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The Ego of the Artist

February’s Vanity Fair includes a feature on Lucian Freud, the artist who died last year at 88. Freud, the grandson of Sigmund, was known for his fleshy and stark portraits of subjects ranging from duchesses to drag queens. Vanity Fair calls him “arguably the greatest portrait painter of his era.” Hilton Kramer, the conservative art critic, has written that Freud has an “eccentric and perverse talent” and that “No Lucian Freud exhibition would be complete without its requisite weirdnesses.” Check out Freud’s paintings for yourself.

Freud’s portraits, though they grab your attention, are not what stood out to me in the Vanity Fair piece. What stood out was another portrait, this one taken of Freud, below: 

Apparently, Freud was a deeply private man who was capable of great acts of generosity. According to one art critic, “there was the reality of this incredibly sensitive and deeply considerate person who, if he liked you, would forgive all manner of idiocies, extend you no end of courtesies, and, even better, extend you the great compliment of speaking his mind in front of you.”

As private as Freud was, the above portrait of him, taken in 2005 when he was in his early 80s, speaks volumes about the man. Freud had many lovers and here we see one of them, naked, on the ground, desperately clutching his leg as he motions away from her. She’s literally wrapped up in him, but he’s hardly aware of her presence. He’s looking at the camera. If you cropped the image at his hip, you wouldn’t even know that she was there. According to Vanity Fair, the portrait is of “Freud and one of his many lovers, Alexi Williams-Wynn. [They] pose for The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer in his Holland Park studio in 2005″:

Alexi Williams-Wynn, one of his later models, recalls that “the speed with which I entered his life and began sitting was, I think, very characteristic of him—highly impulsive, urgent, impatient towards anything beyond his life in the studio.” 

Freud is so caught up in his own world—in his “life in the studio”—that his naked lover is reduced to nearly groveling at his feet to get his attention. It’s hard to imagine a more blunt display of the artist’s ego and machismo.