Lucian Freud: Master Painter in the Flesh

A painting by Lucian Freud, entitled "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping", is displayed at Christie's auctioneers in London April 11, 2008. Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters-Corbis

When Lucian Freud, who died on July 20 at 88, was starting out as a painter in the late 1940s, he would bring sparrow hawks, bought in a pet store, back to his London house. "I was always excited by birds," he said. "If you touch wild birds, it's a marvelous feeling." It's no surprise, then, that he bonded with avian predators. Anyone who came near Freud felt fixed by the targeted stare of the hawk, with narrowed eyes surveying you from each side of the bony beak. There was always something of the hunter in him. When he wasn't stroking his hawks, he would walk down to the Grand Union Canal to shoot rats with a Luger. Which isn't to say that the Freudian swoop was just in search of aesthetic quarry. In figure after figure, clothed or nude, year after year, Freud reconstituted flesh, often in mountainous abundance, rather than stripping it to the bone.

The quest for resemblance Freud despised as a confession of imaginative poverty, not least because it presupposed some essentialist notion of appearance, at odds with the physical reality of character. This is what he meant when he said that his paintings were not to be thought of as likenesses but rather as reconstitutions of his subjects—a refleshing in meaty paint. Sometimes this involved painterly hyperbole. To look at Bruce Bernard's or David Dawson's photographs of some of his most famous subjects posing for the artist is to realize that Freud couldn't resist piling yet more heft on the already colossal breasts of Sue Tilley in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, or to add a little more kneaded dough to the cheeks and chins of Her Majesty. But then, for Freud, "character"—or rather, presence—could never be disembodied from its physical casing, and to suppose otherwise was sentimental delusion. To say that limbs, heads, and torsos were all there were for him is to say a lot. To bring them into a second life in paint, to catch the force of how they displaced the air, light, and furniture about them, and even the materials on which they were pressed, was a heroic vocation. It's a commonplace to remark how out of sync Lucian Freud was with the fashion waves of contemporary art. To recite the comings and goings of abstract expressionism, pop art, and conceptualism is to catalog all the things he wasn't. But then, as he often implied, that was their problem, not his.

For an artist who came into his own through the material density of his paint, the chiseled linearity of his early work comes as a shock. Many of the figures he painted in his 20s feature stylized bug eyes, as though widened in response to his own penetratingly hawkish stare. Often the women—his successive wives, Kitty Epstein and Caroline Blackwood—are treated as doll-like naifs, with neurotically haunted expressions fixed on their faces, clutching flowers. In Girl With Roses, Kitty,dressed in a black sweater with green stripes, has a broken bloom beside a hand on the lap of her velvet skirt while with the other hand she grasps a lethally thorny stalk. Changing wives made no difference. Caroline—the Girl With White Dog—offers one milk-white breast from a fleecy dressing gown of ghastly cabbage green, as if interceding with the painter to let her off lightly. In these early works, Freud has already found one of the themes that most excited him: the implied presence (even when unseen) of the dominating paint-lord: impassive, heartless, fixated on nothing but the work itself. In one particularly self-dramatizing work, Hotel Bedroom, Freud paints himself darkly silhouetted against an open window staring pitilessly at the haggard, pallid face of Caroline lying on a pillow, hair matted, a hand pressed so hard to a cheek that the indentations are visible. Evidently he reveled in the melodrama of indifference. She, on the other hand, long after their marriage had ended, registered her bewilderment that Freud would enjoy making her seem so old and so ill.

In his late 20s, Freud was already well regarded for works such as Interior at Paddington, shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951. But the driving power of British experiment—as thrilling as anything happening in New York—had largely passed him by. It was when in 1955 he encountered the explosive slatherings of Frank Auerbach—in which figures emerged and slid back again into the oozing magma of impasto—that a different Freud, the maker of flesh-pictures, began his moment.

His vitalism sprouted, sometimes horticulturally, for he was a spectacular painter of plants, capturing their burgeoning energy like no other modern artist. Interior With Plant, Reflection Listening (1967) includes his head and shoulders, a hand cupped to an ear, as if trying to catch what an immense dracaena might have to tell him. Another picture of his overgrown patch of garden (Garden, Notting Hill Gate, 1997) is an engulfing grove as complete as Sue Tilley's obesely flowing body. Freud had a feel for dappling and mottling. A series of studies of his aging mother in 1972, and the deeply moving painting of her shortly before death, hands roped with veins, laid out on a hospital bed in a white robe as if already in a winding sheet, are among the tenderest things he ever did.

Freud would have dismissed such talk as maudlin, insisting that his work was just a matter of absorbing the physicality of the sitter resting in space and re-creating it in paint. The absorption process he took very seriously—notoriously imprisoning subjects for hours on end; making no apologies for the sexual charge between artist and model; always looking to deepen what he called "the transaction" from which the painted residue would eventually come. Whether or not the sitters were lovers (he had at least a dozen children by any number of them), his brushes were often loaded with more than pigment. One of the masterpieces, Naked Portrait II (1980–81), has a sleeping model, so gravid with late pregnancy that her blue-veined breasts seem painfully desperate to lactate, the belly itself protuberant to bursting, and the vagina already opening as if in obedience to oncoming contractions. The morning after the picture was finished she duly gave birth, the painted and fleshly parturitions simultaneously consummated.

Genital display—his own included—mattered, almost confrontationally. No other artist has made them the heroic center of his nudes, there to be celebrated as much as registered. In 1993, at 71, Freud painted himself nude and full length, with his own penis rendered in densely scumbled paint, right at the optical center. His pose—one arm raised, brandishing a palette knife, and the other hanging loosely, holding the palette—is exactly that of the Apollo Belvedere, the epitome of refined classicism. This is the tradition Freud takes on in his unapologetic arrogance: muscles still hard; an old pair of unlaced boots protecting him from the splintery wood floor, the only sign of vulnerability; brows furrowed in absolute concentration; the sinewy body coiled yet again for painterly attack.