Profile: Lucian Freud: Portrait of the artist as a happy man

Soaring prices consolidate the status of Britain's 'greatest living realist' painter. By John Spurling

The pounds 2.8m paid at auction last week for Lucian Freud's Naked Portrait with Reflection - the European record for a contemporary work of art - follows on the pounds 3.5m Sotheby's hammered in for Large Interior After Watteau in New York last May. Both were painted at the beginning of the Eighties, and when you consider that the pounds 95 per square centimetre paid in New York for the much larger canvas has already, six months later, grown into pounds 343 per square centimetre, you might assume that the man who was said to be "very pleased" by the earlier auction because "if the sale had gone badly it could have had a negative effect on other sales", must be grinning from ear to ear now.

It is hard to imagine from Freud's considerably gloomy self-portraits and the occasionally harassed photograph, but then his public persona, his well-known dislike of being interviewed, photographed or otherwise put on display, does not altogether mask, in the comments attributed to him by those that have won his confidence, a more suave, more relaxed personality. It is also worth remembering that this kind of success, on the international scene at least, is remarkably recent.

The art critic William Feaver, currently writing Freud's biography with the co-operation of the subject, told me that the large British Council retrospective of 1987/8, seen here at the Hayward Gallery, was rejected by every American museum it was offered to except the Hirshhorn in Washington, on the grounds that nobody in America had heard of Lucien Freud.

In fact, it was that exhibition, with a catalogue introduction in which the Australian/American critic Robert Hughes hailed Freud as "the greatest living realist painter", which put him, at the ripe age of 65, on the international art map.

He has, however, been on the British art map since 1944 when he had his first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery. Indeed, he had a self-portrait published in Cyril Connolly's magazine Horizon in 1940, when he was still only 17, and according to the art critic John Russell, "opinion was divided as to whether he would have a career comparable to that of the young Rimbaud, or whether he would turn out to be one of the doomed youths who cross the firmament of British art like rockets soon to be spent". Neither, as it turned out. Seven years later he was awarded the Arts Council's Painting Prize at the Festival of Britain and three years after that shared the British Pavilion at the 1954 Venice Biennale with Ben Nicholson and Francis Bacon (once a close friend and fellow gambler), whose portrait Freud had painted two years before. Much later, in 1983 and 1993, came the most glittering gongs for personal distinction that Britain has to offer, the CH and the OM.

But how British is he really? Before he sues me for libel, as he once did Time magazine for suggesting he had spoken disloyally of his adopted country, let me hurry to explain that I mean as an artist, not as a man. John Russell quotes him as saying "all my interest and sympathy and hope circulate around the English". Nonetheless, he was born in Berlin in 1922, the second of three sons of the Austrian Jewish architect Ernst Freud (youngest son of Sigmund the psychiatrist) and Lucie Brasch, daughter of a North German grain merchant with an estate on the Baltic coast.

The three children of this marriage, incidentally, Stephen, Lucian and Clement, bore as their middle names those of the three archangels, Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. The family left the Berlin of the Reichstag fire, the Brownshirt gangs and the looming totalitarianism of the Nazis in 1933 and came immediately to England, where Lucian was sent to boarding-school, first at Dartington Hall in Devon and then at Bryanston in Dorset. Of Dartington Hall, where he looked after goats instead of attending classes, he has said: "I was very solitary. I hardly spoke English. I was considered rather bad-tempered, of which I was rather proud." At Bryanston he made his only known sculpture, a sandstone horse, on the strength of which he was admitted to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1938. The following year, now naturalised as a British citizen, he began to attend Cedric Morris's East Anglian school of Drawing and Painting, and this, with a brief interval in 1941 during which he ran away to sea with the Merchant Navy, was where he at least found a teacher he could respect. Cedric Morris - whose portrait of Lucian Freud at the age of 17, shows the same long, pale face and tightly buttoned expression that he has worn in public ever since - shared with his pupil, writes the art historian Richard Morphet, "a tendency to unusual scrutiny of the motif, frequently involving its being viewed exceptionally close". Morris's own work, with its flat, wide-eyed, head-on approach and affinity to the German "new realism" of the Twenties, was clearly a major influence on Freud's early work.

Freud's mature work does not look or feel at all English, but, as many commentators have remarked, distinctly North European. Its essence is discomfort: that of the bare, basic surroundings, that of the postures of the sitters, of the angles from which they are viewed and, above all, of their nakedness - whether just of the face or of the whole body. Furthermore, it is evident that the painter has looked at them and worked on them with maximum discomfort over long periods and that finally the buck is being passed to the viewer.

"Freud carries the experience so far," wrote John Russell in the New York Times in 1983, "that we sometimes wonder if we have any right to be there." Yet there is no question of punishment within the picture, no hint of either of sadism of masochism, certainly none of a religious, flagellating kind. Nor, surprisingly, considering that buttocks and breasts and both male and female genitals are very centrally placed and meticulously depicted, is there even much eroticism. And this is perhaps all the odder, given what Brian Appleyard has called Freud's "famously profligate sex life". He has had children by several women, two of them his wives. He was married first, for four years, to the sculptor Jacob Epstein's daughter, Kitty, the model for some of his best-known paintings of the Forties, and secondly, for about the same length of time, to Lady Caroline Blackwood. He has depicted at least two of his grown-up daughters naked.

What the paintings show is the grotty, lumpy, unadorned physicality of life, without any apparent moral comment. The flesh Freud lays before us with liberal brush strokes of Cremnitz white, patched out of blood and fat, crossed by veins, seams, folds, shadows, is mainly hairless and therefore human but sorts well with the occasional short-haired dogs (and once a black rat) that also appear.

His undeviating eye for the unlovely and unremarkable extends to his Paddington studio, the view from its window, the houses opposite, and, of course, to himself. The reflection in Naked Portrait with Reflection, is of the labouring artist's own shoes and trouser bottoms behind the torn sofa on which his comatose model lies twisted in the shape of a figure 2.

But there is a little more to it than that or the paintings would be less disturbing. His prevailing distaste, is perhaps in the first place, for the very active painting, a Beckettian sense of having nothing to express together with the obligation to express. But in the second place it is surely for life itself, not as life, but as the inevitable prelude to death. All these bodies and the things around them are on the way out. They need no skulls or other symbols to suggest it, since they carry the suggestion just by being alive, with nothing else to do but occupy their bodies through the hours, weeks, months, (more than a thousand sittings over 12 years went into Freud's series of portraits of his mother) of being looked at, painted and repainted. Significantly enough, Freud's current dog, a whippet, is named after the Roman God of the Underworld, Pluto. But although it is hard to find any trace of humour in the paintings, there must be the suspicion of a joke here. This Pluto is, in fact, a bitch.

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