Kai, 1991-92: Lucian Freud’s intimate portrait of his lover’s son

Though not his biological father, Freud was very close to Kai, who is said to have been one of only two people at the artist’s bedside when he died. Kai is offered in London on 7 March

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Kai, 1991-92 (detail). Oil on canvas. 20⅛ x 24¼ in (51 x 61.5 cm). Sold for £4,638,000 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

What a difference a few years can make. In 1987, an internationally touring retrospective of Lucian Freud’s paintings could find no New York museum interested in staging it. Fast forward to 1993 and a much-hyped show of new works by the artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art saw him hailed by The New York Times as ‘the greatest living figure painter’.

Freud was never someone to get too hung up on the vagaries of critical or institutional opinion. Little had fundamentally changed in his practice during the six years in question: he was still producing intensely observed portraits of friends, family, lovers and associates.

The early 1990s did, however, mark a move towards an ever more ambitious engagement with the human body. Inspired by the physique of a new model — the performance artist Leigh Bowery — Freud produced a run of celebrated paintings such as Naked Man, Back View. Typically, these featured his subjects unclothed.

A photograph of Lucian Freud in 1983 by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud in 1983. Sophie de Stempel, a regular model for the artist in the 1980s, said that he examined his sitters’ bodies so forensically that she felt as if ‘each of [her] toes was having its portrait painted’. Photo: Jane Bown / Topfoto

Kai (1991-92), an important work from this exciting period, is being offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale at Christie’s on 7 March 2024.

It depicts the adult son of Freud’s one-time lover, Suzy Boyt. The artist and Boyt had had four children together in the 1950s and 1960s (Ali, Rose, Isobel and Susie), but he also regarded Kai — a son of hers from those years by another man — as his own.

When Kai was an infant, his mother inherited a fortune, bought a cargo ship and set sail with her children around the world. It was an adventure he nearly didn’t survive, falling overboard one day and having to be rescued by Suzy and a pair of crew members who dived into the ocean. After two years away, mother and children were repatriated to London from Trinidad when their ship was deemed unseaworthy.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Kai, 1991-92. Oil on canvas. 20⅛ x 24¼ in (51 x 61.5 cm). Sold for £4,638,000 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

During the 1970s and 1980s, Freud’s various offspring came to dominate his art. Paintings such as Head of Esther (1982-83) — depicting Esther Freud, his daughter with the writer Bernardine Coverley — were a record of rekindled familiarity after years of absence during their childhood. ‘If you’re not there when they are in the nest, you can be more there later,’ Freud said.

The adolescent Kai would take centre stage in one of Freud’s most famous works, Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau). Completed in 1983, this group picture sees him seated on a bed between his mother and Bella Freud (the artist’s first child with Coverley). It marked a response to Jean Antoine Watteau’s 1712 painting Pierrot content, Freud transposing the Frenchman’s fête galante, set in an enchanting sylvan glade, to the stark interior of his studio.

Kai was described by Freud as ‘the subject’ of the picture, taking on as he did the position of Pierrot, Watteau’s titular figure. By the time that Kai was painted, just under a decade later, he was a young man. According to William Feaver’s biography of the artist, The Lives of Lucian Freud, Kai was at this point twinning a role as the manager of a music group with that of a helper in Freud’s studio (where duties ranged from moving easels to plastering walls).

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), 1981-83. Oil on canvas. 72¼ x 78 in (185.4 x 198.1 cm). Sold for $86,265,000 on 9 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2024

The portrait reflects the closeness that existed between artist and subject. It captures the latter in profile. He is reclining, with his head resting on what looks like a white pillow. He is awake and has a relaxed, almost regal air. He seems lost in his thoughts, but not wholly so: though he looks away from us, he appears also to be registering our presence out of the corner of his eye.

The close-cropped format brings a sense of intimacy, calling to mind another of Freud’s single-head portraits, Girl with Closed Eyes — a depiction from 1986-87 of his lover, Janey Longman, asleep on a bed.

The crop also puts Freud’s brushwork under a magnifying lens, his every stroke trained upon some tiny modulation of shadow or ripple of light.

The artist famously said that he wanted ‘paint to work as flesh’. Here, rich impasto textures transform Kai’s hair, face and bare chest into a near-sculptural landscape, rippled with skeins of blue, peach, violet and olive. Every square inch of him exudes life.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Girl with Closed Eyes, 1986-87. Oil on canvas. 18¼ x 23¾ in (46.3 x 60.4 cm). Sold for £15,174,500 on 1 March 2022 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2024

Sophie de Stempel, a regular model for Freud in the 1980s, said that the artist examined his sitters’ bodies so forensically that she felt as if ‘each of [her] toes was having its portrait painted’. In the case of Kai, something similar might be said of the jugular vein down the right side of the young man’s neck, or the mottled stubble around his jawbone.

The painting was unveiled at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1993, as part of the aforementioned exhibition of new works that was also seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Reina Sofía in Madrid. Acquired directly from the artist by its initial owner, from whom it passed to its current owner by descent, Kai now comes to auction for the first time.

Our angle when looking at the portrait recalls that of a parent watching over a sleeping child, and perhaps there was an element of nostalgia in Freud’s choice of viewpoint, harking back to Kai’s boyhood.

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What’s undeniable is that the painting manifests the artist’s confidence as the 1990s unfolded. Its gestural vigour and attention to anatomical idiosyncrasy were matched in Freud’s contemporaneous pictures of Bowery and the benefits supervisor Sue Tilley. The key difference, of course, was that where the figures in those pictures were blown up to epic proportions, Kai is captured on a smaller scale in stunning close-up.

As such, Kai mirrors the composition of many of Freud’s etchings: these tend to be dramatically cropped and isolated against empty backgrounds, leaving out whatever piece of furniture a subject happened to be posing on. (Kai himself would be the subject of an admired etching by Freud, produced around the same time as the painting.)

The artist remained close to his de facto stepson for the rest of his life. Kai would serve as a pallbearer at his funeral in 2011. According to Feaver’s biography, Kai had also been (with the artist’s son-in-law, Mark Pearce) one of only two people present at Freud’s bedside when he died.

Led by the 20th/21st Century: London and The Art of the Surreal evening sales on 7 March 2024, Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auctions take place in London from 27 February to 21 March. Find out more about the preview exhibition and sales here

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