Lucian Freud 1922-2011

The New Statesman on the late artist.

The New Statesman has written about Lucian Freud many times. Here's a selection of what our critics have had to say about the late, great artist.

Tom Fairfield (2002):

"Although his work now sells for millions, money has not always been a Freud feature. Barbara Skelton's diaries recall her husband Cyril Connolly coming under pressure to buy an early Freud painting to rescue the struggling artist, stuck in a Paris hotel, unable to pay his bill. Commercial success and artistic maturity united in Interior in Paddington (1951), commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain. It is an intense study in superrealism of a dwarfish young man contemplating a giant yucca plant in a bare room. In the same year, he completed his uxorious Girl with a White Dog, now his totem picture in the Tate...

In the Fifties, he was the daring darling of a social set whose leading lights were the Connollys; Peter Watson, Freud's first patron; Lady Clarissa Eden, wife of Anthony, the prime minister; Ann Rothermere and her husband Ian Fleming; the Duff Coopers and the historian Peter Quennell. Rich, raffish and right-wing, these snobbish glitterati looked upon Freud as an uncouth roaring boy, talented and interesting. And although he naturalised in 1939, not entirely British - but still to be patted, petted and indulged. As Freud's wealth and fame increased, and these early patrons declined into drink and decrepitude, he became the one who could afford to be patronising.

Freud, somehow inevitably, ended up painting an official portrait of the Queen. That portrait, although typically unflattering, indicated that the British establishment had clutched this bad bohemian to its cold heart. That Freud accepted the commission, along with an establishment bauble in the form of the Order of Merit (for which he painted his own self-portrait) indicates that he was not unwilling to be wooed and won. He had one foot in Soho, but another in Buck House...

Without getting too Freudian about it, it is clear that his early childhood in Weimar Germany produced an alert watchfulness of the world - which benefits his work - shading into a deep suspicion that has never left him. Those outside the charmed circle are held at bay. Attempts at biography have been seen off with warning letters from Freud's lawyers, and the official life has been placed in the safe hands of William Feaver, the former art critic of the Observer, curator of the current Tate show and a Freud acolyte."

Sarah Thornton (2008):

"Lucian Freud painted only two portraits of Francis Bacon. One was stolen from a Berlin exhibition in 1988 and hasn't been seen since. The other, an unfinished painting from 1956-57, was one of the few works to meet with evident demand. Sitting in the front row of the room, discreetly eyeing the auctioneer, the London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin acquired the work for £5.4m - most likely for a Malaysian businessman who collects both Bacons and Freuds."

Richard Cork (2004):

"The longer Lucian Freud lives, the more defiant he becomes. Spurning the convention of displaying his new work in a bare white gallery, the 81-year-old artist has opted instead for the Wallace Collection. In his honour, an entire gallery was cleared of Dutch old master paintings. And Freud did not insist that his show should conform to fashionable ideas about minimal hanging. Far from giving each picture an immense amount of space, he has allowed them all to be placed cheek by jowl. No fewer than four etchings and 18 paintings have been crammed into a modest-sized room. They bombard us with their combined visual impact, more redolent of a crowded collection from the past than a cool, contemporary show.

Freud's subjects can be freighted with history, too, and none is more so than The Brigadier, a towering full-length portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles. Arrayed in full military uniform, the ageing lothario (who was once married to Camilla) leans back in an armchair and crosses his long legs with an air of nonchalance. The pose enabled Freud to flaunt the bold red stripe running down the brigadier's trousers. And the glinting medals on his jacket are proudly lined up for inspection as well.

So far, the painting reminds us of country-house portraiture at its grandest. But Freud, as an artist, is far removed from Reynolds, Lawrence, Tissot and Sargent. He has subverted all this seeming formality by allowing us to detect that the chair is just a well- worn studio prop, with a sheet covering the faded seat. Instead of buttoning up the brigadier from his waist to his stiff gilt collar, Freud let the jacket burst open, revealing an ordinary white shirt bulging with a substantial paunch. The brigadier's left hand, splayed on the arm of the chair, turns out to be surprisingly small, with delicate, bony fingers. But fleshiness reasserts itself in Parker Bowles's face. Flushed and puffy, he seems the victim of too many port-fuelled military dinners. And his downcast eyes, with their drooping lids, have a look of disappointment. He appears melancholy, lost in a gloom that is deepened by the darkness of the screen behind him...

Like his grandfather Sigmund, Lucian Freud has always thrived on unearthing disquiet. And in his superb etching Girl with Fuzzy Hair, the curling tendrils explode with such force that they seem to reveal the full extent of the psychic tension within her sombre, meditative face."

Lucian Freud: key dates

1922 Born in Berlin

1938 Arrives in London

1951 Girl with a White Dog; Freud's Interior at Paddington wins a prize at the Festival of Britain

1954 Represents Britain at the 27th Venice Biennale of Art with Ben Nicholson and Francis Bacon

1959 Woman Smiling, painting of former lover Suzy Boyt. It is described by Robert Hughes as "the turning point" in Freud's work

1968 Naked Girl Asleep

1985 Reflection (self portrait)

1987 Retrospective exhibition held at Washington, DC. In the exhibition's catalogue, Freud is described as "the greatest living realist painter" by Robert Hughes.

1993 Awarded the Order of Merit

2008 Lucian Freud's portrait of Francis Bacon sells for £5.4m at Christie's

Freud on Freud:

"I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

"The subject matter is autobiographical, it's all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement really."

In this video, Freud talks about his life and work:

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump