Jerry Saltz on Lucian Freud (Dec 8 1922 – July 20 2011)

Before saying why Lucian Freud, who died 20 July 2011, is the strangest case of my own personal artistic taste, let’s first remember a few things. It is difficult to imagine anyone in the profoundly homogenous, deeply tribal English art world of the mid-twentieth century, becoming as well-known and respected an artist as the German-born grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis, someone with the last name Freud. It’s like being a Plato, as unthinkable as a Rockefeller’s becoming a famous bohemian Abstract Expressionist in fifties America. As if the burden of a royal bloodline were not enough, few world-renowned artists strike me as having less inborn talent than Freud. His genius, such as it is, seems the direct result of someone willing himself to accomplishment.

Which brings me to my personal taste. While I don’t particularly like Freud’s work (just last week I saw the Met’s current Freud show and thought, “Meh”). Yet then as now, I admire him greatly. I look at Freud’s intensely worked, eternally noodling oozey surfaces, the incessantly teeming little paint-brush strokes, the Morandi-like limited palette of flesh tones, and his claustrophobic vision of naked models forever posing in his famously dilapidated London studio, and am often struck by how the life of his art seems to drain away. Mostly what I see is nearly maniacal painterly control. Yet Freud is an important touchstone for the many of us who secretly fear that we are not naturally gifted; we who are not precocious geniuses, we non-Picassos who are always unsure that we even are what we say we are.

Thus I love Freud, even though I don’t love his work. Francis Bacon also came from moneyed roots, took his place in the cloistered English art world of the postwar years, and was a personal hero to Freud. But Bacon visibly struggled, labored, doubted. Although he made work that seemed to get into painterly ruts, he also had bursts of painterly exuberance, broke free of his repetition, arrived at highly original even revolutionary colors, and made stained surfaces that were as risky and flat Rothko’s. Freud, on the other hand, comes at you in the same ways every time; flesh for flesh’s sake; physical fervor; psychic frayed nerves.

There’s also the matter that, as an American, I may be prejudiced against Freud simply because he was so English. I often find myself privately stewing about much British art, thinking that except for their tremendous gardens, that the English are not primarily visual artists, and are, in nearly unsurpassable ways, literary. Yet this too connects to Freud, whose work—as admittedly visceral, gooey, and about “the flesh” as it is—is highly cerebral. For the longest time, Freud seemed a throwback, someone who addressed and battled School of Paris painting. As the world lurched away from French traditions, toward abstraction, pop, and beyond, Freud seemed to stand still.

Yet this is his salvation—and what makes him such an important artist to come to terms with. He is so dogmatic and insistent on doing what he does in spite of whatever trends come and go, while at the same time being world-famous and famously consistent, that his art now exists as a champion island in the mainstream for artists. Every artist will one day face the moment when he or she is doing what he or she does after the style has passed and the art-world heat-seeking machine has moved on. Lucian Freud’s career affirms that the only thing an artist can do is remain true to whatever vision, (lack of) talent, or ideas that happened to pick them in order to be made known to the world.


About the author

Jerry Saltz is the Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine. Formerly the senior art critic for The Village Voice, Saltz has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism three times. He served as a judge in the 2010 Bravo series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.


  1. if the English are not visual artist, what was Turner?

  2. whygodwhy says:

    Interesting to hear from English people what they think about the characterization of the English art world as some kind of insular lock-step conservative party. Because I kind of concur.

    Like the Parliamentary system, there seem to be two parties with a lot of radical affinity groups that are given short-shrift. I expect it seems that way in the American Colonies as well.

    As to the Comment above about Turner – he was an anomaly.

  3. Neal Turner says:

    He was amazing, honest and continued his research despite the world around him, which is more than can be said for most. How does the saying go, “we are all entitled to our opinions, but no one is entitled to the facts.”

