September 19, 2011


Lucian Freud's death marks the end of an era: It was not just his skill as a painter that marked out Lucian Freud, but his surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form. (Charles Saumerez Smith, 23 Jul 2011, Telegraph)

[I]t was precisely the observation of the human form that obsessed Freud over the next 67 years - even if it may sometimes be felt that he depicted it with the descriptive dispassion of a dead bird. Yet now that he is gone, it is as though the figurative tradition has gone with him. There are others still alive who maintain it, but none have remotely the same kudos as Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, the three friends who were lumped together, somewhat factitiously, as the "School of London" in the early Eighties.

Some other names do spring to mind - John Wonnacott is a figurative painter who is able to handle portraiture with confidence. And there are a small number of younger artists who carry on the tradition, such as James Lloyd, whose work has recently been shown in Germany, and Stuart Pearson Wright, whose early work, painted on small blocks of wood, had some of the same observational qualities as the work of the young Freud.

But it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream. Pearson Wright's work, for example, was dismissed by his tutors at the Slade as mere illustration, as if skill in painting was meretricious and to be distrusted. Then there is Leonard McComb, the last surviving member of the Royal Academy to have been elected as a draughtsman. I am a great admirer of his work. But when he was Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, and tried to maintain the requirement to learn life drawing, the students rebelled, regarding it as unnecessary. Only the Prince of Wales's drawing school in Shoreditch keeps alive the idea, which for hundreds of years was central to the practice of art, that to be an artist, it is essential to learn to draw the human figure.

The death of Freud, then, marks the end of an era: not just the death of a great artist, who had an extraordinary career in the single-minded pursuit of the observation of human form; but the death of the idea that it was felt to be perfectly natural for an artist to concentrate day after day, right up until the time of his death, on the demanding task of portraiture, requiring his models to make themselves available for long hours of sittings, sometimes far into the night. Whether a young girl or fat lady sprawled on a couch, or the Duke of Devonshire, or even the Queen, his subjects were all subjected to the same merciless, and sometimes faintly cruel, gaze.

I remember one Royal Academician telling me how pleased he was that our Summer Exhibition no longer contains a single portrait. It is not quite true this year: there are three quick observational oil sketches by Humphrey Ocean (including one of my son). But I am not totally convinced it is a good thing that we have so completely eradicated the ancient expectation that one of the tasks of art should be the depiction - and, in Freud's case, the dissection - of the human form.

And then they're surprised that the citizens of the Anglosphere hold intellectuals in contempt.

Posted by at September 19, 2011 6:48 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus