I saw Lucian Freud at the National Gallery’s Titian show in 2003. I was among journalists and other favoured guests at a preview which the painter, who died at the age of 88 on Wednesday, also seized the chance of an early view of the blockbuster exhibition.
Freud looked frail then; but I was delighted to see his shoes were paint-splattered.
I recall too a sense of disloyalty. Freud was the first modern artist with which the young GC had felt any rapport – it took many years before I began to ‘get’ Picasso.
Freud’s style was instantly recognisable and, being figurative, intelligible, and while the opposite of erotic the female nude was a focus of attention, an enthusiasm GC shared.
But I had been disappointed by the Freud retrospective at Tate Britain a year earlier.
It seemed to me that once settling on his subject matter and how to best depict the harsh, but not unsympathetic observation of all too vulnerable human flesh – further development as an artist had ceased.
Freud had his thematic equivalent of Water Lilies. But while Monet could paint the same scene and make each painting different, Freud would use different models and make them seem the same.
This was deliberate. Freud preferred to be studio-bound and paint those he knew. It’s just that seeing so many of his paintings together at the retrospective, it was as though once having abandoned surrealism, Freud had no middle years. I was bored by the end of the show.
Here is William Grimes’s excellent obituary in the New York Times, which makes clear the painter’s debt to Francis Bacon in the way Freud changed how he handled paint. Of the two men the epithet 'genius' sits more comfortably on Bacon’s shoulders.
Freud deserves respect. He didn’t court celebrity nor heed shifts in vogues in art, which might explain why America was slow to recognise his talent. He deserves respect too that by pursuing his vision, he helped keep figurative art alive in Britain.
In an age where artists command assembly lines staffed by assistants and where conceptual outpourings are a substitute for skill and hard graft, Freud should bring hope to young artists prepared to swim against the tide.
That said I wish Freud had re-painted the Queen’s chin. Her five o’clock shadow detracts from what would have been among the most striking royal portraits of all time.