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Writers on Lucian Freud like to compare his work, particularly his early graphic work, to German painting of the 1920s and early 1930s – for example, the crisp new realist style known as Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity). Freud was 10 when his family left Berlin in 1933, so it’s unlikely that the art of the Weimar period would have penetrated his sheltered childhood in the fashionable Tiergarten district: his parents had prints of Dürer watercolours on their walls, not pictures by Otto Dix or Christian Schad, while his grandfather Sigmund Freud gave him colour reproductions of Bruegel’s Months of the Year.
In London, where the family settled, opportunities to see contemporary German art were few and far between. Yet a handful of Freud’s portraits from the early 1940s, with their raw, “primitive” qualities, do evoke a peculiarly German tradition of disharmony and ugliness (Hässlichkeit) in art. Freud himself once professed to me his appreciation of the “satiric bite” in George Grosz’s drawings. However, his long immersion in the history of European art led him to engage with earlier masters: Netherlandish painters, Titian, Grünewald, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Hals, Watteau, Ingres, Constable, and so on. His admiration for the great realist painter Gustave Courbet was brought home to me when we visited the Courbet exhibition together at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2008.
Although he probably would have dismissed the comparison, in aspects of his art as well as his life, Freud combined elements of the three giants of Viennese early modernism: Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. With Klimt and Schiele he shared a profound interest in the naked female form, though with less of the eroticism that characterises much of their work. Klimt’s fame and reclusiveness, his endless supply of female models, his numerous love affairs and children outside marriage, are all echoed in Freud’s life. Freud’s early drawings exhibit an incisive, nervous line that recalls Schiele, while the kind of “psychological” portraiture pioneered by Kokoschka in Vienna before and during the first world war – considered at the time artless and ugly – is reflected in Freud’s intense, close-up investigation of the language of the human face and body.
Freud’s father, Ernst, the youngest son of Sigmund Freud, was born in Vienna in 1892 in the family apartment at Berggasse 19. Ernst studied architecture; his early architectural drawings were influenced by Jugendstil (Viennese art nouveau). He was also a committed Zionist, taking part in the Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913 – the year, incidentally, that the young Adolf Hitler, having spent five years in the city imbibing Vienna’s virulent anti-Semitism, left for Munich.
Not surprisingly, Lucian Freud’s relationship with Vienna was complicated – like that of so many other Jewish artists. In May 1999, an article in The Art Newspaper entitled “A Lucian Freud Complex?” claimed that Freud was “refusing to allow his paintings to be exhibited in Austria” and had withdrawn them from a show about to open at the Kunst Haus Wien. The director of the Kunst Haus Wien speculated that Freud “doesn’t want to be compared with his grandfather, and ... fears that his grandfather’s name will overshadow his. It could be a kind of envy, a complex.”
As I was in regular contact with Lucian Freud at the time, having recently organised an exhibition of his early work in Edinburgh, I wrote to The Art Newspaper pointing out the inaccuracies in its article. Freud didn’t object in principle to his paintings being shown in Austria but he wasn’t at all keen on the venue; and he thought the exhibition – a show of British figurative artists of different generations grouped under the heading “School of London” – misleading. The suggestion that Freud felt oppressed by his grandfather was clearly absurd. Sigmund Freud was a doctor, not a painter, who had left Vienna 60 years earlier, his importance ignored by the Viennese for decades afterwards.
In fact, Freud did exhibit in Vienna after the war, in a mixed show of modern British drawings and watercolours at the Albertina in 1948. But it would have been understandable if he had had ambivalent feelings about showing in Austria. He could not ignore the circumstances in which his grandfather was forced to leave in June 1938, joining Ernst and his family in London. As Sigmund Freud wrote after his arrival in England: “After 78 years of assiduous work I had to leave my home, saw the scientific society I had founded, dissolved, our institutions destroyed, our printing press taken over by the invaders, the books I had published confiscated or reduced to pulp, my children expelled from their professions.”
Nor could Lucian Freud forget the murder of four of his five great-aunts, Sigmund’s sisters, who stayed behind and were deported, in their eighties, to Theresienstadt and thence to Auschwitz or Treblinka.
He had fond memories of his visits to Vienna as a boy to see his grandfather. When Edmund Engelman’s photographs of the Freud apartment and consulting rooms, taken shortly before Sigmund’s departure, were published in an English edition in 1998, Lucian pointed out to me the umbrella stand in the hall in which his grandmother had invited the storm troopers to leave their guns when they searched the place after the Anschluss. He was also well aware that it had taken the city of Vienna 50 years after his famous grandfather’s death in exile to return the apartment to the family.
But in the 1990s, under Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, Austria seemed to the outside world to be changing, prepared to face up to its collusive relationship with Nazism and acknowledge the part it had played in the Holocaust. The message of the exhibition at the 1993 Venice Biennale, Vertreibung der Vernunft – The Cultural Exodus from Austria, organised by the Austrian Ministry for Education and Art, was clear: “We must warn against only thinking of Germany when speaking of emigration and exile,” it declared. “Austria itself created a holocaust of ... culture on an enormous scale. Scores of geniuses were driven away from Austria and killed for reasons that have to do with Austrian history ... The losses that resulted from such a holocaust of the intellect have been enormous.”
I spent six months in Vienna as a student in the early 1970s. Back then, the Jewish contribution to the cultural explosion in the last years of the Habsburg empire, known popularly as “Vienna 1900”, was hardly recognised. There was no Jewish Museum, no Arnold Schönberg Center, and the Wittgenstein House was under threat of demolition. In the early 1980s, when I was researching the Kokoschka centenary exhibition for the Tate, it wasn’t easy to find information on those artists and intellectuals who, like Kokoschka, had opposed dictatorship or had gone into exile because they were Jews or communists.
