Lucian Freud: Painted Life

Directed by Randall Wright

July 31st, 2012

Lucian Freud © Getty Images

The realist painter Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, was renowned for his “mercilessly explicit” paintings. He attained tremendous success in the later years of his life, smashing a world record at auction with his depiction of a corporeal nude woman asleep on a settee, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. Ringing in at $33.6 million USD at Christies, Freud achieved the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist. But Freud was a controversial character, reputed to have at least fourteen children by various women, and racking up a £2.7 million gambling debt which he famously asked his dealer, William Acquavella, to settle. It’s always fascinating to be let into the private life of a revered creative persona but especially so for an artist who declared “My work is autobiographical. It is an attempt at a record.” Freud’s work was closely interwoven with his personal life, and Randall Wright’s elegant documentary Lucian Freud: Painted Life seamlessly integrates the two, producing an absorbing biography as well as providing intelligent insight into the artist’s creative process.

Lucian Freud, Three Legged Horse, 1937
sculpture, sandstone, ca. 56 cm., Private Collection

Offering an overview of the full range of Freud’s career from his earliest works, Painted Life is visually sumptuous. Three Legged Horse, 1937, created while Freud was still a student, is an early testament to his unique vision. Early works of his first wife Kitty Garmin are enigmatically luminous and tense. His depictions of Lady Caroline Blackwood, to whom he was subsequently married, reflect the anxieties of their relationship; he was devastated when she left him. Moving away from his early, tightly controlled and refined technique, possibly reflecting the expressive influence of his friend Francis Bacon, Freud employed a coarser brush and began working in the patchwork, painterly style for which he is best known – much to the dismay of the critics at the time. By the mid-1960s, Freud had begun painting nude portraits encompassing his sitter’s entire body, or “the whole animal,” sparing no detail. Wright luxuriates in the paintings themselves providing detailed shots of their surfaces so the viewer is able to fully appreciate their texture, Freud’s technique, and the depth of his scrutiny.

Lucian Freud, Girl with a White Dog, 1950-51, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, Collection of Tate Modern, London

Freud famously was silent about his work, refusing labels and resisting identifying influences. He was, however, known to love Titian and Wright notes a reproduction by the Old Master, famous for his stunning use of colour, in his childhood home. Freud’s family home also contained prints by Durer who is noted for his intense gaze. Footage of Freud with his famous grandfather is featured and parallels are drawn – although renowned as a psychoanalyst, Sigmund was a biologist, interested in careful, close looking, analyzing cells under a microscope and applying the same skills to his patients in the privacy of his office. Similarly Freud would turn his ability to examine his subjects closely the privacy of his studio into his life’s work. Several photographs of the artist reveal a gaze with eyes so piercing they are startling.

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993, oil on canvas, 40 x 32 1/4 in

Painted Life is poignantly and incisively narrated by Rufus Sewell and interspersed with pithy remarks from Freud himself. Critically, Wright was able to secure the cooperation of those who surrounded the artist and the documentary features interviews with his long-serving assistant, David Dawson, Freud’s sister and daughters, his colleague David Hockney, critics, as well as his sitters including ex-lovers and notable social figures such as Andrew Parker-Bowles. The refrain is unanimous – Freud was resolutely unflinching in his portrayals. His ferocious gaze resulted in uncompromisingly honest, psychologically penetrating portraits that one critic calls “inexhaustible” – the distilling of hundreds of hours of scrutiny and looking. His process, beginning with a loose charcoal drawing, then fixing of some essential elements, involved mixing every single tone while his subject was present – keeping his subject there as long as possible under his watchful eye. Through his laborious process that called upon his sitters to return repeatedly for months, he was able to transform the ordinary – the people around him – into the extraordinary.

Still from Lucian Freud: Painted Life

Still from Lucian Freud: Painted Life

As is the lot of many artists who are celebrated today, before they were extolled, they were disparaged and for many years, Freud toiled in relative obscurity. He was panned as a dinosaur during a period when everything – Pop Art, Op Art, Kinetic Art and photography – but figurative painting was fashionable. He stated, “I paint the sort of paintings I can, not necessarily the ones I want.” Freud gave his blessing to the documentary shortly before his death and, for the first time ever, at the age of 88, he was filmed painting his last work – a portrait of his assistant David Dawson. He died just a few days later.

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