Urgent Subtle Concise: An Introduction to Lucian Freud

Photograph of Lucian Freud by David Dawson.

I’ve recently taken a deep dive into Lucian Freud’s world. I’ve got four catalogues opened around my house and studio and I’m making my way through three biographies — including William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud: 1968-2011. In one case, Martin Gayford’s Man With A Blue Scarf, it’s my third reading of the book. 

To be sure, I can’t make sense of his personal life.  Too much of it I find absurdly amoral, yet I unexpectedly empathize with the trauma I suspect informed his ways of navigating the world. To invoke his grandfather, I could be projecting here, but I connect to his preference for ‘downward travel’ and with his frustrated search for love. Those dimensions of him aside, I’m learning a lot from accounts of his process as a painter. 

In the last days of Freud’s life, in a conversation with the art historian John Richardson, recorded by his long-time assistant, David Dawson, they discussed the origin of Surrealism, and how the term originated with Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 as sur-realism — or ‘greater than’ the real. In a sense, that’s a foundation for Freud’s work — the creation of something more real than the actual subject, or at least equal to. In 1954, when Freud’s work still had overt Surrealist elements (Zebra head, et cetera), he said, “The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”  

Lucian Freud, Eli and David 2005-06 oil on canvas, 56 x 46 inches

Freud was well know for taking a long time to complete a painting, as well as for demanding a lot of discipline from his models. He painted a portrait of David Hockney in 2002. Reflecting on it some years later, Hockney spoke of the value of Freud’s slow process, specifically how allowed him to layer time in his paintings. This insight has helped me see his figurative work differently — allowing the duration of the surface to infer three things: 1) how the body changes over time ; 2) how the dialogue between observer and observed shifts; and 3) something about the way relationships emerge over time. In his garden paintings it’s more stark — because of the more rapid changes within a season, we see how time shifts a bit more literally.

Listening to some of his models —many of whom were family or intimates — talk about their experiences, one also comes to understand the critical imperative of ‘relationship’ within his process. Not only is there the intensity of the time in the studio, but the experience is layered with conversation and shared meals. While it’s not explicit in his titling (public figures are generally the only named models), his models constitute a kind of personal ‘pantheon.’ In reference to this dimension of his work, Freud himself said, “I’ve got a strong autobiographical bias. My work is entirely about myself and my surroundings.” 

At some point, mid-career, Freud wrote three words on his studio wall: “Urgent Subtle Concise.” Reflecting on my own practice, these words offer antidotes to the most vexing blocks I face — when my idea of a painting overtakes a painting’s requirements of me. 


Celia Paul on Lucian Freud: https://unherd.com/2022/04/the-afterlife-of-freuds-muse/

Colm Toibin on Lucian Freud: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n19/colm-toibin/falling-in-love-with-lucian

Review of Centenary Show, Plant Portraits

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