the possibility of provoking more than an aesthetic emotion in the viewer. He was very observant when it came to viewing an art piece. As William Feaver said, “his was an intent alertness sustained hour by hour, week in and week out.” It was perhaps not unusual for him to notice all the minute details of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting, ‘The Young Schoolmistress’, and claim that the lady in this work had the most beautiful ear in art. So much was his love for this work that he reproduced an etching of the same in 2000.

Even after he finished his artworks, he never felt satisfaction in its truest essence. “A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting.” For Lucian, a painting would never spring to life but incidentally, it was this great insufficiency itself that drove him on and inspired him to produce works that can only be of a creative genius. 

How much can we truly know about this witty, caustic, controversial but also shy and private artist who found all his subjects equally fascinating: be it his mother, a hare or a lump of grass? Can his life-like artworks ever reveal their secrets to those who view his works with the intensity with which they were produced? What sort of reality is reflected in his nude portraits and what is it that we can learn about ourselves from their rawness? We can look forward to an engaging discussion on Lucian Freud with his friend and biographer William Feaver at the forthcoming Jaipur Literature Festival 2020.