The Art of Looking
Imagine a young man walking across a high, slender, wooden beam, eyes tightly closed. It’s a striking image, but one Lucian Freud would never paint. As his cousin, Carola Zentner, recalled from a long-past summer in the Freuds’ country house, “There was an oak beam which went from one side of the barn to the other, twenty feet in length at least, and about nine inches wide. And I have a distinct memory of Lucian, about 15, walking in a rather languid way up the stairs, and then closing his eyes and walking across the beam. It was impressive.”
Although such bravura abandon would characterize much of his later life, as an artist Lucian Freud never closed his eyes. His omnivorous scrutiny bordered on obsessive; his forensic curiosity was satisfied only through countless sittings, as if by minutely examining and recording the world in his studio, he could command it. His gaze has been called “cruel.” More accurately, it was insatiable.
Where did Lucian learn to look at things the way he did? It would be easy to attribute his particular form of acute observation to genetics: his grandfather, after all, was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. It is almost impossible to write about Lucian Freud without drawing a parallel between Sigmund’s repeated sessions with his patients and Lucian’s repeated sessions with his subjects. Both took place in a private room, with a recumbent figure being intently examined, although Sigmund’s focus was the unseen, and Lucian’s the seen.
Indeed, Sigmund Freud’s study, which Lucian visited as a child at his grandfather’s house at Berggasse 19, in Vienna, and which was later recreated, objet d’art by objet d’art in 1938, in a townhouse in London at 20 Maresfield Gardens (now the Freud Museum), not only provided an influential working template; it was replete with key imagery that would resurface in Lucian Freud’s paintings: ceramic and bronze heads; horses (a deep and life-long love—one of his earliest works is a sandstone sculpture of a three-legged horse); and a rich array of Egyptian antiquities, including mummy portraits, whose flat aspect he later emulated. One of Lucian’s favorite books was J. H. Breasted’s Geschichte Aegyptens, which was given to him when he was sixteen. Freud even depicted it in several pieces: Still life with Book, 1993, The Egyptian book, 1994.
The architect Richard Neutra, a friend of Lucian’s father, Ernst, recalled Sigmund Freud’s study in detail: “Pompeian frescoes . . . mummy fragments . . . many Egyptian bronzes . . . ceramics . . . antique vases, paintings . . . sculptures . . . Greek gold ornaments and these books . . . the erotic work. Terrific.”
In a short film clip in the Freud Museum’s archives, Lucian, age 16, can be seen, as he stands side by side with his grandfather (who died the next year) near a goldfish pond at 39 Elsworth Place, where Sigmund stayed until the house at Maresfield Gardens was ready. Lucian was extremely fond of Sigmund—and later flamboyantly wore his grandfather’s fur-trimmed greatcoat around London. He refused to go to the funeral, causing a family scene. “Doing so would have been absolutely meaningless to me,” he told writer John Gruen in the 1970s.
Even at that early age, Lucian was considered a wunderkind. “I met him first in the winter of 1938–39 and [he was] already spoken of as a boy wonder,” wrote one of his first chroniclers, Lawrence Gowing. “He was in a studio flat in Charlotte Street, round the corner from the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine took rooms, in company with a self-appointed Svengali who showed him off, whispering behind his hand, ‘Marvellous.’ ”
And something else, less tangible. He was also, notes Gowing, “fly [sic], perceptive, lithe, and with a hint of menace,” characteristics which would remain lifelong traits. This slightly sinister quality was also observed by Stephen Spender, one of the first to reproduce Freud’s work, who thought of him as “totally alive, like something not entirely human, a leprechaun, a changeling child, or if there is a male opposite, a witch.”
It was not only Lucian’s “extraordinary looks,” remarked on by the artist’s friend Bruce Bernard in his authoritative monograph on Freud, that made a striking impression, but what Gowing describes as “the pointed intensity apparent even in Freud’s juvenile vision.” That pointed intensity would be Freud’s lietmotif.
Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on December 8, 1922. (His middle name refers to an archangel, as do those of his two brothers, Stephen Gabriel and Clement Raphael.) His father was Sigmund’s youngest son and fourth child, Ernst, thought of by the family as a Gluckskind, or lucky child. Although Ernst had originally wanted to be an artist (at least so Sigmund told his famous patient, the “Wolf Man,” in a discussion of his son’s career), he decided on the more pragmatic profession of architecture. But he remained steeped in the arts. According to Gowing, who saw a series of his 1913 Alpine landscapes, Ernst was an accomplished watercolorist. And, like many German youths, he was an ardent fan of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, so much so that Sigmund wrote his dear friend Lou Andreas-Salome (famously Rilke’s lover and mentor) in the hope that his son might meet Rilke, who then not only returned the compliment, but wrote a dedication to Ernst in a book by his friend Regina Ulmann called Field Service. Ernst eventually did meet the poet in Vienna, in February of 1916, when the young soldier was at home on leave from the army.
Lucian’s mother, after whom he was named, was Lucie Brasch, the daughter of a prosperous Berlin corn merchant, Joseph Brasch, and his wife Elise. Lucie studied classical philology in Munich, as well as art history with the famous Swiss art historian, Heinrich Wolfflin, for a year in Munich, after first reading German studies in Berlin. Zentner, the daughter of Lucie’s older sister, Gerda, describes Lucie as “tremendously vibrant and vivacious, an intellectual. She had done classics at university, which was fairly unusual when she was a young girl. She was very funny and very beautiful, with jet black hair.” As for her background, “Lucie’s father was the president of the Corn Exchange in those days. It was a Buddenbrooks sort of family.” (As Clement Freud put it in his memoir, Freud Ego, “My father’s family was distinguished, my mother’s was rich.”)
Ernst first attended the Technical University (Technische Hochschule) in Vienna from 1912 to 1913, studying mathematics, engineering, and sketching after nature and the body, among other courses. In 1913, he left Vienna for Munich, where he studied architecture with Theodor Fischer at the Technical University (Technishe Hochschule) in Munich, and, according to Gowing, also took an art course. He volunteered to fight for the Austrian-Hungarian army in 1914. Although at first he was rejected for health reasons, he was eventually assigned to a gun unit at Doberdoplateau, which came under heavy attack, leaving him the only survivor. He was awarded a gold medal (he eventually earned three) and an architectural commission to commemorate five fallen fellow soldiers
Freud had had not dropped out of university to join the army, and when the war was over, ...