This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lucien Freud at Work

“Freud at Work” provides a photographic documentary of one of Britain’s greatest living portrait artists at work in his studio. Lucien Freud, now close to 90 years old, is an inveterate portrait painter who did not come fully under the glare of fame until around two decades ago. His works now command extraordinary seven and eight figure prices. While his style has changed markedly at different stages of his career, he has settled into a heavy impasto method that is now his hallmark and is a style that has become much copied by other artists in recent years.

This book pulls together mainly colour photographs taken in the artist’s studio by two observers, one a very long-term friend of Freud’s, the other an assistant and a model over many years. The photos do not, as the cover image and introduction suggest, show the artist in furious blurred motion attacking the canvas. The selection of photos mainly show the artist scumbling in paint before posed models; canvases midway towards completion; and completed canvases. There are also some (table-turned) camera portraits of Freud, showing an impish artist with big mischievous eyes.

The book is perhaps most interesting to other working artists, for the glimpses provided of Freud’s studio set-up and working methods. The photos show that this wealthiest of artists keeps a sparse and shabby studio, with plain undecorated wooden walls and a minimum of props for recumbent models (a tatty couch, ancient cot mattress, worn armchairs and a plain set of steps). A few sections of wall are smeared with surplus paint, while piles of discarded wiped rags litter a paint-flicked wooden floor. Light control seems to be the essential ingredient to this controlled environment, with curtains and shutters across the windows darkening the perimeter of the studio, while a sturdy central skylight highlights the day’s sitter and the wet canvas resting in the centre of the room on a lightly titled easel.

The photos show the staged emergence of artworks on white primed canvas, including changes in compositions as the paintings evolve (mainly these involve shuffles of background elements). It was fun to spot a change of mind as the only clothed figure in After Cezanne was eventually de-robed. We also see that Freud sometimes works on a couple of paintings simultaneously, arranging them alongside each other for ease of access.

It is revealing to see some of Freud’s most recognisable models including the podgy Leigh Bowrey and the hefty “Big Sue”. Both look rather bland and effete in person, compared to their intimidating and imposing doppelgangers on canvas. Only Pluto and Eli the greyhounds live up to the munificent grandeur of their oil portraits.

Each photo has a page to itself. But this photographic journal is a little weaker for leaving most photos uncaptioned, telling us little about dates, models or other germane background to each image. Some photos are ordered in useful little chronologic runs, but others seem poorly selected, including some out-of-focus snaps.

The book is preceded by an interesting interview with art critic Sebastian Smee, which, curiously, bears little relationship to the two collections of photographs. Freud is mostly prompted into regaling Smee with snippets from his life story and memories of his friendships with some of the characters and rogues around the British art scene in the late 20th century.

Freud is upfront about his take on other famous artists. In the grandiose paintings of Ingres, he sees a crafty humour. He admires Cezanne for his drawings, and Constable for making course smears of paint blend immaculately into landscapes. He has a disdain for the bright decorative art of Klimt and Lautrec. Surprisingly he casts Egon Schiele into the same category, dismissing him for affectations and desire to shock (“I always thought truth-telling was more exciting”). This disapproval seems ironic, given some similarities in style and subject matter between Schiele and Freud. He later confesses an interest in painting unusual people – “I’ve always liked circuses.”

The ancient workaholic sheds a little light on his techniques. He declares his concern to avoid repeating himself, perhaps explaining the impulsive and energetic look of his brushwork. Freud makes plain his aversion for being constrained by his drawings, at one point abandoning under-drawings (“I would make forms from the urgency of the paint, rather than having ready made forms”), although Smee points out he has lapsed back into the discipline of sketching outlines on canvas.

While this publication feels like two books in one (interview book, then photograph album), all contributors have achieved some intimacy with Freud and extracted from him some candour about his creative process. This quality cloth hardcover is printed by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House, also responsible for two handsome surveys of artworks by Freud. This is a quirky book, but an essential collectible for anyone who wants a definitive set of books on Lucien Freud.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 256 pages, 10.5 x 9.4 inches, 120 photographs

Recent books on Lucien Freud's art:  (please note I recommend against buying the book "Lucien Freud on Paper").

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