Published in The Courtauldian, Issue 6, January 2014, London
Before Lucian Freud died in 2012, he agreed to a retrospective of his work in Austria for the first time on the condition it was held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The museum was opened in 1891 by Franz Joseph I. and is one of the oldest museums in Austria. It constantly shows, amongst others, works by Jan Vermeer, Albrecht Dürer, Parmigianino, and Caravaggio. Freud, however, insisted that his works must be shown in a separate room to these paintings.
Freud’s work focuses on human flesh. The depictions of people’s flesh tell a story about his relationships with various people. It does not make a difference whether he depicts his lovers, stranger or himself; it is the human flesh, enwrapping one’s personality, he was deeply interested in. His paintings make it clear that life is about people’s relationship and how people look at each other. Painting someone from life, and adding emotions to it, shows how well an artist understands, and what he thinks of another person. To reach a satisfying result, Freud’s sitters had to spend many hours with him over several hours. Only then Freud felt able to create a piece of art that transmits humanity, and thus his paintings became independent from the subject matter. As a result, the art – created by a moderate mixture of oil, pigments and emotions – speaks for itself.
The Viennese exhibition, which is slightly different to Freud’s 2o12 retrospective at the National Gallery in London, is, however, controversial as his German origin makes it difficult to classify his work as fully English. In 1999, he refused to show his work in Vienna as part of an exhibition titled ‘School of London’, which is due to his family background as they lived in Berlin until they emigrated from Germany to the UK before the Second World War broke out; at that time Freud was just a child. Therefore, even though he spent his adolescence in the UK, he was very much familiar with German and Austrian art as his parents and his grandfather Sigmund Freud collected it. But eventually do we, the viewers of his work – museum directors excepted – care whether Lucian Freud’s art is regarded as English, German or Austrian?
The exhibition closed at the 12th of January, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.