He haunted the National Gallery in London at night, hawk-like and surprisingly slight, with his heavy, unlaced boots and knotted scarves. A warden used to say that Lucian Freud was coming to be with his people, the family of old masters. But I remember him at London’s Tate Modern as well, darting back and forth between Matisse and Picasso in that famous standoff show in 2002, the rest of us wondering which way he would jump. It turns out he thought Picasso emotionally dishonest and Matisse infinitely greater because he painted the life of forms, which, he told the writer Martin Gayford, “is what art is all about.”
Freud was frequently described as a contemporary old master, a Rembrandt for our times. But his work was in fact a radical breach of tradition. He painted people, but not quite (or not often) portraits. He painted from life, but his life paintings were clearly not moments in the lives of those he painted — models, magnates, office workers, whippets, his many lovers, his many daughters — so much as scenes of their physical presence in his studio.
That bleak room in west London, with its bare floor, discolored walls and heaps of paint-smutched rags was the constant theater of his art. It became as familiar as his figures and their poses: huddled, sprawling, crouched or splayed, genitals dangling or parted, head thrown back or lolling, sometimes in pairs, but most often alone, bodies removed from their clothes, and perhaps even separated from their selves, their souls.
And that has always been the dividing issue of Freud’s art: emotional honesty versus living form. Was he painting these people with loving scrutiny, his eye registering their individual mortality with as much attentiveness as their calluses, pocks and veins; or was he mastering their bodies as objects (or more precisely as animals, as he once declared)?
In his paintings the head would become another limb, rather than the sphere of thought; the surface of the body would be mottled, varicose, bulked up, roughed over. Even when painting the young or slender (himself included), bodies would acquire more ballast, matter and blood, until you couldn’t separate the person from the paint. Freud’s colors — bruise blue, livid orange, morbid green, the irradiated red of chafed thighs, the silver of stretchmarks — gave substance to the body, but also to the life of the painting.
In the late works it became hard to tell whether the magnificent brushmarks — increasingly gritty, nubbled and thick — were describing the sitter so much as Freud’s ever-changing vision of what could be done with pigment.
The naked animal, unidealized and depicted with extreme concentration on physical essence: That long ago came to look like Freud’s grand contribution to 20th-century painting. But he was a supreme draftsman and printmaker with a brilliantly tensile line. And his scenes of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly from his first two marriages, to Kitty Garman and Caroline Blackwood, were narratives of guilt and schism played out with devastating graphic power.
Freud has left many other masterpieces. “Big Sue” from the benefits office, her proud mountain of flesh a source of wonder and amazement. The performance artist Leigh Bowery, monumental and defiantly naked — no hiding: no surrender. I especially admire his portraits of “The Big Man,” where the paint rises at every level to the intimidating scale of this scarred Ulsterman, a colossal force temporarily willed into stillness in the studio chair, his face a scrum of ruck, thrust and knuckle.