Lucian Freud, perhaps the greatest living European painter , was born on December 8, 1922. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian fled to England from his native Berlin with his family in 1933 to escape the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. After gaining British citizenship in 1939, Freud studied painting in earnest, developing an early Surrealist style that he continued to use through the early 1950s. Interior at Paddington (above, from 1951) shows the tail end of Freud’s Surrealist years. The yucca plant appears menacingly alive next to the man standing in the room beside it. Freud loved to juxtapose people, animals, and household items such as plants in unusual ways to generate the unsettling, dreamlike quality of his surrealist works. Maybe he got some of that from his grandfather.
Another aspect of his art that might be a family trait is Freud’s preoccupation with human sexuality and the nude. Sometime during the 1950s, Freud moved away from the smooth Surrealist canvases of his youth to a more athletic, impasto-heavy style, such as in his 1985 self-portrait titled Reflection (above). Freud lathers on the paint so heavily he almost sculpts the human figure. Many of these nudes disturb with their power to express psychological states of unrest. Like so many artists before him, Freud relies on mirrors to paint his self-portraits, but unlike other artists, he often appears nude in these reflections or from odd perspectives, such as one reflected self-portrait painted from a mirror placed on the floor. In that portrait, Freud looms above, looking down on the viewer. Whether painting himself or others, Freud often unsettles the viewer.
Aside from his nudes, Freud’s greatest works are his portraits. Freud’s 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II brought much condemnation down on his head thanks to his heavy-handed style turning the royal visage into something resembling a mountain range. His 1952 portrait of his friend and fellow artist Francis Bacon (above) captures Bacon in all his bloated sensuality and voracious appetites. Unfortunately, Freud’s work suffers the fate of many other great artists of the late twentieth century—Bacon, Odd Nerdrum, Balthus–whose work examines human sexuality too deeply and too disturbingly for the general public. You’ll never see a Freud calendar for sale, at least not in the United States. Writing this appreciation of Freud required combing through a lot of images to find a few suitable for a family blog. Freud is definitely for adults only, but more adults should take a long, hard look at this hugely important artist.