Private Collection, London (acquired in the early 1950s)
Thence by descent to the present owner
"I noticed I switched away from people when my life was under particular strain," recalled Freud. "I preferred working in complete isolation. Not using people is like taking a deep breath of fresh air." – (Lucian Freud cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 35)
Never seen in public until now, this exquisite painting Plants in Jamaica (1953) attests to the remarkable painterly genius of Lucian Freud – one of the undisputed masters of Twentieth Century art. Executed in the months leading up to his eagerly anticipated exhibition at the Venice Biennale alongside Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson, this work marked a period of profound transition in Freud's artistic outlook, and stands at the very cusp of a paradigm-shift in his painterly aesthetic and technique.
Forensic almost to the point of obsession, Plants in Jamaica's meticulous observation of exotic Caribbean vegetation records the momentous trip that the artist made there in 1952-1953 to visit Ian and Ann Fleming at their new villa, Goldeneye, recently acquired from Noel Coward. Formerly Lady Rothermere, Ann Fleming played a significant role in London's high society, and delighted in gathering together political figures and aristocrats alongside writers and artists at her celebrated soirées. She was an early and passionate supporter of the young painter, famously sitting for a portrait by him in 1950 and introducing him to a wide circle of her influential friends, most notably the Devonshire family.
Freud's invitation to stay with Ian and Ann Fleming at Goldeneye marked a moment of repose and reflection for the artist who had just turned thirty. It followed a tumultuous year that had culminated in his divorce from Kitty Epstein, daughter of Sir Jacob Epstein whom he had married in 1948, and his eloping to Paris with his new mistress, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress more than ten years his junior. When Freud travelled to Jamaica on a banana boat in December 1952, he was very much alone. During the voyage he painted one of his most intimate and soul-searching self-portraits, which he duly gifted to his hostess upon arrival at Goldeneye. Painted shortly afterwards, Plants in Jamaica shares this same dramatic backstory and exudes the similar high-intensity of observation that characterised that remarkable self-portrait. As Freud explained, "I felt that the only way I could work properly was using maximum observation and maximum concentration. I thought that by staring at my subject matter and by examining it closely I could get something from it... I had a lot of eye trouble, terrible headaches because of the strain of painting so close." (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 33)
For Freud, Jamaica's relaxed and vibrant island culture represented a welcome escape from the turmoil surrounding his private life back in London. This was reflected in the two paintings that he produced whilst he was there, Bananas (Collection of Southampton City Art Gallery) and Plants in Jamaica; both of which were conspicuously devoid of any human presence. "I noticed I switched away from people when my life was under particular strain," recalled Freud. "I preferred working in complete isolation. Not using people is like taking a deep breath of fresh air" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 35). The tropical beauty of the verdant Caribbean landscape provided Freud with a fresh and fertile source of inspiration for his painting. Perhaps more importantly, the painting en plein air that it required brought to his work an unprecedented immediacy and technical vitality that Freud developed over the course of the next ten years into an altogether more fluid approach to both subject and technique.
Intimately observed down to its smallest, naturalistic detail, the all over composition of Plants in Jamaica is delicately articulated in modulating tones of radiant greens and browns. Using the finest sable brushes, in this work, Freud provides a mesmerizing visual manifestation of his renowned proclamation that: "The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life." (Lucian Freud, Some Thoughts on Painting, July 1954)
Plants in Jamaica was the larger and more complex of the two jewel-like landscapes that the artist created during his stay at Goldeneye. In it he asserts his unbridled enthusiasm for the vitality and personality of plants; something he had already trained his keen eye upon in the towering Yukka plant of Paddington Interior (1951), once famously described by Lawrence Gowing as "one of the most memorable potted plants in the history of modern art". Crucially for Freud, the present work represented the first time that he had devoted an entire canvas solely to exploring the intimate character of plants. In this same vein, he would later paint the infinitely complex Two Plants (1977-80); "lots of little portraits of leaves," which he wanted, "to have a real biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying."
Peppered with gnarled stumps, cracked leaves and dead branches all as eloquent as Freud's human tissue, the present work is no idealised nature study. Rather it celebrates nature's compositional complexity and inherent vagaries of form, providing a compliment to Freud's portraiture by feeding his inquisitive eye and enlivening his masterful draughtsmanship. Whether alighting on flesh, foliage or fabric, Freud's creative vision was fuelled by his obsessive commitment to conquering the intimate character of material and surface. From 1953 onwards, plants became significant protagonists in Freud's art, whether appearing as supporting actors, starkly contrasted against his uncompromising treatment of the human form, or as subjects in themselves. Devoid of humanity, these rare and intricate compositions reveal a glimpse of the artist at his most private and contemplative.
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