Washington, D. C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne; London, Hayward Gallery; Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Lucian Freud: Paintings, 1987-88, p. 40, no. 15, illustrated in colour
London, Tate Britain; Barcelona, Fundació "la Caixa"; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Lucian Freud, 2002-03, p. 87, no. 36, illustrated in colour
Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 107, no. 83, illustrated
Alan G. Artner, "Mind Over Matter: The Transcendent Realism Of Lucian Freud", Chicago Tribune, 11th October 1987, illustrated
Michael Shepherd, "Couchside Manner", The Sunday Telegraph, 7th February 1988, illustrated
Bruce Bernard and Derek Birdsall, Eds., Lucian Freud, London 1996, p. 108, no. 78, illustrated in colour
William Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 112, no. 74, illustrated in colour
Lucian Freud's Boy's Head of 1952 broadcasts a quite remarkable psychological intensity that is archetypal of the artist's sensational powers of observation. Depicting Charlie Lumley, one of Freud's most immediately-recognisable subjects from this seminal early period in his oeuvre, this masterpiece has been summated by Michael Shepherd's incisive description of "the bitter 20th-century witness in the boy's eye" (Michael Shepherd, "Couchside Manner", The Sunday Telegraph, 7th February 1988). Freud had moved from Abercorn Place to a flat by the Regent's Canal in Delamere Terrace, Paddington in 1943, and he has described how "Delamere was extreme and I was conscious of this. A completely unresidential area with violent neighbours. There was a sort of anarchic element of no one working for anyone..." (the artist cited by William Feaver in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate, Lucian Freud, 2002, p. 21). Among his neighbours were included the brothers Billy and Charlie Lumley with whom the artist forged a close friendship: Stephen Spender recounted that he once met Freud and Charlie in a smart restaurant in 1955: "They were both dressed like workmen, Charlie almost in rags. The restaurant was appropriately shocked" (cited in Martin Gayford, Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, London 2010, p. 61). Narrating this relationship and replete with the archetypal characteristics of his practice at this time, the minutely-observed Boy's Head is the masterful zenith of Freud's painterly analysis, whereby the young sitter is subjected to the unyielding dissection of his gaze.
Even amid the artist's epic oeuvre, spanning seven full decades, the present work is the perfect visual parallel to Herbert Read's contemporaneous acclamation that Freud was "the Ingres of Existentialism" (Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35). Enclosed within the glassy marbles of the boy's eyes, his depthless black pupils and serene grey-blue irises emit a hypnotic intensity that pierces out to confront and transfix the viewer. The features of the boy are physically and compositionally held in place by the palm of his left hand, which buttresses against his cheek and jaw bones. The drooping flesh of the boy's ample cheek is pulled taught by his hand, stretching the mouth open to bare the pearly young teeth below. While this remarkably observed detail accentuates dramatically the psychosomatic character of the sitter, the contrast between corporeal textures and minute analysis of flesh is powerfully evocative of the meticulous precision achieved by Netherlandish Masters of the Renaissance. The artist's careful selection of a focused scale, consistent with works of this period, is here fundamental to its impact as it enables the maximum exertion of control over the subject. Similarly, fine sable brushes suited the artist's precise analysis and he achieved some of the most exactly observed paintings of the time in this medium, such as Head of a Woman (1950), Boy Smoking (1950-1), and Girl Reading (1952). Most comparable is the legendary painting Francis Bacon of 1952, which was completed over two to three months. Originally intended to hang in Wheelers, the Soho fish restaurant that Bacon visited daily, it is now tragically missing having been stolen from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin in 1988. While Robert Hughes likened this work to having "the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off", Lawrence Gowing declared it "the most even and judicious deposit of pictorial information in all his work" (Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 112). Boy's Head is extant counterpart to that masterpiece, providing another site of Freud's incomparable interpretation of the human animal.
