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Painted in London in 1970, Wasteground, Paddington presents an intimate and intensely personal portrait of the urban landscape viewed from Freud’s studio on Gloucester Terrace. Looking out of his back window to the overgrown wasteland beyond, Freud lays bare the raw detail of his surroundings with the piercing incisiveness that defines his practice. The present work is closely related to the larger-scale view of the same scene, Wasteground with Houses, Paddington—a work widely hailed as a masterpiece within Freud’s oeuvre. A deeply personal vision, exposing and exalting the mundane reality of his daily view, Wasteground, Paddington belongs to a small but definitive group of townscapes that Freud painted between 1970 and 1972. Shifting his gaze from the figure in the studio to the world outside his window, these hauntingly desolate compositions are among the most powerful of all Freud’s works. Coinciding with the death of his father, Ernst Freud, in April 1970, the present work was created at a time of profound reflection and the scene. The trampled undergrowth, the torn mattresses, the overlooked and unwanted paraphernalia of daily human activity: all are rendered with the same penetrating exactitude that distinguishes Freud’s nudes and portraits. Observed from within the hallowed space of his studio walls, it is an interiorized view of an external reality, with the wasteland taking its place as Freud’s muse. “I felt somehow the rubbish was the life in the picture,” Freud explained. “…I’m fascinated with the haphazard way it has come about, with the poignancy of the impermanency of it” (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, “Lucian Freud: Life into Art,” in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 31). By inviting the viewer into the privacy of his studio, positioning the onlooker in line with his own gaze, Wasteground, Paddington reveals the stark urban backdrop to Freud’s intimate creative space. Relishing in the untold detail of the scene, the work may almost be understood as a meditation on the artist’s own existence.
The London landscape was deeply embedded in Freud’s psyche, and the present work marks the culmination of almost 30 years spent in the vicinity of Paddington. Like his sitters, many of whom were close family and friends, Paddington was a subject of deep personal significance for the artist. The area had been greatly affected by the slum clearances of the 1960s, taking Freud’s former properties at Delamere Terrace and Clarendon Crescent in their wake. Freud admired the area for its urban grittiness, and it was during his time at Gloucester Terrace between 1967 and 1972 that he finally undertook to paint its likeness. In both Wasteground Paddington and Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, Freud captures something of the shifting nature of the postwar London landscape. “Neither version stuck to the facts,” writes William Feaver. “Several garage doors and windows were omitted from the smaller painting, railings from the larger one, and figures came and went” (W. Feaver, “Lucian Freud: Life into Art” in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 31). In this way, the Wasteground works are marked by a certain aura of transience—a quality heightened by the scattered debris that occupies the center of the composition. Observed from an elevated, God’s-eye vantage point, these works bears witness to the artist’s careful curation of his subject matter: the dramatic perspectival sweep of the fence, the deliberate rearrangement of windows and doors, and the heightened detail of the debris. Freud continually refined his execution of this visible decay, reportedly paying dustmen to leave the two mattresses behind as he worked on the composition. “I felt the rubbish must be more exact,” he claimed (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, “Lucian Freud: Life into Art”, in Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 31).
Freud’s decision to remove people from his landscape was strongly influenced by his personal circumstances. Though Freud had not been close to his father, his death marked a critical turning point in his outlook. “It was an end to knowing his own beginning,” writes Geordie Greig (G. Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist, London 2013, p. 57). In an attempt to incite him out of his despondency, his then-girlfriend Jacquetta Eliot urged him to find a new direction for his work, and proposed that he look beyond the confines of his studio walls. In Wasteground, Paddington, Freud finds a level of peace and catharsis in the seemingly unremarkable view, bringing to life the mundane detail normally consigned to the margins of daily existence. Indeed, Freud described how “the rubbish dump was the feeling of not using a person. Like taking a very deep breath. I was very conscious as I looked out of the window at the back that more and more people were leaving and that it got emptier and emptier” (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 26). The detritus becomes an ethereal signifier for human presence and, in doing so, serves to extend his figural practice. The unloved, unacknowledged space surrounding his studio becomes a subject as vivid as the glorious imperfections of the naked human form that occupied him throughout his oeuvre.
Freud’s father had been an architect, and it is perhaps significant that the artist’s period of grieving saw an increased fascination with terraced houses and factories—impersonal constructs chosen for their derelict, lifeless appearances. In Freud’s townscapes of this period, he paints the most functional of buildings in such a way that, like his nudes, the physical detail of its exterior hints at the unknowable life within. As Bruce Bernard has written, “Freud has never made a close study of architecture or perspective, but like Ingres, who believed that to have learned anatomy would have harmed him as a figure painter, he relied entirely on his eyes to plot, with an extraordinarily even and steady attention as well as what seems like perfect patience, the daunting complexity of everyday bricks, windows and chimney stacks …The semi-schematic, Stanley Spencer approach seems at first the only way Freud could possibly have painted it without endangering his reason, but he countered that method, it seems, with exemplary intent, kept his eyes fixed on the particular” (B. Bernard, “Thinking About Lucian Freud,” in B. Bernard and D. Birdsall (eds.), Lucian Freud, London 1996, p. 19). His bleak façades harbor a sense of the passing of time, of the artist’s hand building walls, roofs and windows with the patience of a draughtsman or bricklayer. Inanimate and silent, however, they are also empty shells that coldly reflect the questioning gaze of the viewer. In this way, Wasteground Paddington takes on the quality of a poignant memento mori; indeed, its distinctly rear-view aspect may be said to contribute to its sense of fading memorial contemplation.
Wasteground, Paddington illustrates Freud’s interest in the great masters of landscape and still-life painting. Like the great urban landscape paintings of the past, such as Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch’s backyard views of life in 17th century Holland, Freud’s townscapes may be seen to function as a microcosm and metaphor of human life. As Bruce Bernard explains, “it should never be forgotten how much some of the great landscape and still-life painters mean to him. He gets as much satisfaction from Corot, Constable, Turner and Chardin, for instance, as from the great portrait and figure painters, and does not acknowledge any clear division between them (nor did van Gogh, whom Freud also greatly admires)” (B. Bernard, “Thinking About Lucian Freud,” in B. Bernard and D. Birdsall (eds.), Lucian Freud, London 1996, p. 19). In Wasteground, Paddington, Freud crafts a remarkable fusion of landscape and portrait. Looking inwards and outwards simultaneously, it invites the viewer into the interior space of the artist’s personal gaze; at the same time, however, it challenges us to confront a cold reality that lies tantalizingly out of reach. It is through this duality that Wasteground, Paddington stands amongst the most poignant of Freud’s responses to the human condition.