Lucian Freud dies aged 88

Art News
Lucian Freud’s death marks the end of an era
It was not just his skill as a painter that marked out Lucian Freud,
but his surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form.
The painter Lucian Freud, who has died aged 88 – Lucian Freud’s death
marks the end of an era

By Charles Saumerez Smith

7:00PM BST 23 Jul 2011

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It was shortly after being appointed as director of the National
Portrait Gallery, in the early Nineties, that I had my first real
encounter with Lucian Freud’s work. I had mentioned in an article –
rather rashly, in retrospect – that I regretted that the work of a
painter of such extraordinary talent was not better represented in the
gallery’s collection. I was immediately contacted by Simon Dickinson,
the Jermyn Street dealer, who said that, as it happened, he had in
stock a Freud portrait of John Craxton, painted in 1946.

It was incredibly beautiful – painted in his early quattrocento style,
it depicted Craxton, a close friend, large-eyed and mustachioed, who
had lived with Freud in St John’s Wood during the Second World War.
Unfortunately, the gallery had recently acquired one of Craxton’s
self-portraits, so it was always going to be hard to justify acquiring
another image of him, however beautiful. But it remains one of my
greatest regrets that we didn’t.

By that time, Freud was already regarded by nearly everyone – except
possibly himself – as Britain’s greatest living artist. Yet he was
still surprisingly sensitive to the fact that, early in his career,
his work hadn’t been much collected by the art world’s great
institutions (including the National Portrait Gallery). Indeed, it is
hard now to remember that there was a long period during the Sixties
when his work was not nearly so highly regarded, and that his
dominance only emerged in the mid-Seventies, following an exhibition
at the Hayward Gallery.

I used to run into Freud every so often at the Wolseley, where he was
a regular, and at Clarke’s, the restaurant in Kensington Church Street
where he is said to have eaten nearly every day. I admired him
immensely – tall, thin, angular, always very faintly unshaven and
slightly raffish, normally with a loose neck-scarf. And his death last
week has brought home just how unusual his career was, and how the art
world changed during the course of it.

At the time that Freud was born, it was perfectly natural for someone
of his class to devote themselves to drawing and painting. When he was
at school at Bryanston, he joined the oil painting club – an
organisation which it’s hard to believe would exist today. He briefly
attended the Central School of Art in Holborn (soon to move to King’s
Cross), before studying painting at the East Anglian School of Drawing
and Painting, which had been established in Dedham in Essex by Cedric
Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines.
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Living in London during the Second World War, Freud, along with
Craxton, took lodgings with Peter Watson, a wealthy collector whose
family had made a fortune in margarine, and was able to attend life
classes at Goldsmith’s College. In 1944, when he was still only 21, he
held his first exhibition, at the Lefevre Gallery. It was reviewed by
Michael Ayrton, who complained: “The human form defeats him because he
does not observe it as he does dead birds.”

In fact, it was precisely the observation of the human form that
obsessed Freud over the next 67 years – even if it may sometimes be
felt that he depicted it with the descriptive dispassion of a dead
bird. Yet now that he is gone, it is as though the figurative
tradition has gone with him. There are others still alive who maintain
it, but none have remotely the same kudos as Freud, Frank Auerbach and
Leon Kossoff, the three friends who were lumped together, somewhat
factitiously, as the “School of London” in the early Eighties.

Some other names do spring to mind – John Wonnacott is a figurative
painter who is able to handle portraiture with confidence. And there
are a small number of younger artists who carry on the tradition, such
as James Lloyd, whose work has recently been shown in Germany, and
Stuart Pearson Wright, whose early work, painted on small blocks of
wood, had some of the same observational qualities as the work of the
young Freud.

But it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream.
Pearson Wright’s work, for example, was dismissed by his tutors at the
Slade as mere illustration, as if skill in painting was meretricious
and to be distrusted. Then there is Leonard McComb, the last surviving
member of the Royal Academy to have been elected as a draughtsman. I
am a great admirer of his work. But when he was Keeper of the Royal
Academy Schools, and tried to maintain the requirement to learn life
drawing, the students rebelled, regarding it as unnecessary. Only the
Prince of Wales’s drawing school in Shoreditch keeps alive the idea,
which for hundreds of years was central to the practice of art, that
to be an artist, it is essential to learn to draw the human figure.

The death of Freud, then, marks the end of an era: not just the death
of a great artist, who had an extraordinary career in the
single-minded pursuit of the observation of human form; but the death
of the idea that it was felt to be perfectly natural for an artist to
concentrate day after day, right up until the time of his death, on
the demanding task of portraiture, requiring his models to make
themselves available for long hours of sittings, sometimes far into
the night. Whether a young girl or fat lady sprawled on a couch, or
the Duke of Devonshire, or even the Queen, his subjects were all
subjected to the same merciless, and sometimes faintly cruel, gaze.

I remember one Royal Academician telling me how pleased he was that
our Summer Exhibition no longer contains a single portrait. It is not
quite true this year: there are three quick observational oil sketches
by Humphrey Ocean (including one of my son). But I am not totally
convinced it is a good thing that we have so completely eradicated the
ancient expectation that one of the tasks of art should be the
depiction – and, in Freud’s case, the dissection – of the human form.

Charles Saumarez Smith is secretary and chief executive of the Royal
Academy of Arts