LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
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LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)

A Man (Self-portrait)

Details
LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
A Man (Self-portrait)
ink and coloured pencil on paper
8 1/2 x 5 3/4in. (21.5 x 14.6cm.)
Executed in 1944
Provenance
E.L.T. Mesens Collection, London (acquired directly from the artist).
Douglas Newton Collection, New York (acquired from the above circa 1952-1953).
Private Collection, Australia (acquired from the above in 2001), thence by descent.
Anthony Slayter-Ralph Fine Art, New York.
Private Collection, USA.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibited
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lucian Freud: Early Works, 1993-1994, p. 51 (titled 'A Man').
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits, 2020, fig. 40 (illustrated, p. 138).
Special notice
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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A rare work of exceptional quality, A Man (Self-portrait) is an exquisite early self-portrait by Lucian Freud. Drawn in ink and coloured pencil when he was just twenty-one years old, it marks his arrival as an artist. The work dates from 1944: the year of Freud’s first solo London exhibition, and the period in which he produced his first major artworks. Both on paper and on canvas, the artist’s self-portraits formed the beating heart of his oeuvre—from extraordinary early visions such as Man with a Thistle (Self-Portrait) (1946, Tate London) to the masterpieces of self-scrutiny that punctuated his final decades. Here, with crystalline clarity and precision, Freud sets this trajectory in motion. Every hair and contour is immaculately rendered; his eyes are piecing blue. Bathed in otherworldly green light, like a mythical figure, his forehead is framed by a band of shells, alive with the surreal theatricality that characterised his early oeuvre. Included in his landmark self-portraiture retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2020, it captures the birth of an artist who would go on to redefine the genre for the twentieth-century.

The work’s provenance is remarkable. For half a century it resided in the personal collection of Douglas Newton: the celebrated art historian, curator and later chairman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Prior to this, it was owned by the Belgian artist E. L. T. Mesens, Freud’s early dealer and friend. In 1938 Mesens had famously organised the exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the New Burlington Galleries: that year, he also encountered Freud’s teenage drawings for the first time in a group exhibition staged by Peggy Guggenheim. Under his guidance at the London Gallery during the 1940s, the young artist flourished, with Mesens notably securing the sale of his Girl with Leaves (1948) to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. ‘Ed’, as he was affectionately known to Freud, was a Surrealist, who regularly involved his protégé in the movement’s London scene. Such associations shed light on the strange, hallucinatory quality of much of Freud’s early oeuvre: A Man (Self-portrait), notably, is contemporaneous with The Painter’s Room, Quince on a Blue Chair and other formative masterworks in which this tendency is at its most pronounced.

Marked by his solo debut at the Lefevre Gallery, 1944 was an important year for Freud. As his painting practice took flight, his draughtsmanship flourished in equal measure: the present work takes its place alongside extraordinary 1944 drawings such as Rabbit on a Chair, Lobster and Rotted Puffin, each a masterpiece of razor-sharp exactitude. Freud’s particular fascination with beach life and sea creatures during this period, fuelled by trips to Cornwall, Wales and other coastal locations, is echoed in the work’s headdress of shells: does Freud imagine himself here washed up on the magical shores of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Its sense of costume play, indeed, also chimes with the various literary commissions that Freud was beginning to receive. Conversant with the shell drawings that he produced for Nicholas Moore’s The Glass Tower that year, it also anticipates his later illustrations for Rex Warner’s Men and Gods and Marie Bonaparte’s Flyda of the Seas: a tale of a fisherman’s daughter. Among these creations, notably, were visionary early self-portraits, including Flyda and Arvid (1947) and Self Portrait as Actaeon (1949), featuring Freud in the guise of the mythical herdsman.

Freud had painted his first self-portrait in 1939. It was followed by Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait) of 1943: one of his earliest major canvases. Over the years his likeness would come to consume his art. If Freud’s early self-portraits courted dress-up and disguise—the present work’s shells recall elements of the fabric designs that he produced during the 1940s—he was already on the path towards stripping away all pretence. The clean lines and ordered precision of A Man (Self-portrait) anticipate the stark, linear self-portrait drawings of the mid to late 1940s, including Man at Night (Self-Portrait) (1947-48), Self-Portrait with Hyacinth in Pot (1947-1948, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester) and Startled Man: Self Portrait (1948). Man’s Head (Self Portrait I) (1963, The Whitworth, Manchester) and Reflection (Self-Portrait) (1985) are intimate studies of flesh: even more so is the towering full-length nude Painter Working, Reflection (1993). By the time of Self-Portrait, Reflection (2002), painted in his eightieth year, Freud’s own physical substance is indistinguishable from the paint-encrusted studio wall behind him.

