Lucian Freud (1922–2011) is one of Great Britain’s most important painters. His figurative works are among the masterpieces of the 20th century. His fame is owed mainly to his portraits of people and animals, which he observed in an almost scientifically precise manner and then captured on canvas or paper.
His paintings are examples of intensive analytical observation. At the same time, they are moving studies of transience. They are unadorned. Every wrinkle, every scar, all the irregularities of the skin and traces of life are captured. For the first time, 51 of his etchings are now being shown in Berlin, the city of his birth. They are accompanied by one watercolour and two paintings, among them the masterpiece “Double Portrait”. They are on loan from the UBS Art Collection, one of the most internationally renowned corporate collections.
The oil painting “Double Portrait”, created in 1988–89, serves to illustrate very clearly Freud’s artistic progression from painting to etching. He works slowly and, depending on size and other variables, it takes three to eighteen months to finish an artwork. The etching “Pluto” is also from 1988. In pastose hues, the double portrait depicts his hound Pluto and one of his favourite models, Susanna Chancellor, lying next to each other in a close and intimate pose; the black-and-white etching portrays a similar scene. But here, the artist zooms in on the whippet, while only a few inches of Susanna's body are visible. Freud focuses completely on the resting animal. One could assume this to be a study for the painting. But that would be too simplistic a view. Not only have his paintings and his graphic works coexisted as equals since the 1980s, but in his etchings Freud hazards a closer approximation to his model, which represents a further artistic challenge. “It is possible,” Freud once said, “that through one's work, one acquires such a degree of knowledge and skill that one becomes entirely carefree, while the things I want to do are truly exhausting.” Besides a few exceptions, Freud did not start doing etchings until his later work.
His graphic oeuvre is rich in detail and very precise. He focuses completely on his model. Seating furniture or upholstery is not included. Instead of the brushstroke and paint, Freud develops a system of lines: fine, elongated parallel lines repeated several times to depict round shapes and curves; wide, etched lines to clarify monumental size and powerfulness; and wild cross-hatching for plastic corporeality. The lines are etched onto copper plates, deepened using acid, filled with ink and printed on paper. The image is always laterally reversed and is only displayed in the intended way once printed on paper. The ridges and scratches make corrections virtually impossible.
Lucian Freud’s head portraits of his mother, who was one of his most important models until her death in 1989, are masterful, just like the portraits of the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery – on display here are “Head of a Man” (1992), “Large Head” (1993) and “Reclining Figure” (1994). Freud met Bowery in the 1990s and portrayed him many times in paintings, sketches and etchings until he died of AIDS in 1994. Bowery’s physical brawniness was fascinating to him. He also introduced Lucian Freud to Sue Tilley, likewise a model with an unusual physicality. One masterpiece is the etching “Large Sue” (1995). Like many of Freud’s etchings, it is exceptionally large, measuring 82.5 x 67.3 cm. The piece shows Sue Tilley sleeping, lost to the world and carefree, her face crumpled, naked and, despite the ampleness of her body, she almost seems to be floating. It is an image of Venus. It is reminiscent of the famous Palaeolithic “Venus of Willendorf” figurine. In the etching “Woman with Arm Tattoo” (1996) she is also shown as a head portrait in a similar pose. Here, the artist includes her tattoo. Tilley inspires him to do further nudes, which fetch record sums at auctions when Freud is still alive.
Freud’s etchings have all the qualities that also distinguish his paintings: reclining bodies, the folds of textiles or skin, bulging flesh, curves, traces of life. Freud likes to point out that really, he is a biologist. He portrays all living things – plants, animals and, above all, nude men and women – in situations of great vivacity.