An A to Zebra of Lucian Freud

A new exhibition of the artist's early works reveals the unlikely influence of stuffed animals.
The world is familiar with the work of Lucian Freud: modern master of the naked portrait whose unflinching, unforgiving way with painted flesh has established him in recent years as one of our greatest living painters. Less familiar, however, are the paintings and drawings currently on exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

There are 31 of them, grouped under the title "Early Work", arranged roughly chronologically: the first of an old man running, naked, bearded, cheerful, painted in 1937 when Freud was 14; the last a dead heron, glorious, majestic, its wings spread, almost a crucifixion, painted in the winter of 1945 when he was 22. Very early work, in other words, but more significant than mere juvenilia. It's a serious and self-contained exhibition that shows, brilliantly, where Freud began. There's not a dud among them.

Despite attending, albeit briefly, two different art schools, Freud was largely self-taught and these early pictures are the evidence of lessons learnt by looking and absorbing, not always consciously, at work that he admired. The first and most striking influence is that of George Grosz, Otto Dix and the artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit - an influence that Freud has played down, but which would spring to mind, even if his name wasn't Freud and he hadn't spent the first 10 years of his life in Berlin.

He was born there in December 1922, the son of an architect and grandson of the famous psychoanalyst, and came to London in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor and the Freuds, like so many German families with Jewish roots, realised that Berlin was no longer their home.

It is quite possible, as Freud has claimed, that the Berlin of his middle- class childhood was a million miles away from that inhabited by Dix and Grosz, but the scent of their world lingers over much of his work made between 1940-1942. Pictures like Memory of London, with its shadowy street corners and half-glimpsed prostitutes, or the disturbing, almost brutal portrait Evacuee Boy, suggest that he looked keenly at these

painters when he finally discovered them, probably in London in an exhibition of "Twentieth Century German Art" at the New Burlington Galleries in 1938.

This was the year of Freud's first encounter with a formal art education at the Central School of Art, a place won on the strength of a rare piece of sculpture: a three-legged horse with a neolithic feel, carved in sandstone in 1937. It was also the year of another exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries which Freud may have seen, an exhibition of some 500 paintings purporting to be the complete work of Christopher Wood, a young English painter who had lived a tragic, if romantic, life between Paris and London in the 1920s and who had died aged just 29 in 1930.

I don't want to make too much of Wood's influence - he's a particular enthusiasm of mine and having spent several years writing his biography I might seem unhealthily obsessed - but there are several moments in this exhibition when he comes to mind: the use of Ripolin house paint, an unusual medium; the appearance (in The Refugees) of a brown-sailed fishing boat on a blue-black sea, Wood's recurring motif; and, of course, the presence of a zebra, the subject of Wood's last painting and of two of Freud's most extraordinary early works. Pictures that share a melancholic mood and a slightly surreal character, although in Freud's case, as ever, he was painting from life, not imagination - his zebra being a studio fixture bought from a taxidermist in Piccadilly.

Freud doesn't recall when he first saw particular paintings by Wood (although there were a number on the walls of Dartington Hall, the progressive public school that he attended in 1934) but he remembers seeing his work in the homes of his friends and patrons in the early 1940s and becoming aware of him as a painter who offered the potential of an interesting life - a quality lacking in much British art between the wars. Wood was a favourite with the likes of Peter Watson, Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender, the older, predominantly homosexual company that Freud kept in the early 1940s, himself cast increasingly in the role of boy prodigy, a role that Wood had played a dozen years before.

More importantly, Wood had also been a friend of Cedric Morris, whose East Anglian school of Painting and Drawing Freud attended on and off from 1939-1942. This was the closest that Freud came to having to a teacher and something of Morris's influence can be detected in the frontal pose and thicker, drier paint of Woman with Rejected Suitors, a portrait of Morris himself and, most tellingly, in Box of Apples in Wales.

Other, less specific influences creep in from time to time, more a matter of mood than anything defined - the spirit of Ingres, or of early Flemish art - a kind of fine-edged precision that comes in about 1943 as he started to draw and paint with increasing clarity.

At first glance there isn't much to link, for example, an ink drawing made from a hotel window in Drumnadrochit on a trip to Scotland in 1943, with the famous naked Freuds of recent years, but the more one looks, the more a connection becomes apparent. The inky drawing, trees drawn leaf by leaf, the page covered with tiny, obsessive marks, was made with the same single-minded attention to detail that is so essential to the success of the recent work. There is a shared intensity. These days it's a little more focused as he covers every inch of the canvas in paint, but the level of concentration is the same.

Freud has spoken about the nature of artistic influence, denying it in one breath: "My admirations for other art had very little room to show themselves in my work because I hoped that if I concentrated enough the intensity of scrutiny alone would force life into the pictures," and acknowledging it in another: "I ignored the fact that art, after all, derives from art, now I realise that this is the case."

The influences, the derivations as he puts it, that appear in these early pictures are many and varied, yet their effect is not derivative. They were all painted, unbelievably, over 50 years ago, but still, in their different ways, seem strikingly original. It is the "intensity of scrutiny" that marks them apart and that links them to the artist that we recognise today as Lucian Freudn

'Lucian Freud: Early Works' is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, Edinburgh (0131-556 8921). To 20 Apr

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