Lucian Freud: The eyes of the world

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The Independent Online

As a boy, Lucian Freud experienced a sudden, irreversible uprooting. Determined to escape the Nazis in 1933, his family moved to London from his native Berlin. And even now, more than 70 years later, his paintings still seem to reflect this childhood sense of dislocation.

As a boy, Lucian Freud experienced a sudden, irreversible uprooting. Determined to escape the Nazis in 1933, his family moved to London from his native Berlin. And even now, more than 70 years later, his paintings still seem to reflect this childhood sense of dislocation.

The people he depicts never occupy surroundings they can call their own. Uprooting them from a domestic context, he transplants his sitters to a bare room somewhere in the metropolis. Here, among dilapidated furniture, unruly plants, paint-encrusted walls and a remorselessly expanding heap of smeared rags, they submit themselves to his prolonged, uncompromising gaze. Once he has settled on the object of his scrutiny, nothing deflects him from investigating it with the zealous curiosity of a detective.

Freud's latest canvas, now on show at the National Portrait Gallery, is no exception. Even though it is a self-portrait, the octogenarian painter appears to have been startled by an intruder. The painting's wry title, The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer, hints at self-mockery. But it also reflects Freud's belief that his studio in north London is a place where anything can happen - including the inexplicable advent of a nude woman sitting on the floor and grabbing his leg. Is he trapped by the anonymous invader, or beguiled by her seductive power? We do not know, and Freud clearly relishes the painting's ability to tantalise us with its ambiguity.

Among those ambiguities is the question of who the model is. Speculation has been rife this week, and has included Alexandra Williams-Wynn, 32, a sculptor and the daughter of a Welsh baronet; Emily Bearn, 31, a former lover of Freud who posed for Naked Portrait, shown at Tate Britain in 2002; and Verity Brown, 28, who works at Momart, the art transport firm.

The only certainty lies in his fascination with the profound feeling of disquiet found in all his work. Like his grandfather Sigmund before him, Lucian invites men, women and children to enter his sanctum. Many of the figures he has painted are seated or stretched out, and seem to be absorbed in private thoughts. But there is nothing relaxed about these reclining dreamers. They still appear tense and expectant, uneasily aware of the observer who tries so tirelessly to define their essential isolation.

Unlike his grandfather, though, Freud refuses to stay within the prescribed limits of a psychoanalyst's session. Sigmund would never have encouraged his patients to strip off and expose their blanched, defenceless flesh. Nor would he have positioned them in such bleak rooms, unalleviated by the rugs, drapes and rows of companionable statuettes which lined his consulting rooms in Vienna and London alike.

There is no suggestion that the people in Freud's paintings suffer from the mental turmoil afflicting his grandfather's clients. But they are far from blithe. Nobody smiles. The children who make rare appearances in his work end up as sombre as the adults. Sometimes, figures shield their faces with arms or hands, in an apparent attempt to hide some vestige of themselves from the painter's avid stare. Most of them, though, accept the inevitability of exposure. Because they have often posed for him before, they know that Freud will subject their flesh to an almost clinical examination. And he sees them, above all, as solitary. Nothing can deflect him from a constant desire to explore their underlying loneliness.

The key to his formidable rigour lies in Freud's early work, where the disciplined observation evident in his art today took root. At first glance, the small painting called Hospital Ward is quite unlike the work of his maturity. Produced in 1941, two years after the teenage Freud became a naturalised British subject, it is not a self-portrait. But the young man in bed conveys the artist's own experience of illness. And there is a frankness in the gaze directed by the patient that anticipates the piercing scrutiny favoured by the later Freud.

Knowing that he spent his childhood in Berlin, many writers have been eager to detect in his early work the influence of the most searching German artists of the time. But, however affected the young Freud must have been by growing up in the feverish atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, it is too easy to suggest that he derived his artistic stimulus from such sources alone.

Cedric Morris, his first art teacher in England, proved just as influential. When the 18-year-old Freud painted Morris in 1940, his admiration for the teacher's own art was clear. The portrait need only be compared with Morris's painting of Freud, executed in the same year. The link between them is inescapable, and only later would Freud learn how to replace this roughly summarised approach to portraiture with a more penetrating, minutely observed alternative.

