Lucian Freud, who died last week at the age of 88, was one of the most famous artists in the world in the second half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. He was hugely successful, which in terms of the contemporary art world means hugely successful with the bourgeoisie. In 2008 one of his paintings, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for £17 million—the largest sum ever paid for a work by a living artist.
Freud was not in any serious way left wing, so why should he be of interest to socialists? Because rich or not, bourgeois or not, he was undoubtedly a major artist. Art critic, Robert Hughes, called him the world’s greatest “realist” artist. The term “realist” when used in relation to visual art, especially painting, is very problematic but in Freud’s case it meant three things.
First, that he painted recognisable pictures of people and things. You could immediately see that it was a painting of a woman with a dog, a man with a large pot plant, of Kate Moss etc.
Second, he possessed, from quite an early age, a brilliant technique—an absolute mastery of the application of paint to canvass to achieve certain desired effects. This was superior to that of his associate and main rival, Francis Bacon—even though, in my opinion, Bacon was an even greater artist overall.
Third, and most importantly, his art was characterised by a relentless visual honesty. His technical mastery was the precondition of his achievement but the honesty of his vision was what made him a great artist. As he got older he was able to take his technique more and more for granted and as happens with many artists—for example, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Jack Yeats—his style became freer and more “painterly”, but the honesty remained.
It is not easy to explain what I mean by “honesty” here. I don’t just mean that he painted his subjects accurately “warts and all” in the visual sense—though he certainly did that. I mean that his paintings are a visually and psychologically honest record of an encounter (perhaps over months of sittings) with another person.
Attaining this degree of honesty in art is not just a moral quality, not just a matter of not lying, it is a huge artistic achievement. Moreover, Freud maintains it whether he is painting a man or woman, naked or clothed, himself or his lover, a bohemian like Harry Diamond or Leigh Bowery, a fat person or a skinny person, an “ordinary” person like Sue Tilley (the benefits supervisor) or a celebrity like Kate Moss. His portrait of the Queen, hated by the Royal Family, was, for precisely this reason, devastating.
In his opinions and lifestyle Freud was not particularly egalitarian but in his painting he was. That is why socialists should note his parting and value his art.