A Great Artist is Dead, Long Live Lucien Freud!

Francis Bacon - Three Studies for the Portrait...Portrait of Lucien Freud by Francis Bacon 1964 (Study III)Image by Cea. via Flickr
 Lucien Freud, the greatest 20th century artist after Picasso, the friend and arch-rival of Francis Bacon, died yesterday, age 88.  The greatest living artist of our times is no more.

To me, he was one of the greatest artists of all times. Now that he is gone, well, it's a shock. We all have to go of course, and he was an old man who had lived a very long, full and ultimately incredibly successful life.

Still, I am profoundly sad and feel it as a personal loss. I never met him, I only knew him through his paintings. But when someone like that goes, someone you admire and relate to because their incomparable art is there to establish the link between him and you-the-viewer, well, you feel it in the pit of your stomach.

Lucien Freud (superposed image of two frames)                        Lucien Freud                        Image via  Wikipedia
Lucien Freud was the grand-son of Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology. And, true to his inheritance, his portraits are unforgettable and ruthless explorations into the human psyche.

When he portrayed Queen Elizabeth, there was a storm of protest. Indeed, if you look closely at that portrait, you will see the Queen's soul laid bare: this is no easy lady, this is a woman of power, used to wielding it without mercy. A strong woman, one who can survive any storm, as she has proved when Princess Diana died.

But he is perhaps better known in the public for his portrayal of human flesh. His nudes match the greatest nudes of the past, in terms of composition, drawing and handling of perspective. More importantly, he matched any of the past masters in the way he worked the flesh. He used his brush to plumb the depths of shades and texture of the human flesh. Especially female flesh. Oil painting has never been brought to greater heights.

And no wonder. When he started to paint sixty (or more) years ago, his paintings looked like they had been done in Van Eyck and Memling's time. He started his life with a great admiration for the Old Flemish Masters and was their match. With his craft, he belonged to their time, not ours.

But he quickly moved up to the 20th century, losing none of his abilities. He followed the Spirit of the Times and (like every other artist, including writers), he deconstructed his painting: each square of light on human flesh was brought out in bold strokes; no wart or defect of his sitter escaped his brutal gaze.

If a woman had raw, blistered working woman's hands, like the one portrayed below, he would paint them in all their rawness.

If a woman was fat beyond imagining, he would paint every fold of blown-up flesh, huge flopping breasts, vast bellies and the tired-out, desperate face too.

Those paintings are hard to take: I remember seeing a Freud retrospective in Paris a couple of years ago, at the Beaubourg. There were row after row of naked women and savage depictions of men (including one nursing an infant and self-portraits - he was not tender with himself ). Walking out of there - almost running out - I felt sick. It was too much.


And that is what makes of him one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Yes, because the art of our times, the kind of Contemporary Art that draws crowds and makes for astonishing auction sales - with prices ten times more than the Old Masters - is one that is unbearable to the viewer. It's not art meant to be lived with in one's own home. It's monumental and arresting. It's art for the museums and public places. And Lucien Freud was a past master at producing unbearable art.

Lucien Freud is like Victor Hugo. Someone once famously said (I think it was André Gide): "le plus grand poete de la langue française? Victor Hugo, hélas!"

To paraphrase: the Greatest Artist of the Twentieth Century? Lucien Freud, alas!

freud.naked-girl-asleepNaked girl asleep by Lucien FreudImage by nigro pino via Flickr