July has been a bad month for painting. First Cy Twombly died earlier in the month and now the veteran English realist painter Lucian Freud is dead at the age of 88. Freud, born in Berlin and famously grandson of Sigmund, carried his grandfather’s habit of facing down psychological conflict head on with his nude models on leather couches. Freud’s grim paintings of portraits and nudes- which he referred to as ‘naked portraits’- exist in perpetually sodden overcast London gloom. While Freud was the scion of a prominent German/Austrian family, his artistic temperament is unabashedly English. His attitude towards the body was more John Wesley than Antoine Watteau. Naked men and women grimace by themselves or in pairs lounging around his down at the heels London studio. His models were friends, family and even some anonymous royalty who agreed to take off their clothes for the artist. Freud’s work had two distinct phases; from tightly controlled surrealist paintings on panels in the manner of Neue Sachlichkeit to larger oil paintings made with hog bristle brushes on canvas that recall Lovis Corinth.
The happenstance of Freud’s death in the same month as Twombly’s forces a perhaps unnatural, but inevitable, comparison. Flesh and surface were both artists’ subject matter; for Twombly the whole field of the canvas was taken over by fragmented body parts. Freud’s bodies were simply more explicitly realistic than Twombly’s. For both artists the surface of the painting became a metaphor; for Twombly the metaphor was of bodily fluid, for Freud, clotted sagging flesh.
Freud’s passing, like Twombly’s, dims the lights further from a certain generational attitude towards painting. For all Freud’s silliness, his cranky English bohemianism, the sheer propriety poking through the rawest nudes, he maintained a serious regard for classical painting. Freud would routinely show up after hours at the National Gallery to look at his favorite Rembrandts or stare at a fecund corner of an Aelbert Cuyp landscape. Like Twombly, Freud saw the past as a living breathing entity that could transfix the painter in their studio, could help solve the daily practice of painting. The attitude is rare and getting rarer still. Freud will be missed.
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