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Sigmund Freud’s Sicko Grandson: Cruel Lover, Terrible Father, One Hell of a Painter

Two new biographical studies and dual exhibits in Vienna plumb the psychodrama of the great Lucian Freud

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David Dawson, Albie Sitting for his Grandfather, 2004. (Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, © The Bridgeman Art Library)
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When the previous record for the world’s most expensive painting was blown away by the price paid at auction for Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” this past November, two widely held art-world intuitions were verified. First, that the art world is an annex of the Bourse, and second, the critical ascendancy of Freud, whose second-hand presence, as the subject of a painting by another famous artist, was a major reason for the fierce bidding.

Behind Freud’s triumphant moment is the fact that the English do not produce more than a few great artists every century, and so they embrace them with patriotic glee. Which also means that the enigmatic and reclusive grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis must now endure a degree of scrutiny of the sort that he never tolerated while living among mere mortals. A pair of newly published biographical studies, the affectionate and scabrously judgmental Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artistby journalist Geordie Greig and the beautifully ruminative Man With a Blue Scarf, by art critic Martin Gayford offer up a rounded view of an extraordinary and closely guarded life: Born in 1922, into the family of architect Ernest Freud—the youngest son of Sigmund—in the upscale Tiergarten district of Berlin, he was taken to London at the age of 10 by his family in 1933, as the death knell of the Weimar Republic rang. (Sigmund joined the family there in 1938, only to die a year later.) There exists a general consensus among critics that Lucian would have been too young, and too sequestered by his bourgeois family, to absorb Berlin’s avant-garde developments such as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity); his mature style was genealogically, even inexorably linked to developments in modernist Vienna. Effusing about the recently closed retrospective at the Kunsthistorisches, the Viennese press made the obvious comparisons between his works and the limb-contorting figuration and sallow coloring of Hodler, the frigid eroticism of Klimt, Kokoschka’s macabre portraiture, and Schiele’s appreciation of the pliable female form.

Though a product of fin-de siècle Vienna’s first family, Freud ignored countless entreaties to exhibit his work in the city during his lifetime. In the late ’90s an article in The Art Newspaper titled “A Lucian Freud Complex?” caused a minor furor with allegations that Freud was purposefully withholding his work from exhibition in Austrian museums. In fact, it was only in the last year of his life that he allowed a career retrospective to be held in the majestic Kunsthistorisches, which led the Guardian to wonder whether it was an ‘‘agreement extracted from a frail old man, a shifty bit of mythmaking that buries Europe’s crimes under Europe’s glory?” For Freud the decisive factor may have been that the works would hang adjacent to the Kunsthistorisches’ ample holdings of his beloved Titian, whose prints he received as a gift from his grandfather as a boy. A key painting in his oeuvre’s development, “Pregnant Girl,” was lent by a collector on the condition that a plaque be placed under it reminding the Viennese that four of his five great-aunts, Sigmund’s sisters, were deported to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Treblinka.

Concurrently, Freud’s longtime assistant David Dawson has organized an exhibition from his private cache, Lucian Freud: In Private. Revelatory in their intimacy, the photographs range from cozy vistas of the artist’s dining room and library to crisply shot close-ups of him painting the queen in his ramshackle studio. The Freud museum now occupies the family apartment at Berggasse 19, where Lucian’s father Ernst was born in 1892—and so the posthumous melding of the two Freud households, the pictures of Lucian’s dining room exhibited in the midst of Sigmund’s, brings the family saga full circle.

***

After jettisoning his constrained early style of painting in an appropriately Unheimliche-tinged—the concept of Unheimlich was appropriated by the surrealists from his grandfather—variant of neo-realism, Freud spent the remaining half a century of his life painting two kinds of pictures: psychologically probing portraits and expressionistically lissome nudes. A proponent of the high/low approach in his art as well as in his socializing, he would paint the people around him: his friends, children (he shocked most everybody by painting six portraits of his pubescent daughters and one of his sons in the nude), lovers, various aristocrats, as well as marginal underworld characters. The paintings were part of a wave of renewed interest in figurative painting after a prolonged period of critical neglect in favor of cyclically fashionable alternatives such as conceptualism and Pop art. Unfazed, he simply kept painting.

Lucian Freud, Portrait of the Hound

Lucian Freud, “Portrait of the Hound,” 2011. Oil on canvas, 150 cm x 150 cm. (Private Collection, Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries, © The Lucian Freud Archive / The Bridgeman Art Library)

The paintings were executed with the brusque, sweeping strokes of a hog’s hair brush. The pigment was slathered thickly onto the canvas until the clumps of it congealed into gloppy approximations of flesh. Set in the plushly hermetic interiors of the bohemian squalor he surrounded himself with, his sprawling figures usually evince an expression somewhere between frail melancholy and detached intimation of dread. His subjects are soaked in carnal appetites and sex, but they are rarely sexy, the painting’s carnality constitutes a merciless exploration of the degeneration of flesh. With his absolutist negation of sentimentality, his notorious derision of “false-feeling,” and his pitiless delectation in physical defects, Freud often wended deeply into the realms of physiological detachment with results that can seem cruel. The words that people use most often when they discuss his work are “clinical,” “discomforting,” “penetrating.” In Vienna, I was delighted to hear a nouveau-riche Russian woman fleeing the gallery while briskly complaining to her tour guide that “these make me uncomfortable and angry.”

Freud’s placement of animals—often his sitters will appear with a hound or clutching a rat in his compositions—was always a major clue to his bestial inner world. He thought of himself as a biologist arranging taxonomic categories in the same way that he thought of his grandfather Sigmund as a distinguished zoologist. His painterly practice constituted a parallel disrobing to the one that Sigmund had carried out upon the structures of the repressed id a half century before. When he was a young refugee in England, his beastly antisocial tendencies were already in full display when he was expelled from one art school and fingered as the prime suspect in the arson of another. He would prefer the company of the horses to that of his fellow pupils, sleeping with them and arriving in class reeking of the stables: Years later he would paint horses while losing millions at the races. His public-school-educated bookie would describe Sigmund’s scion as “not a great one for analysis.” “He was almost animal. He went with his feelings, took what he wanted. That was his strength. You could also physically see it in his actions, tearing birds to piece on his plate. When we cooked pheasants or partridge he wouldn’t use a knife or fork. I don’t think he ever articulated it, but the usual social rules that we apply to ourselves, I don’t think they ever applied to him.”

Improbably handsome and fantastically, even addictively charismatic, Freud took complete advantage of these gifts to do whatever he pleased in the most exaggerated and anarchic fashion. He was a bird of prey—thus Greig’s choice of the adjective “hawkish” to describe his chiseled visage. In his restless moods he would delight in sending his enemies and those who displeased him poisonous epistles, vicious postcards, and occasionally envelopes stuffed with feces. There were altercations in restaurants, bars, and supermarkets. He was quite capable of cadging money from the duke he was breakfasting with to repay the mob bookies who would appear to menace him for the previous night’s lost wagers. On other occasions he would shock whomever he was with by head-butting the bookie and instructing his companion to run. Writer Francis Wyndham coined the aperçu “eloquent vituperation” to describe his special gift for aestheticized belligerence.

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Sigmund Freud’s Sicko Grandson: Cruel Lover, Terrible Father, One Hell of a Painter

Two new biographical studies and dual exhibits in Vienna plumb the psychodrama of the great Lucian Freud