To commemorate the passing of one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists, MoMA recently installed eight works by Lucian Freud on the second floor. The two paintings, three drawings, and three etchings were selected from the 21 objects by Freud in the Museum’s collection. They span the long arc of the artist’s seven-decade career, from his emergence in the 1940s creating meticulously detailed and hauntingly wide-eyed portraits (above) and animal studies (below) to the late 1990s, when he depicted his sitters in much more relaxed, unguarded states—even asleep—and his style, similarly, became more freely gestural.
Freud is often called the greatest realist painter of the 20th century. While that description holds true, it also separates him from the mainstream of art history during the modern period, when abstraction and other non-objective styles were in ascendance. A contrarian who always went his own way, Freud felt no compunction to respond to movements or trends. For many decades his work was little known outside of a circle of aficionados in Britain. Then, in the 1980s, when a new international development known as New Figuration or Neo-Expressionism signaled a move toward painterly figuration, many in the art world began to pay attention to Freud. Over the past 25 years his art became increasingly visible in museums, galleries, and international auctions, and, partly as a result of this new attention, his work became more ambitious in scale and bravura execution and more uncompromising in its treatment of subject.
In preparing the current installation, my colleague, Kathy Curry, Assistant Curator of Drawings, and I started by pulling out from storage all the Freud works on paper in MoMA’s collection. I had not looked at our Freud prints since 2008, when the museum’s exhibition Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings was on view. I thought I knew them backwards and forwards, but I was struck anew as soon as I opened the cabinet where Freud’s larger etchings are stored. I had forgotten just how big they are. Typical etchings are no bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper. They can be moved around easily and are best appreciated when viewed up close. Freud’s large etchings, by contrast, are much too cumbersome for one person to comfortably carry, and when they are mounted on a wall they have a commanding presence from far across a room or gallery. In this way, they manage to both extend and subvert the centuries-old tradition of etching, an exquisitely linear technique that beguiled artists from Rembrandt to Picasso.
In Freud’s etchings, the lines ebb and flow to create a richly topographical terrain on the surface of the paper. There are some areas that are smooth, meandering, and graceful, and other patches that are twisted, crumpled, or thatched. In many portrait etchings, there is evidence of revision, often in lines around the shoulders where Freud has corrected his composition. These corrections actually become an important aspect of the final work, as the reinforced or re-hatched contours make his frozen, static figures appear to shimmer and reverberate with life. (Look at the figures’ shoulders in Large Head [above left)], Lord Goodman in His Yellow Pyjamas [below left], or the Woman with an Arm Tattoo [below right] to better see these effects. [Click on images for full-size view.])
Such paradoxes seem to me to define what is most extraordinary about Freud’s work. His portraits and nudes of friends and family members are, on the one hand, detached and clinical; he described his job of observing and describing people as that of a “biologist.” On the other hand, they are often uncomfortably intimate—he also described his work as “like a diary.” His so-called realism was so intense that it came out as awkward, strange, or even surreal.
The first time I met Freud, when I was preparing the Museum’s 2007 exhibition, I told him that one of the things I admired most about his etchings was the way they could be appreciated for their realism and their abstraction, all at once. That you could look at them as a straight representation of the sitter, but then when you really started to look and spend time with them, what emerged was a mesmerizing abstraction; you lost yourself in the messy beauty of his accumulated lines. I sputtered something to that effect, and Freud, who had said very little to that point, turned to look at me and replied, “You make me want to do more.”
Sadly, there won’t be any more now. But the works he left—infinitely still, infinitely alive—will never cease to stop us in our tracks.