Below the surface: Lucian Freud’s etchings look closely at the human form

Artist Lucian Freud made a point of getting close to his subjects. “He talked about getting to deal with the animal quality of his human sitters and closely examining the skin,” said curator Jennifer Farrell. Photo courtesy of the Fralin Museum of Art. Artist Lucian Freud made a point of getting close to his subjects. “He talked about getting to deal with the animal quality of his human sitters and closely examining the skin,” said curator Jennifer Farrell. Photo courtesy of the Fralin Museum of Art.

Imagine entering a cave-like studio, its floor spotted with rags and walls textured with years of paint flicked off a loaded brush. You’re naked when you climb onto a small, sheet-covered bed, fully prepared to hold your pose for hours. Standing just a few feet away, an artist scrutinizes your body as he prepares to etch its lines into a copper plate—and when he does, you know he’ll capture your true essence in that moment.

Such was the reality for the subjects of celebrated British artist Lucian Freud (a grandson of Sigmund Freud), whose subjects included Kate Moss, Jerry Hall and ordinary people like his children, his art dealer and the local welfare benefits distributor. The Fralin Museum’s latest exhibition, “Lucian Freud: Etchings,” offers a collection of rarely seen prints and one painting from the last two decades of Freud’s life.

“An etching is made when an artist uses a needle to push forward lines on a wax- covered copper plate,” said Jennifer Farrell, curator of the exhibit and the newly appointed associate curator of modern and contemporary prints and illustrated books at The Metropolitan Museum in New York. “When it’s taken to the master printer, it’s immersed in an acid bath that bites into the plate. What’s right will be left, and what’s light will be dark, and then what the work really looks like will be revealed. As Freud described it, ‘One dip, really quick and dangerous.’”

Freud worked from direct observation, so his perspective was the single lens through which every relationship was filtered. “Freud wanted to capture the essence of his exchange with a person, animal or scene,” said Farrell. “He famously described his work as autobiographical. Quite frequently, he would go out to dinner with his subjects—not the horses and the dogs—because he could see their small gestures or the way they read a menu.”

In his later years, Freud’s heavy impasto (the build up of paint as a textural element on the canvas) stood in direct opposition to seamless, invisible brushstrokes of many of his peers.

“There’s a famous story that he painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and this was a huge deal, of course,” Farrell said. “He painted it in his own manner, and people complained and said that it was an insult and he made her look older and her skin look unappealing. What’s interesting is that one of his associates later took a picture of the Queen, a color photograph, and held half of that up next to the painting of the Queen, and it matched almost exactly.”

Freud refused to create an idealized version of people. He also refused commissions, which allowed him to choose his subjects, cultivate relationships and explore the intimate artist-sitter dynamic in his work.

“Many subjects have their eyes closed, which gives us as viewers permission to look closely at their bodies,” Farrell said.

Freud was also interested in etching women who were heavily pregnant. “He depicted Jerry Hall when she was eight months pregnant. You see that fatigue from not only posing but from being so pregnant, and he really captures that exhaustion and excitement, the contradictory feelings of the moment.”

Etching was an edgy process for Freud, who thought of the medium as an alternative to painting. “He wasn’t interested in Aquatint or wood blocks or learning how to make prints, but Freud was a well-known gambler, and prints are about gambling,” Farrell said.

“Lucian Freud: Etchings” will be on exhibition at the The Fralin Museum of Art through April 19. Learn more about the artist’s life and practice on March 21, when Freud’s former assistant, David Dawson, visits UVA for a lecture.

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