One of the world’s most valuable artists has dozens of overlooked masterpieces

A new US$500 monograph of the late painter Lucian Freud is shining a spotlight on his underappreciated early work

By JAMES TARMY

Portrait of Kitty, 1948-9
Freud studied painting at the east Anglian school of Drawing and Painting at Dedham in Essex. The school burned down in 1939, which, the book says, ‘Freud always felt… was his fault, because he had smoked his first cigarette in the studio and had forgotten to put it out’

With few exceptions, wildly successful artists become famous based on one specific style. For Lucian Freud (1922-2011), that style was an exquisitely painterly, almost sculptural figurative look that became so identifiable — and so valuable — that it broke records. His painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold at Christie’s New York in 2008 for US$33.6 million (RM137.76 million), a record price at the time for any living artist. (Seven years later, another portrait of the same subject, Benefits Supervisor Resting, from 1994 sold at Christie’s New York for US$56 million.)

But Freud, who emerged in his 20s in the London art scene, painted for almost two decades before he discovered that signature style. In the 1940s and 1950s, his art heavily echoed Picasso and Balthus; it was only when he fell from favour during this time — the rise of pop art rendered Freud a has-been — that he began to develop the aesthetic he’s known for today.

The catalyst, says David Dawson, the director of the Lucian Freud Archive, was his introduction to the painter Francis Bacon. “[Bacon] taught him how to be a contemporary artist,” Dawson says. “Bacon had that amazing ability to explain how everything is loaded into one brush stroke, and I think that sunk in to Lucian — it took a few years.”

By the 1990s, when Freud re-emerged in the international spotlight, his style was fixed, and his past work rendered (comparatively) obscure. “The early work has been shown,” Dawson says. “But in America, it’s mostly the later works that he was really known for.”

The art market has similarly favoured his later years. Of the top 20 works by Freud to sell at auction, just three were painted before 1960, according to Artnet. Just one out of the top 10 — a portrait of Bacon, which ranks 10th — meets that criterion.

Now, a massive US$500, two-volume monograph of the artist’s work should bring his earlier efforts back into focus. Written by the art critic Martin Gayford and edited by Mark Holborn and Dawson, Lucian Freud (Phaidon, Sept 7) includes works from Freud’s entire career.

Strikingly, there are just as many great paintings in the 1950s section as there are in the 1990s. “That’s what I noticed,” Dawson says. “In the book, in every decade there are some masterpieces.”

Given Freud’s fame and the relative paucity of total artworks (he painted about eight a year, and if he decided he didn’t like a painting, he would buy it back and destroy it, according to Dawson), the book doesn’t have that many truly obscure images. “People who bought them still own them,” he says. “There aren’t that many that stay in bank vault in Switzerland. Most of them are in people’s houses.”

Instead, the book, Dawson says, should serve as an introduction. “It’s a starter,” he says. “It’s to open up the younger generation and show them what this one amazing person did all his life.” — Bloomberg