‘Everything is biographical’, Freud once said, ‘and everything is a self-portrait’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth 1922-1968, London 2019, p. ix). For him, painting and drawing were acts of self-reflection in and of themselves: they were records of his gaze, and of how he saw the world. For all its notes of fantasy, the present work nonetheless bears witness to the uncompromising, hawk-eyed rigour that had begun to descend upon Freud’s practice during this period. As Martin Gayford highlights in his essay on the work below, the artist’s eyes are particularly pronounced, his surreal, exaggerated pupils boring deeply into the viewer’s own. There are parallels with ancient Roman sculpture or indeed with Albrecht Dürer’s bold, frontal self-portrait of 1500. Ultimately, however, it is Freud and Freud alone who stares back, poised to take his place among the masters.

Martin Gayford on A Man (Self-portrait)

In late October or November 1943, Lucian Freud wrote a letter to Felicity Hellaby (who was a girlfriend, or perhaps more accurately a friend who was a girl). Among other news, he announced that his life had reached at a crucial stage of development. ‘One day I think I am beginning to make my work how I want it to be and then I feel so dissatisfied with it that I leave the house’.

At some point in the following year, more probably the next few months, he made the remarkable image entitled A Man (Self-portrait), 1944. There on one sheet of paper he indicated where he had come from, where he was heading, and simultaneously suggested the extraordinary sensibility that powered his talent. Freud was then 22 and at a crucial point in his evolution as a painter and draughtsman. His art had begun to emerge from an early phase ruled by exuberant fantasy, into something quite different. Over the next two years it morphed into a style characterised by an extraordinary, almost unprecedented close observation of his subjects. A Man (Self-portrait) lies more or less at the midpoint of this trajectory.

If not actually done ‘from life’ by examining his own features in a mirror, (one guesses it was only partly made in this way) the image clearly relied on careful scrutiny of features such as the hair. Freud was fascinated by the complex mass of tangles and thickets, like a wheat field after a storm, which he observed on the human head.

Some 60 years later, when I was posing for an etching (Portrait Head, 2005), I was instructed not to use a comb or brush before each session, because he so liked ‘the forms I find in the hair’. A considerable area of the print entitled Girl with Fuzzy Hair from the year before is devoted to the dense curlicues and complexities of the sitter’s locks.

Although Freud’s works changed enormously over the years in technique and approach, many of his anatomical and physiognomic areas of interests remained the same. Hair was one of these, eyes and ears were among the others. Often he began paintings in the area of the subject’s eyes, and then progressed outwards towards the edges of the canvas. In his portraits of the later 1940s and early 50s, the attention paid to this feature is far beyond normal vision or everyday social interaction.

In works such as Girl with Roses (1948) not only are the iris and pupil registered with fantastic precision, but the eyes seem to have grown in size to match the artist’s scrutiny of them. In several the sash-window frames of the artist’s studio are clearly visible, reflected in the glistening surface of his sitters’ eyeballs.
This obsession is already apparent in A Man (Self-portrait), in which Freud’s own powerful gaze and unnaturalistically enlarged eyes dominate the image. But at this point, though the radiating lines on his irises are carefully indicated, their treatment is more surreal than hyperreal. The pupils are huge and encircled by a white band, so the effect is of two targets, or the patterns of concentric circles used as insignia on military aircraft (a sight which would have been ubiquitous in wartime Britain). This addition gives extra emphasis to the artist’s stare.

Complex curving or curvilinear objects caught Freud’s attention. Also among these were the ears of his subjects. Part of the reason for his preoccupation with Chardin’s painting The Young Schoolmistress (1740) was that he felt the woman in it had ’the most beautiful ear in art’. He made a series of paintings and etchings after this work, zeroing in on her ear. While eating in a restaurant in 2004 he fell silent for a while. When I asked what he was thinking about he answered, ‘Your left ear’.

The ears in A Man (Self-portrait), like the hair, look as if they are the result of careful inspection. Their inner contours are meticulously mapped by a near-pointillist technique of stippled dots which Freud developed further in later works such as Man at Night (1947-48), another extraordinary self-portrait drawing from a few years later. This was a method used jointly by Freud and his then friend John Craxton, who both had studios at 14 Abercorn Place in St John’s Wood, between 1942 and mid-1944. At this time, the two young artists went to life classes, in which they resolutely defined their models with one, clearly defined line. ‘Shading was done with dots’, Craxton remembered. ‘So of course we got lots of remarks like, “How's the measles?”’