  4. michel lentz says:

    About talent, i quote Proust: ,,Je remarquai aussi dans la façon dont Swann me parla de Bergotte quelque chose qui en revanche ne lui était pas particulier, mais au contraire était dans ce temps-là commun à tous les admirateurs de l’écrivain, à l’amie de ma mère, au docteur du Boulbon. Comme Swann, ils disaient de Bergotte : « C’est un charmant esprit, si particulier, il a une façon à lui de dire les choses un peu cherchée, mais si agréable. On n’a pas besoin de voir la signature, on reconnaît tout de suite que c’est de lui. » Mais aucun n’aurait été jusqu’à dire : « C’est un grand écrivain, il a un grand talent. » Ils ne disaient même pas qu’il avait du talent. Ils ne le disaient pas parce qu’ils ne le savaient pas. Nous sommes très longs à reconnaître dans la physionomie particulière d’un nouvel écrivain le modèle qui porte le nom de « grand talent » dans notre musée des idées générales. Justement parce que cette physionomie est nouvelle, nous ne la trouvons pas tout à fait ressemblante à ce que nous appelons talent. Nous disons plutôt originalité, charme, délicatesse, force ; et puis un jour nous nous rendons compte que c’est justement tout cela le talent.”

  5. Lucien Freud was a very selfish man with an estimated forty children. He painted two of his daughters totally nude and some of his well known children posed for him just so they could see their father. He had lots of sex but was not a father in its true sense.
    He can paint nudes very well but his biggest artistic fault is that every one looks extremely anxious and very miserable in his paintings. there is no joie de vivre at being alive. bacon was an amazing painter and did really fantastic ground breaking paintings at his best. He was an innovative portrait painter. All luciens paintings seem to have been yellowy like they have been in the loft for years gathering dust. His best work to me was fifty years ago.

  6. As a sculptor, born in 1970, Freud has been, first and foremost, an inspiration to continue on a figurative hand sculpted path in art.
    It was a comfort to know that it was possible to fashion quality art by ones own hands, and not by casting found objects or using pre fabricated pieces to make good works of art.
    The pressure; the physical force one feels, when crossing the river of art, is somewhat eliviated, by knowing that there is someone who has crossed the same river before you, and survived.
    Imagine crossing a river, if you knew you would surely meet your imminent artistic death?
    Nice to know Freud made it across.
    So i am crossing now. I am not completely certain I will make it across…but I`ve seen it done before..Thanks Freud

  7. Art is not reflection of anyones taste. Taste is for interior decorators. Art is humanity in it’s best. Freud is it.

  8. Emilia Fitz says:

    In my humble artist’s opinion it would be interesting for an art critic to try painting by himself. Painting, not instalation or any kind of art activity, like photography. It would tell them (critics) something about their brain and sensivity for untold and unexplicable. Mystery of art is the mystery of human spirit – this secret of life’s energy. Only art can help us discover those tiny pieces, fragments of all symphony of existance.It takes to be in a special state of mind to use brush strokes metaphorically expressing human condition. Freud did that in very personal and intime way. It takes a master to touch our inside with PAINTING. It takes a special sensitivity of the viewer to see that.

  9. Lee Pirozzi says:

    He had a message in the color of the faces and the tiniest variations of the body in figurative positioning held the secrets of his feeling. The repetition of color in the body was purposeful in explanation of the repetition of sex over time most probably. His brain was so tangled with creativity that he had to paint what he did and as frequently as he did to breathe.

  10. Daniel Sewell says:

    Really insightful when Saltz says “we who are not precocious geniuses, we non-Picassos who are always unsure that we even are what we say we are.” What I’m reading from this quote is that Freud’s talent lies with representation — the work is very matter of fact, and for the most part repeats itself for decades. There are the few nudes that when they first showed really inspired a whole group of art students (myself included) — and there are really creative moments (planar moments) with construction of a portrait’s features, etc. However, the confusing part for me about Freud is how relevant are these paintings of nudes in studios? It is more a record of this artists work ethic and I suppose a will to self-improvement and learning, in terms of technique. It is a new genre (sortof) — the nude is not at her toilet, not bathing, not braiding her hair … just sitting there. If Freud introduced allegory, perhaps we’d get something like Odd Nerdrum. The Large Interior is a great work (shown here with Saltz’s article), and combines Freud’s painterly concerns with some kind of goal to the artwork — no matter that it is staged or lifted from Watteau, or even has more to do with the artists’ dialogue with art history. Maybe it reveals an insecurity about making an original artwork — and this brings me back full circle to the idea that Freud stayed away from making those large grandiose figurative works that he was surely capable of. Strictly representation.


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