Even as recently as the 1980s, the Austrian Gallery Belvedere would not have dedicated galleries, as it does now, to artists who were forced to emigrate or who were deported to death camps.
As far as I am aware, Freud only visited Vienna once after the war. However, it is highly likely that he saw the large exhibition Art Treasures from Vienna at the Tate in 1949, which brought to London 200 of the finest old master paintings from the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM): he was certainly familiar with its collections. There was also a deeper connection between the Freud family and the KHM. One of its assistant curators in the 1920s was Ernst Kris, an expert on Renaissance gold and gems, who became a practising psychoanalyst. Ernst Gombrich, then a student of art history in Vienna, first met Kris in the early 1930s, when “he had two patients in the morning before going to his office in the Museum”.
In 1932 Kris published a study of the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s extraordinary sculpted heads in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere, which combined his art-historical interest in physiognomic expression with insights drawn from psychoanalysis. Shortly afterwards, he was invited by Freud to co-edit Imago, the interdisciplinary psychoanalytic periodical founded in 1921.
Kris became close to Sigmund Freud and advised him on the purchase and display of his collection of antiquities. Gombrich recalls Kris telling him that “Freud ... urged him to continue his Museum work”. Kris remained in his post at the KHM until he emigrated in 1938; Gombrich was briefly his assistant. In 1934-35 they collaborated on a history of caricature, inspired by Freud’s exploration of “the common area between unconscious fantasies and the comic”.
Owing to the deteriorating political situation, the book was never published but, in 1940, when both men were in London working for the BBC – Kris analysing Nazi propaganda and Gombrich monitoring German radio broadcasts – they wrote a shorter English version, entitled Caricature, for the King Penguin series. In it the authors state that “What Freud has taught us about Wit ... applies no less to the graphic expression of wit”.
Lucian Freud’s drawings and paintings of the early 1940s have always seemed to me to demonstrate an interest in caricature. When I was researching the exhibition of his early work in 1997, he acknowledged a debt not only to Grosz’s drawings but also to the subversive humour of Wilhelm Busch, creator of Max und Moritz and other comic picture books that he had read as a child. Gombrich and Kris reproduced a drawing by Busch in Caricature and Sigmund Freud, whose sense of humour his grandson affectionately recalled, owned an original by him.
Lucian Freud dated his awareness of being Jewish to about 1929, when he was affected by the increasing anti-Semitism in Berlin: “Suddenly, one was an outsider, someone to be hunted down. I rebelled, of course, and became very resentful.”
In 1933, shortly after the family emigrated to London, his grandfather’s books were publicly burnt by the Nazis less than a mile from his parents’ Berlin apartment. In spite of these deeply unpleasant childhood memories, Freud agreed to a retrospective in Berlin, at the National Gallery, in 1988.
A decade later, at the time of the Kunst Haus Wien affair, I remember him saying to me that if the Kunsthistorisches Museum were to offer him a one-man show, he might be persuaded to accept. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see it.
This is a version of an article in ‘Lucian Freud’ (Prestel/KHM), edited by Sabine Haag and Jasper Sharp
Freudian methods: Vienna revisited
This is the first exhibition of Freud’s work ever held in Austria. The artist was involved in the selection in the months leading up to his death in 2011, in consultation with Jasper Sharp, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the KHM.
Previous Freud retrospectives have sometimes suffered from the inclusion of too many works but, in recent years (Pompidou Centre, 2010; National Portrait Gallery, 2012) a more selective approach has been to the artist’s benefit. The KHM show contains just 43 paintings but almost every one is a masterpiece. The earliest, the self-portrait “Man with a Feather” (1943) is a superb example of Freud’s glacial, precisionist style, with its echoes of Netherlandish painting and surrealism. The show ends with Freud’s final painting, a naked portrait of David Dawson with his dog, “Portrait of the Hound” (2010-11), executed in the freer, more painterly manner Freud evolved from the 1960s.
There are portraits of Freud’s wives, lovers, fellow artists and friends from high and low life; still lifes of fruit, plants, a book, a sink, a dead heron; views of rundown parts of London seen from the artist’s studio; and moving portraits of Freud’s elderly mother.
The canvases vary in size from tiny heads and still lifes measuring 6in by 4in to full-length and group portraits nearly 8ft by 6ft. These challenging changes of scale ensured that Freud rarely succumbed to a formula.
The KHM exhibition features some very large nudes from the last two decades of Freud’s life, including three showing the performance artist Leigh Bowery and two of Freud’s outsize model Sue Tilley, the “Benefits Supervisor”. These impressive paintings bear comparison with the grandest of the old masters, such as Rubens, although at Freud’s request his works have been hung apart from the permanent collections of the KHM.
Nevertheless, visitors will be able to move from one display to the other and make their own connections. Freud’s appetite for the art of the past was voracious. The show includes one of his reworkings of Chardin’s “The Young Schoolmistress” in the National Gallery, London. The catalogue (published by Prestel in a German-English edition) explores in depth Freud’s debt to art history. Of particular interest is the essay by Guido Messling entitled “Lucian Freud’s ‘German Accent’”.
To complement the KHM exhibition, David Dawson, Lucian Freud’s trusted assistant of 20 years, is showing his photographs of Freud in his studio at the Sigmund Freud Museum, formerly Sigmund Freud’s consulting rooms and apartment at Berggasse 19. A more poignant venue could hardly be imagined, given Lucian’s happy childhood memories of visiting his grandfather there before the latter was forced into exile.
Dawson’s work provides a unique insight into Freud’s working environment and methods.
‘Lucian Freud’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, October 8-January 6 2014. khm.at
‘Lucian Freud: In Private: Photographs by David Dawson’, Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna, October 9-January 6, freud-museum.at