Lucian Freud died this week, age 88. I like to think that he painted right up until the very moment of his death – painting was his life. I fell in love with Freud’s work many years ago, I’m not sure I can tell you exactly how long though if I thought about when I was in London the first time (calculate, Kate, calculate) then I could say that it was – voila! – 1978 or 1979. I don’t know where I saw his work – a museum, a magazine, the window of a gallery? It doesn’t matter because I was immediately transfixed.
I’ve worked, on and off, in the art business for most of my grown-up life. I’ve collected art, have met many artists, have become obsessed at many different times with many different artists. But Lucian Freud is right at the top of my list and has been since the very first time I saw one of his paintings (and yes, he is the grandson of Sigmund). He was, according to many sources and not just me, the “greatest living realist painter” (Robert Hughes, 1998). Every painting I’ve ever seen is so real it’s almost frightening. He held nothing back, painted people as they were, not as they – or he – wished them to be. Every detail, every stroke, created more reality until it feels as if the painting was more real than the subject of it. He painted mostly portraits and had a few favorite subjects – famously, Leigh Bowery, a performance artist.
Here’s another portrait of Bowery – my favorite. When I saw this painting for the first time, I wanted to write about this man about whom I knew nothing and yet, when I saw this, I felt as if I knew everything there was to know about him. That is art at its highest –
Freud said he was “really interested in people as animals… Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason, because I can see more… I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals.” But I’m not sure that’s what it is for me, what I love about his paintings while also being frightened and amazed by them, being hypnotized by them, being saddened by them. For me, it’s the honesty. He captures for me, even in this early more stylized portrait, the essence of the person he’s painting, the person he’s spent sometimes months and even years studying and painting. He doesn’t pretty it up, he doesn’t pull any punches. His art is truth – and that for any artist, is the hardest thing in the world to achieve.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever heard a piece of music, ever seen a piece of art, gone to a play or a ballet or a recital, or read a book that somehow changed the world for you? Changed the way you saw the world, the way you imagined it unfurling around you? Made you a different person, a new person, a person better able to understand the world – and the people in it – around you? Lucian Freud has done that for me, many times over.
Mostly, I’ll say, I miss him already. I miss knowing that he’s in his home in Holland Park and he’s painting. He’s got someone sitting or standing or lying in his studio three times a day, and often in the evening as well. I miss knowing that the next time I catch an art auction in the paper or on the news, I’ll see one of his portraits selling for $33.6 million. I miss, most of all, knowing that there will never be another Lucian Freud painting waiting for me so that I can discover the truth about another human being.