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:

Universal History Archive / Getty Images
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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue