The Lucian Freud Cult

Steven Gambardella
7 min readMay 19, 2024
All paintings by Freud are still in copyright. So here’s a sparse image of the night sky. I have hyperlinked to all the paintings referenced in the text. (Photo by Jakub Sofranko on Unsplash)

Lucian Freud was German by birth, but a very English artist. The eternally parochial English art scene is a circus of celebrity and controversy in which the art itself serves more as a prop. The vortex of veneration around Freud’s art has for decades epitomised a national artistic culture that can’t find its feet.

Freud’s The Artist Surprised by a Naked Model (2005) is painting as pantomime. It shows him in his ever-shabby studio, with a naked young woman crouched at his feet, grasping at him with a cheek pressed to his thigh.

The easel Freud is using is out of the picture — he had to disengage from the model every time he dabbed at the canvas, and then re-entangle with her again. It’s easy to imagine this dance, the awkward silliness of it.

Freud supposedly hated allegorical readings of his work, but the unintended and unflattering allegory here is just how conceited, and how staged Freud’s artistic persona was, and how so many fell for it, like the fawning woman clinging at his leg.

The late, great New Yorker critic, Peter Schjeldahl, was bemused by the Freud phenomenon when he wrote a tepid review in 2002. “I find Freud’s work hard to like and almost impossible not to admire,” wrote Schjeldahl. Why? Because “it constitutes a superb performance in a socially-charged role […] drama surrounds rather than suffuses Freud’s work.”

What’s odd about Freud is that his work is frequently couched in controversial terms yet he’s universally loved in the UK as a quirky national treasure. This is ultimately because his art is conservative and the English admire a cad.

His intransigences — if you can call them that — are mannered, mild, even, in comparison to those truly controversial — and truly loathed — other giants of modern British art, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst. Both those genuinely innovative artists are anti-celebrities, perceived as too violent and vulgar. Freud, whether he liked it or not, was a celebrity, and was courted by celebrities.

Is the work any good? It’s not bad, and that’s half the point — it’s merely not bad. He was middling, unblessed with congenital talent but making up for it in years of perseverance. There are dozens of British figurative painters of Freud’s generation who were better than he was — painters more honest, more hungry, more serious and searching. We can wonder how far he would have got in his career with a different surname.

The paint is handled well when Freud’s not fussing but his draftsmanship is abject. We see many examples of this in unintended contortions in faces and bodies. Critics and art historians paid to give Freud glowing appraisals gloss over this deficiency, ignoring its fundamental importance to Freud’s chosen idiom.

His portrait of Elizabeth II is perennially praised for its “objectivity”, but it’s a smudgy, contorted mess in Freud’s typical dance of ashen and blushed tones. Freud, who’s praised for revelling in the material substance of his painting, could never convey weight and the crown doesn’t connect with the Queen’s head — it just floats on her hair, insubstantial and foamy.

While the small and tightly cropped image was a bold intent — eschewing any distanced respectfulness, the jowly portrait, with clods of paint for curls of hair, looks nothing like the queen. It’s all the worse because of that bold intent — like a would-be impresario who puts on a firework display on a rainy, sodden evening. Again, there’s an attempt at theatricality here, one that runs contrary to true artistic integrity.

He famously painted Kate Moss too, a kin, of sorts, with Freud in being mildly controversial, largely silent in public, and cultivating an image of insouciance.

The painting’s composition is so lopsided — in the worst possible way — that Freud was forced to paint in two awkward triangles of masking colour over opposite corners as if to suggest that the painting was always supposed to be shaped like a parallelogram..

His model is impossibly flat-nosed and seems to be puffing out her upper lip and cheeks. Moss is beautiful, and famous for the good fortune of being beautiful. That’s pressure for a painter. You can see the fussiness of knowing the stakes of the painting in the overworked face.

Freud wasn’t nice, he would admit that himself. He liked dogs, but generally disdained people. A wall text from a recent National Gallery exhibition reminded viewers that Freud “rejected anything that might interfere with his independence, including monogamy in his relationships or traditional roles of parenting.”

He had fourteen acknowledged children — two in his first marriage, and twelve by various companions and mistresses — but it seems he lived mostly alone, as if a bachelor. The children spent most of their time with their father, it seems, as models. “It’s nice,” Freud said, “when you breed your own models”

Sitting for him is said to have been arduous — he was a slow painter — and his odd over-standing angles are as cruel as they are conceited.

His portraits of his children are often unsettling — not as works of art, but as records of the painter’s attitudes and behaviour. A painting called “Large Interior, Paddington”, dating from 1968, depicts a small child, maybe as young as four, naked from the waist down lying in a fetal position next to a potted plant on a bare floor. A hand is clamped between her thighs, perhaps a self-comforting gesture.

The child’s face, contorted, is rendered with as much attention as the individual leaves of the plant towering over her. It’s a sad and weird painting because you’re struck not by the sentiment of loneliness, as Freud may have hoped, but the particular ordeal of loneliness for that child. Where’s the consent in such an image?

In thinking like this, you can’t help feeling you’re being baited into sympathy and outrage by Freud and his entourage, who’d consider such emotive responses to be trite and petit-bourgeois. It may be “very simplisitc” according to one female gallerist who was close to Freud to call out misogyny or cruelty in Freud, but it’s equally simplistic that Freud manufactured these little outrages for effect.

In his romantic life, he had a penchant for very young women as he aged. He courted Celia Paul, the “girl in the striped pyjamas”, after he took a job, according to her, as an art school tutor to find a new lover. She was eighteen, he was fifty-five.

Fine. She was old enough. But read her musings on the relationship in recent years and you get the sense of a talented young woman who was whittled down over time. Paul has struggled for decades to break free from being known merely as a mere muse, a “sitter”.

Criticisms levelled at Freud for his lifestyle choices would warrant cancellation for a star of another art form, even more so posthumously, but Freud’s repute defies gravity.

The point here isn’t to trash Freud, it’s to unpick the phenomenon of Freud. He had his hits — some remarkably confrontational portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, a couple of amusingly dour group portraits that riffed on Watteau among other images. He also had respectable admirers, like the great critic David Sylvester, who didn’t rate Freud for his talent, either, but rather his tenacity.

But what’s odd is just how much Freud is still admired despite his failings as an artist and as a human being. How is it that people seemingly turn blind in front of his worst paintings, and dash off banalities and cliches about his “unsentimental eye” or “unflinching gaze”?

Part of the reason is that artworks — and by extension, artists — are investments. Freud is of a breed of artists that I describe as “plate-spinners” — their beguiling performance can only last for as long as they are alive. Take the body from under the plate, and the show’s over.

As the celebrity of Freud ebbs from memory, the owners of the paintings — which include national art institutions — work all the harder to shore up Freud’s reputation.

Too many art writers too, paid to fawn by gallerists and curators, have a stake in Freud. And too many people buy into the myth that there’s something heroic about being an artist, and Freud’s shabby, amoral bohemian image conforms to this odious anachronism. All that’s to say that there’s a lot of hope that the plate will keep spinning, miraculously, in the air.

Maybe it will. The cult of Freud is strong. Sitters describe their experience as a grueling ordeal, yet feel obliged to express appreciation for the privilege. Some sitters, plucked from obscurity, acquire a celebrity of sorts themselves.

The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of Painter Surprised by a Naked Model (2005), “Lucian Freud can do anything he likes because he is a genius. If he painted this model not kneeling at his feet but murdered with his palette knife that would be fine with posterity — and at 82 posterity is all he has to worry about.” So much for critical objectivity.

His paintings sell for millions. His demeaning painting of Sue Tilley, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, set a record for a living artist at the time, selling for 33.6 million dollars to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who’s since been exiled from London.

The Freud cult is the product of London’s unserious art scene, its entanglement with high society (Freud was very much a part of high society), and the desperation to produce a national genius without the stomach for the integrity that genius actually entails.

When you look at figurative art, it’s good to ask yourself “is this Goya or Bonnard”? In other words, does it cut to the heart of what it is to be human, like Francesco Goya’s paintings would? Or does it dazzle with a singular vision of reality that transfigures the mundane in a way that a rare mood does, as Pierre Bonnard?

These are the two poles of figurative art, impossible to conjoin — you can only hope to come close to Goya or to Bonnard.

Freud couldn’t quite settle on where he wanted to sit on this axis. There’s jaunty angles and pictorial conceits, but there’s also brushwork that searches the flesh, faces, and eyes of sitters.

It’s ultimately this attempt to be two kinds of artist at once that defeats Freud artistically. But it’s also a quirk that somehow enhances the performative character of his body of work, fuelling the drama surrounding him, no matter how staid his paintings are.