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Lucien Freud: A Profile

SATURDAY 22nd June 2002
Uncompromising, intense, even brutal - just some of the words used to describe the work of Lucian Freud, who this week reaches a fresh audience with a major exhibition of more than 150 works at London's Tate Britain gallery.

"The greatest living realist painter"

Whether painting the Queen in her finery or himself in the nude, Freud applies the same unwavering scrutiny to his subjects, and the stark results have brought him international renown. Still working as he approaches 80 and described by art critic Robert Hughes as "the greatest living realist painter", Freud enthrals and disturbs in equal measure.

As the grandson of psycho-scion Sigmund Freud, any analysis of the artist's inner turmoil must surely be old news. Nevertheless, the facts are that young Lucian was abruptly uprooted from his Berlin roots when his family fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Installed in England, he rejected education but developed an interest in art.

Bacon buddy

Encouraged by his father, Lucian enjoyed a formal training at both the East Anglian School of Painting and the Central School of Art in London. His famous name gave him a golden ticket to the broadest echelons of London society, and his strong charisma didn't hinder him. He was soon a leading light of the city's bohemian art circle, where he encountered the already established Francis Bacon.

The pair formed a close, if competitive, friendship, and Bacon has been cited as the man who liberated Freud's style. Impressed with the fluidity of the older man's art, Freud dared to abandon his own meticulous technique. He also turned his full attention to the depiction of human life.

In a poignant postscript to this formative era, Freud's portrait of Bacon was stolen over a decade ago from a German gallery. Freud designed a "wanted" poster for the painting and, until its recovery, will allow no reproduction of it to be made.

Complicated private life

Freud has been as creative away from the easel, with the complicated private life of a true artist. His girlfriend Emily, more than 50 years his junior, is the subject of some of his recent work, but over the years, few of his extended family have escaped his professional gaze.

Instead of berating their often absent father, Freud's children celebrate their time as his subjects. His daughter Bella describes the luxury of "hearing him talk, on almost any subject, and asking him questions".

"A great searchlight of intelligence"

Members of the aristocracy are equally impressed. Of his sessions sitting for the artist, the Duke of Devonshire recalls "being in the presence of a great searchlight of intelligence".

Never sentimental, his lifetime of work attests to his enduring interest in the human condition. His mother was the subject of a remarkable series of portraits, where his warmth for her pervaded the canvas. In one self-portrait, he is wearing just boots to protect himself from the paint.

The artist is notoriously private, insisting that all we need to know about him is in the art. Lucian Freud may be famously brutal with his brush, but his compassion and vulnerability are part of every stroke.