Lucian Freud, pre-eminent British painter, dead at 88

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Lucian Freud, who died in London on Wednesday aged 88, was widely recognised as the greatest contemporary British artist in a career spanning seven decades.

The grandson of Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis who helped shape modern views about human behaviour, Lucian Freud also influenced the exploration of the subconscious through his art.

Born to architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund's youngest son, in Berlin in 1922, Lucian moved to England with his family aged 10 to escape Nazism and became a British citizen in 1933.

Freud will be remembered for his signature nudes -- showing off the plentiful body of male model Leigh Bowery for instance -- and self-portraits such as the powerful 1993 painting of Freud as a naked older man waving his brush like a weapon.

"My work is purely autobiographical," Freud said. "It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record."

Freud's subjects ranged from the powerful to the plain, and he has been known to shy away from professional models.

Like many monarchs before her, Queen Elizabeth II turned to a leading artist of her time when she asked Freud to paint her portrait in 2001, agreeing to several hours-long sittings.

The result was a small closeup portrait of the queen under a heavy crown that was dismissed by many of her fans as "ugly" and decried as "a travesty" by The Sun newspaper. The queen herself made no comment.

"I paint people," Freud once said. "Not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

The painter was notorious for subjecting his models to sittings lasting up to a year, and the intense relationship struck up between artist and subject provided the creative force for many of his works.

Freud, once described by art critic Robert Hughes as the greatest living realist painter, studied at London's Central School of Art and Goldsmiths College, but his career was interrupted when he served as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy in 1941.

After an early flirtation with surrealism, Freud turned to portrait painting, particularly nudes, in the 1950s.

Freud achieved global fame as a sought-after artist in the 1990s when his 1995 Portrait "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" fetched 33.6 million dollars at a Christie's auction in New York.

His portrait of a pregnant Kate Moss sold for 10 million dollars in 2004 but a 1978 self-portrait of Freud nursing a black eye fetched a disappointing 3.2 million euros at a London auction held just last month.

Little is known about Lucian's relationship with his grandfather, and some experts have suggested that the artist managed to escape growing up in the shadow of psychoanalysis.

"He does talk about his grandfather, he is very fond of him," said Freud's assistant of 19 years, David Dawson. "His teenage years were spent with his grandfather."

After mostly ignoring his work for decades, Paris earlier this year gave Freud top billing in a show at the Pompidou Centre.

"Lucian Freud - The Studio" featured 47 paintings, the first showing of his work in Paris since 1987, with many pieces coming out of private collections for the fist time in years.

Freud, who became increasingly reclusive in his later years, was rumoured to have fathered dozens of children.

Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate gallery, paid tribute on Thursday.

"The vitality of (Freud's) nudes, the intensity of the still life paintings and the presence of his portraits of family and friends guarantee Lucian Freud a unique place in the pantheon of late 20th Century art," he said.

"His early paintings redefined British art and his later works stand comparison with the great figurative painters of any period."

© 2011 AFP

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