One of London's oldest seafood restaurants particularly celebrated for its oysters, Wheelers on Old Compton Street was Francis Bacon's favourite Soho restaurant. After a morning at the easel, he would typically go there for lunch and often buy everyone champagne. Freud was another regular at Wheelers throughout the 1950s and 1960s and would often meet Francis Bacon there for lunch and spend hours discussing art, books, gossip and gambling. The two artists were such regular customers that they struck up a close friendship with the owner, Bernard Walsh, who was himself a racing enthusiast and bon viveur. Walsh allowed the artists to run accounts at the restaurant and in return asked them to paint for him a portrait of one another. Bacon painted for Walsh a portrait of Lucian Freud. Freud however wanted to paint a portrait of Walsh himself, and it was from this arrangement that the present portrait came into fruition.
Freud famously only painted the people closest to him – his family, friends and lovers, individuals whom he trusted implicitly and to whom he affectionately referred as 'the people in my life'. That he chose to paint a portrait of Bernard Walsh is evidence of the high regard he felt for the much-loved owner of Wheelers Restaurant, and also the mutual respect that the two men had for one another. Sitting for Freud, the process of being closely scrutinized by this famously pedantic and fastidious painter over a period of 50 or more sessions, was a notoriously intense and long collaboration between artist and sitter. Portrait of a Man exposes the acute concentration and psychological intensity of this arduous practice. Freud later characterised his work from this period as the product of 'maximum observation', achieved 'by staring at my subject matter and examining it closely'.
Constructed through an intricate patchwork of interlocking, infinitely varied flesh-tones, every inch of the sitter's face is vividly rendered in exacting detail. Freud establishes in this portrait the unwavering creed to which his portraiture aspired ever since, 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, 'Thoughts on Painting', Encounter, July 1954).
Freud's Portrait of a Man surpasses the duties of mere representation, however. Each brushstroke is a carefully measured record of the life and being it depicts. The resulting shimmering mosaic of trompe-l'œil brushwork reveals the artist's total mastery over his human subject and an assured ability to make the paint do exactly as he commands. Using his wand-like brush to lead the viewer's penetrating gaze across every crease and wrinkle of the sitter's flesh, Freud creates a feeling of absolute immersion in the muscular vitality of his subject as he works the medium, 'not like flesh, but as flesh'. He affords Bernard Walsh's forehead particularly monumental treatment and topographical attention - a characteristic upon which some of his most original portraits of the 1960s and 1970s were founded, such as Head of Frank Auerbach and Portrait of a Man, which depicts the 11th Duke of Devonshire. Freud here constructs the statuesque visage of Walsh through a matrix of deft, abstract marks that lead fluidly into each other and crescendo into sweeping arcs of colour across his cheeks and forehead. The feeling of depth and shape he creates in this portrait defies the two dimensions of the painted canvas. It projects the sitter outwards from the picture plane in a powerful visual tension, placing Bernard Walsh's full-frontal gaze under the view's absolute scrutiny.
Ventilating the artist's early obsession with textural form, as seen in all his best portraits, Freud here goes beyond the realist imagery of his human subject to bring every fold of fabric to life. Few artists of the 20th century have studied material and surface with such meticulous dedication as Freud who regarded each composition as a challenge in which to hone his eye and develop his technique. Whether flesh, foliage or fabric, throughout his life, Freud's creative vision was continually fuelled by his commitment to conquering the vagaries of form and surface. In Portrait of a Man, the artist's fascination with texture is beautifully reflected in the meticulous attention given to Walsh's pale-grey business suit, shirt and tie. Set in stark contrast to the fleshy pinks and oranges they support above, these undulating fields of soft material display the same painterly virtuosity and keenness of observation that abound in the sitter's face, heightening the overall fullness of form and character. So too in the background, which is enlivened with minute specks of white and grey that are almost indistinguishable to the eye except upon very close examination. It is this sense of closeness to the subject, of creating an emotional affinity and response with the material of paint, that Freud achieves so emphatically in this portrait. The viewing experience leaves one with the indelible impression of knowing that person as entirely and intimately as the artist does himself.
Freud had an uncanny ability to convey intimate human form and character through paint. He was famously described by the notoriously punishing art critic Robert Hughes as 'the greatest living realist painter'. Whilst this accolade can no longer be applied following the artist's death in July 2011, there are few who would seek to challenge this audaciously authentic statement and the body of work it described. A fitting tribute to Freud's unrivalled ability, like his portraits of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Timothy Behrens, Portrait of a Man stands as testament to the School of London generation and confirms Lucian Freud's reputation as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.
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