February 19th, 2012

Lucian Freud: Painted Life

Lucian Freud was pond life. Artists often are. I suspect we'd find (if we had more information) that Titian was pond life too. It's expected. And condoned. Last night's fawning doc about his life and work invited us to smile indulgently at the mountainous gambling debts, the abandoned kids, the way he had his wife go sit in the corner with her face to the wall while he ate the meal she'd prepared for him. He loved animals and painted people as if that's all they were. 

I've always liked his work. It has an intensity. Especially the early stuff. His current fame perplexes me. His meaty nudes remind me of Schiele and even more of Stanley Spencer- and yes, they're impressive and painterly, but I can't see what's so original about them. I'd go further. I think they're distinctly old-fashioned. He was always inclined to theatricality (as was pointed out, then swiftly discounted in the film)  arranging people in contorted poses and elaborate tableaux that could never exist outside the studio. I note that he admired Rodin (I spotted at least two Rodin bronzes in his living room) and while Rodin was definitely a master he was also a bombastic, hollow-hearted, old faker.

Freud was under-rated for much of his career, then elevated by the market into a grand maitre whose work now sells for tens of millions. He ticks boxes. He's easy for the rich to understand. By the end of his career he was servicing high society- painting people like Kate Moss, Andrew Parker-Bowles and Elizabeth Windsor- flattering them by not flattering them, if you see what I mean.  I expect his reputation to fall again- and eventually settle somewhere in the second division- ahead of fellow pond-lifer Augustus John, abreast of his old mucker Francis Bacon and well below Spencer and Hockney.