MAGNIFICENT GESTURES: MASTERWORKS FROM THE DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL COLLECTION FULL PROCEEDS TO BENEFIT A NOT-FOR-PROFIT CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
Throughout his life, Lucian Freud was famous for his eclectic range of portraiture subjects: he was just as likely to portray a member of the landed gentry as he was a bank robber from London’s Soho underworld; just as comfortable in training his eye upon an erudite art critic as upon the young hoodlums in the Paddington area where he lived and worked. In 1943, five years before the creation of the present work, Freud had moved from the relative serenity of Abercorn Place to a flat by the Regent’s Canal in Delamere Terrace. It was a notably rougher part of the neighborhood. He described how: “Delamere was extreme and I was conscious of this. A completely nonresidential area with violent neighbors. There was a sort of anarchic element of no one working for anyone.” (the artist cited by William Feaver in Exh. Cat., London, Tate, Lucian Freud, 2002, p. 21) Amongst his new neighbors were the tearaway brothers Billy and Charlie Lumley with whom Freud quickly forged a close bond. The present work is one of the very earliest works in an artistic and personal relationship with each of these boys that would last more than a decade. The friendships encompassed some extraordinary works, such as Freud’s portrait of Charlie – Boy Smoking – completed in 1950-51 and now held in the Tate Collection. It features a comparable intensity as the present work, the same miniature composition, the same exact style of depiction, and an identical ferocity of gaze. These two boys were much younger than the artist and from an entirely different background, but their relationships were characterized by genuine and sincere tenderness. Indeed, in 1955, after Freud’s marriage to Caroline Blackwood had disintegrated and the artist was in psychological meltdown, Francis Bacon called the Lumley brothers to make sure that Freud did not take his own life: “He was a right mess and Francis told me to make sure he did not top himself.” (Charlie Lumley cited in Geordie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian, London, 2013, p. 118)
Boy on the Stairs is one of a suite of five drawings created by Freud as illustrations for the William Sansom novella The Equilibriad. The drawings, as exemplified by the present work, can be held up not only as perfect examples of Freud’s early style, but also as the ideal foil for Sansom’s work; Sansom “was once described as London’s closest equivalent to Franz Kafka. He wrote in hallucinatory detail, bringing every image into pin-sharp focus.” (Christopher Fowler, ‘Forgotten Authors: William Sansom’, The Independent, 4 October 2008, online) From the mid-1940s until the early 1950s, Freud’s style was similarly based on detail and achieved through unwavering exactitude and intense examination. In painting he used sable brushes that tapered to a fine point, and in draftsmanship he relied on soft pencils of impossible delicacy. He mainly worked with a panel, canvas, or sketch pad on his lap, whilst sitting almost knee to knee with his sitter, examining their visage at close quarters with fierce concentration. This style led to critical comparison with the Dutch Masters of the Northern Renaissance, and to Herbert Read’s contemporaneous acclamation that Freud was “the Ingres of Existentialism.” (Herbert Read, Contemporary British Art, Harmondworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35)
Freud’s exact style of draftsmanship reached its peak in 1952 in Freud’s now legendary portrait of Francis Bacon – comparable to Boy on the Stairs in scale, immediacy, composition, and delicacy. The Bacon portrait is now tragically missing, having been stolen from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1988. However, it has been historically described in terms that could just as easily be ascribed to the present work: a picture bestowed with “the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off.” (Robert Hughes cited in Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Lucian Freud: Paintings, 1987, p. 7) Boy on the Stairs should be lauded as an exemplar of this period of Freud’s career; through the crispness of its draftsmanship, through the significance of the sitter, through a comprehension of the literary context, and through an appreciation of its exhibition and ownership history, we can discern a fascinating insight into the work of Lucian Freud. By means of painstaking observation and exceptionally adept execution of pictorial truth, Freud finally exposes the crisis of his own self, and turns the mirror to an unavoidable and incontrovertible fact of life: the isolation of the individual that lies at the heart of the human condition.
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