Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lucian Freud 1922-2011

The British portraitist Lucian Freud died last week. I’ve always been pleased to come across one of his paintings, whether I’m out of town or one of them is making a pit stop at the Art Institute of Chicago (most recently on display was his, as is the case with much of his output, calmly disquieting Sunny Morning—Eight Legs) because with their muted palettes and eerie compositions, it’s like peering at a tableau vivant from a theatre of the absurd production—just study the picture with its minimal and drab staging for a few moments and then fill in the missing narrative.

Unlike Freud’s earlier paintings, which are more surreal and of a flatter texture, his later work often depicts his subjects, in addition to their almost always possessing despondent gazes, as having sagging, mottled skin that looks as if it’s trying to crawl off the person’s bones as well as off the canvas. Which was doubly horrible for his sitters, seeing that first off they were rewarded for their patience by being transformed into terrible monstrosities, but also because apparently when you sat for Freud, you sat… for a long damn time. Up to five hours a day, over a span of weeks if not months. One painting required a subject to sit for sixteen months sans only four days! Art critic Martin Gayford, who himself sat for Freud for forty days (though I’ve nothing regarding the nights) described Freud’s gaze as penetrating and “omnivorous.” Sure….
Regardless, Freud would say that he knew a piece was completed when he began to feel he was working on somebody else’s painting.

Freud attributed his change of technique and subject matter to his appreciation of the work of Francis Bacon, which is fairly evident if you compare the artists’ works side-by-side. But even more so than with Bacon’s work, I see much similarity with the paintings of Ivan Albright, whose depiction of human skin, like Freud’s, has quite a visceral effect on the viewer (personally, I can only look at Albright’s work for a few moments before having to move on or forfeit lunch).

Whereas Bacon’s paintings, though surely haunting and gruesome in their way, smack more of adolescent angst and in today’s culture would fit quite well in some of the darker-themed graphic novels being produced. Which are undeniably art in their own right, just the points of departure and raisons d’etre lead to different audiences and ends. 

All this said, don’t trouble yourself thinking Freud squandered his life being all work and no play. Apparently with his passing, his estate will be divided several times over, as he left behind a couple ex-wives and a rumored forty children.

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