Seashells and Chelsea buns—belonging to the same coiled and curvaceous family of forms as ears—were favoured Freudian motifs of the mid-40s. The most surprising aspect of A Man (Self-portrait) is the whirling fossil ammonites arranged in a row across the artist’s forehead. They prompt the question: where did those come from?

There might be a biographical origin. During the years 1943-45, Freud made regular seaside trips, often in the company of Lorna Wishart, a glamorous older woman with whom he was violently in love. Perhaps on one of these jaunts they came across some ammonites. But it is just as likely that he found them in one of the junk shops he haunted at the time or on a trip to EQ Nicholson’s house in Dorset, a regular destination.

Wherever he spotted them, the spiral shapes of these long-extinct molluscs would have attracted Freud. They are a particularly succinct exemplification of the spiral form that was often on his mind. It occurs for example in the twirling cat’s tail in the drawing Unicorn (Toys), 1942–43 done for EQ Nicholson’s young children, and Still-life with Chelsea Buns, 1943. The stream-of-consciousness imagery of Doodle Studies, 1943, contains several abstract whorls of winding lines apparently spontaneously when he wasn’t depicting anything in particular.

Whether intentionally or not, these petrified catherine-wheels are a wonderful metaphor for the youthful Freud’s racing imagination and surging energy. It may be relevant that somersaults were a specialty of the acrobatic young artist. He can be seen performing them with fluent assurance in a some amateur film footage Princess Marie Bonaparte shot during 1938 in Sigmund Freud’s London garden.

Of course, there is a name for this kind of juxtaposition of incongruous imagery: surreal. So A Man (Self-portrait) raises the question: was the young Lucian Freud a Surrealist? To which the answer is—almost, but not quite, and in any case only for a short period. The time in question was precisely that during which this marvellous image was created, 1943-45. Both Freud and his friend and housemate, Craxton were in touch with the London chapter of the Surrealists. They were regularly invited to the dinners the group held at a restaurant in Soho. Both artists exhibited in the London Gallery, run by the expatriate Belgian poet/art dealer E. L. T. Mesens.

The latter and his assistant George Melly strongly believed Freud was an instinctive Surrealist and wanted to recruit him to the movement. Looking at a picture such as The Painter’s Room (1944) one might conclude they had a point. This painting, with its array of unrelated items—including a top hat, parlour palm and the head of an over life-sized zebra—corresponds loosely with Lautréamont’s celebrated recipe for the surreal: ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’ So too do other works from this period including Still-life with Chelsea Buns, 1943, in which the floor-boards and tabletop in the foreground fade into a distant landscape. A Man (Self-portrait) belongs to this group. It is no surprise to discover that Mesens was the first owner of A Man (Self-portrait).

Eventually, however, Freud decided that he did not want to continue on this path. ‘I wanted things to look possible, rather than irrational’, he explained, ‘eliminating the Surrealist look.’ After all, he asked ‘what is more surreal than a nose between two eyes?’ In other words he aimed imbue everyday reality with that sense of weirdness and disassociation you might expect in a Magritte or an Ernst. A Man (Self-portrait) contains both possibilities—it looks possible but irrational. The fossils across the forehead are a prime example of a ‘chance encounter’ between unrelated objects. On the other hand, as already noted, many passages, such as the hair and ears, show close attention to reality.

The whites of the artist’s eyes are delicately emphasised by a light blue wash, which is non-naturalistic device for drawing attention to a physical fact: that the surface of the eyeball is quite unlike that of the surrounding skin. The two eyes are differentiated, the one on the left having a narrower circle of white around the pupil. This was simultaneously a method of preventing monotony by giving the face a rhythmic pulse, and an acknowledgment of the fact that Freud’s eyes were indeed different (as most people’s are). A Man (Self-portrait) belongs to a brief phase in Freud’s works. He was at work on Still-life with Chelsea Buns over the Christmas and New Year period of 1943-44 as a letter to Hellaby reveals. The Painter’s Room was finished by mid-August 1944 as is clear from a newly discovered photograph of the artist in his studio. A Man (Self-portrait) probably dates from the same period as the two paintings. It was as Freud wrote, the moment when he began to make his work the way wanted it to be.

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