Speaking of this period Freud has commented, "I felt that the only way I could work properly was using absolute maximum observation and maximum concentration. I thought that by staring at my subject matter and 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 "(Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 33). Consequently, since 1954 Freud has always stood to work, yet this portrait of 1952 exhibits levels of forensic study rarely evident in his epic oeuvre. Of course, Freud's powers of observation and intense analysis of his subjects has become the stuff of legend. While the illustrious poet Sir Stephen Spender described the artist as someone "totally alive...Like something not entirely human, a leprechaun, a changeling child, or, if there is a male opposite, a witch" (Marina Warner, 'Lucian Freud, the Unblinking Eye', New York Times Magazine, 4th December 1993), in the late 1950s the journalist Quentin Crewe observed a "nervous man, whose eyes dart around like fleas in a snuffbox" (William Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 19), and Daniel Farson, Soho habitué and broadcaster, jovially described how the artist "slide[s] into a room with an air of apprehension and a sideways glance in case a crucifix or ray of sunlight might suddenly appear" (Daniel Farson, 'A Freudian Lunch in Mayfair", Sacred Monsters, London 1988, p. 174). At the beginning of the 1950s Freud was recognized as one of the leading artistic talents of his generation. His masterpiece Interior in Paddington, completed through the winter of 1950-1, was exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951 where it won Freud an Arts Council prize of £500, and was offered to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool where it is now permanently housed. Additionally, the extraordinary Girl with a White Dog, also executed between 1950-1, was included in his 1952 exhibition at the Hanover Gallery along with the Bacon portrait, and was bought by the Tate in that same year. However, despite such prodigious success for a man yet to turn thirty years of age, Freud's personal life was somewhat chaotic at this time, certainly by comparison to conventions of the period.
In 1948 Freud was invited together with Bacon, to a ball hosted by Lady Rothermere (later to become Ann Fleming, wife of the James Bond novelist Ian), which was also attended by a girl who would transform his life at precisely the time of this painting. Largely excluded from the elite cabal of English aristocracy, the nonconformist young Freud was condescendingly deemed an erratic bohemian, whom Mrs Fleming described after a shooting party in Northern Ireland: "of course I am blamed for encouraging bizarre tartan-trousered eccentric artists to pursue virginal Marchionesses' daughters...Lucian retrieved the birds faster than any retriever which shocked them deeply" (cited in: Nancy Schoenberger, Dangerous Muse, A life of Caroline Blackwood, London 2001, p. 88). Nevertheless, it was that Marchionesses' daughter who would radically change Freud's existence, and her appearance in his life and art also forms the backdrop to this portrait of 1952. In 1948 Freud had married Kitty Garman, daughter of the illustrious sculptor Jacob Epstein and niece of Freud's former lover Lorna Wishart, who had given him the stuffed zebra head and dead heron that are such startling protagonists of his early paintings. Through the late 1940s and turn of the new decade, Kitty was subject to a sequence of penetrating portrayals, including Girl with a White Dog, that detail the disintegration of psychosomatic security. These works have been considered as wider allegory to the imminent collapse of their marriage, which occurred in 1952 with eventual divorce in 1953. 1952 also witnessed the advent of a new heroine in Freud's art: the twenty-one year old Lady Caroline Blackwood, daughter of the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, and for whom he had left Kitty and their young child. Together they eloped to Paris, and indeed a picture-maker's stamp on the reverse of the present canvas itself reveals that it was manufactured in Paris, and was therefore likely purchased there by Freud during that initial flight from London. Freud's portraits of that year depicting his new paramour, Girl in Bed and Girl Reading, adopt the perspective of an admiring bedfellow, and relay a profound affection for Caroline's beaming innocence, very literally broadcast through enormous and spellbinding eyes that glisten like liquid glass. Freud and Blackwood spent most of 1953 living at the Hôtel La Louisianne, above the Buci market of St.Germain in Paris, before marrying at the Chelsea registry office on 9th December 1953, the day after his 31st birthday. Thus Boy's Head of 1952 belongs to a moment of foundational alteration in Freud's existence and a time, if not necessarily of crisis, then certainly replete with drama. It achieves an intangible character that he was to describe himself in 1954: "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" (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate, Lucian Freud, 2002 p. 15). From Durer to Rembrandt to Bacon, truly great portraiture reveals an incommunicable essence of the subject that speaks directly to the viewer and transcends the distance between the work's execution and our today: in short, an incontrovertible dissection of the sitter, a psychosomatic x-ray. The degree to which Boy's Head becomes material testimony to this promise is spellbinding; at once a vestige of the past and a sumptuously arresting witness to the present.
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