By 1944, when he produced a bizarre canvas called The Painter's Room, Freud had certainly developed a more exacting technique. Everything in this mysterious image is defined with hairsbreadth clarity, and his precision makes the dream-like contents of the painting even stranger. An outsize zebra striped in yellow and maroon thrusts its head through the window. The apparition immediately reminds us of Surrealism's shock-tactics. But while its impact on the young Freud cannot be discounted altogether, he never became a Surrealist disciple.

Increasingly determined to train his eyes more closely on his chosen subjects, he painted the astonishingly precocious Girl with Roses while still in his mid-twenties. Freud's model sits on her chair clutching her flower with the self-conscious care of a 16th-century woman holding a symbol of her emotional state. And the huddled, defensive pose mirrors Freud's response to the girl's uneasy feelings. The broken rose lying on her lap suggests that she has already, in her overwhelming anxiety, snapped its stem. She may do the same with the flower in her hand, gripped so tightly that the thorns could even be piercing her flesh.

"The task of the artist," Freud once declared, "is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work of art by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn't free, it can't do otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest".

Freud gradually became dissatisfied with the amount of closely observed minutiae in his work. The small 1952 portrait of his friend Francis Bacon is the most masterly example of his work up to that point. The art critic Robert Hughes once pointed out that "Bacon's pear-shaped face has the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off." But it is almost a miniaturist's achievement. Freud had only to look at the paintings which Bacon himself was producing: they proved that there were other ways of revitalising the figurative tradition, if only he could succeed in finding one of them.

His subsequent ability to do so means that he is now ranked among the finest painters at work anywhere in the world. The multi-million-pound prices Freud's work can fetch at auction today reflect his ever-rising reputation. He is still best-known for his images of women, and he has never been afraid to reveal sagging flesh, blotches, birthmarks and all the other blemishes that distinguish real female bodies from their idealised, airbrushed and invariably titillating counterparts in pin-up imagery.

Although his pictures of women are invariably described by some commentators as "ugly", Freud himself certainly finds them anything but. In addition to his two marriages, he has had well-documented relationships with some of his models, not to mention acknowledged children, whose portraits he has painted and exhibited. For example, there is his Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) 1965, that depicts him with his daughter and son, Rose and Ali Boyt.

It is true that his women's bodies can match the ungainliness of the worn-out, bursting furniture where they rest their weight. But it is too often forgotten that, in Freud's later work at least, men are treated with an equal amount of directness. In one arresting canvas, a male nude lies on a bed with his hand over his eyes. A black sock, trailing from the tip of his foot, echoes the curve of his rawly exposed penis. There is a keen and amused awareness, here, of how absurd a man's body can look when caught off-guard and unable to muster any conventional dignity.

But Freud's detractors persist in censuring him for portraying women in submissive poses, and supposedly reserving all the lordly stances for his male sitters. His riposte to these critics can be found in Painter and Model, where gender stereotypes are neatly reversed. This time, the woman is clothed, and presides with quiet, unforced authority over a naked man lying in a passive position on the sofa. His legs are parted, ensuring that the genitals proclaim his sex without false modesty or embarrassment. But the woman does not stare at his body. She looks down at her brush, as if deciding what her next move as a painter should be.

Freud himself acts with a similar sense of deliberation. The maturity of his late work is self-evident, and he gives every indication of continuing to pursue his vision with just as much incisive vigour for years to come. But he has no intention of slipping into predictable formulae. "I've always had a horror of method", he once declared. "I don't want to paint a picture by me: I always try to do things in new ways."

A Life in Brief

BORN 8 December 1922 to Lucie and Ernst Freud, an architect, in Berlin; grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

FAMILY Moved to London in 1933, with his parents. Married Kathleen Garman, daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein, in 1948 - marriage dissolved, 1957. Second marriage to Lady Caroline Maureen Blackwood, daughter of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava - marriage dissolved 1957. He famously guards his privacy but has acknowledged several children by other women.

HIGHEST PRICED WORK Freud's painting of the naked, pregnant Kate Moss sold at a Christie's auction in February for £3.9m.