It was passion and attack from first to last of the almost seventy long years of his painting life, a six-days-a-week devotion to the often unfashionable art of showing off the human figure in all its gorgeous, swollen, egregious fleshiness that singled Freud out from the pack. He never looked over his shoulder to see what others were doing. He didn't care. It was his own trajectory that concerned him and consumed him, the need to go on painting better, more cleanly, more forcefully, more forensically. It was a no-holds-barred dedication to the task in hand – that, and a refusal to get involved with explaining and justifying his art to others. Time was too short and the task too demanding for mere talk. Let the brush do the work of explaining and discovering. Leave the scribble to others.
His last great retrospective was at the Centre Pompidou last year, and Freud, as usual, oversaw everything – the choice, the hanging – to the very last detail. He was always there when he was needed, and always absent when others would have liked him to be there. And the place that always needed him most of all was his studio, with its paint-spattered walls, its beaten down sofa and its mountain of filthy, oily rags. That studio was like a zone of battle. He was utterly devoted to his own space, and it was there that the ever self-renewing drama of his painting life was played out.
He drew some extraordinary models into his private space – most notably Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley – and he subjected their bodies to a pitiless scrutiny that at times made you wince, and even wonder whether perhaps this time he had gone a step too far.
The recent view of him that we must now cherish is the critic Martin Gayford's account of sitting to Freud published last year. Gayford let us into Freud's working methods as no other had quite done. He showed us the extent of the unorthodoxy of the man – he would never begin a portrait in a way that could ever be regarded as conventional. He would work outwards from the first seemingly arbitrary marks, building on what to others might have seemed like wholly arbitrary and utterly unpromising decisions. He would dance his subject into submission. His style changed and changed again over a lifetime – some of his best early works owe an unlikely debt to Surrealism – but as he aged he became looser and more adventurous. He saw the fruitful possibilities of letting go.
And now the great adventure of that ferocious, pell-mell painting life has, quite abruptly, and quite frustratingly, been cut short. His knees will be drumming up against the boards of the coffin.
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