Lucian Freud's initial forays into the world of printmaking were private, small-scale affairs. An early influence came from Graham Sutherland, the English artist whose early work followed closely the pastoral tradition of Samuel Palmer, and who gave Freud his etching tools and provided technical guidance. During the years 1946-48 he produced six different compositions in small editions, totalling thirty impressions in all. These early works are sharply focused, crystalline and precise, and have much in common with his painting and drawing style. However, in the 1950's he began to feel that, in Craig Hartley's phrase, 'the line was strangling the paint'. Until that point drawing had been an independent and equally valid form of expression. Thereafter it became subservient to his painting, which began to develop the mature style we know today. A secondary casualty of this evolution was his printmaking. After the masterpiece Ill in Paris (Hartley 4) he abandoned etching entirely for 34 years.
He returned to prints in 1982, as part of a project to include a print with the deluxe edition of Lawrence Gowing's monograph on the artist. The influence of developments in his painting style in the intervening years is immediately obvious. The handling is looser, coarser almost. The lines are heavier and more widely spaced. The effect emphasises the volume and weight of the subject, and thereby its physicality, whereas the earlier work was more flattened, and dwelt more in the psychological realm. But one thing that had not changed was the intensely personal nature of his work:
'My work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work from the people that interest me and that I care about'. (Quoted in The Etchings of Lucian Freud, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1946-1995, Craig Hartley, Marlborough Graphics, London, 1995). Freud clearly feels that close observation of the human form is as relevant now as it ever was. Perhaps even more so, in an age obsessed with physical perfection. 'More than any other twentieth century artist, Freud makes us acutely aware of existing as human beings; of our sexuality, of being fat or thin, of getting old, of being mortal' (Robert Flynn Johnson, Lucian Freud, Works on Paper, South Bank Centre, 1988).
His depictions are not portraits in the normal sense. In Robert Flynn Johnson's words, they have drama without narrative - they are wrapped in self-imposed silence. Apart from a few cases, such as Lord Goodman (H. 32) his sitters are chosen not for who they are, but for what they are. With little or no background, and frequently naked, the subjects of his prints do not invite idle speculation, which would only distract from their impact. And nakedness is the correct term. Freud does not etch, paint or draw the nude in any classical sense.
Viewpoint and composition are major concerns of Freud in his prints. There is little or no distance between the subject and the picture plane, and the boundaries of the composition frequently cut across the sitter, even masking part or all of the face, as in Pluto (H. 37). Another characteristic is the awkward poses in which he arranges the figures, together with the unusual viewpoints he adopts. He has described how he takes various 'readings' from different angles because:'I don't want to miss anything that could be of use to me.'(Hartley, ibid)
With a naked, obviously imperfect, clearly 'real' human form placed before us no wonder Freud's etchings induce a feeling of unease. But the closeness of the subject to the picture plane also allows us to examine it much more closely than we would be able to in real life. Like viewing people through a one-way mirror, we can be intimate yet safe from scrutiny ourselves. Freud's prints produce such a deep response that the viewer has to deal not only with the picture, but also to his or her reaction to it. These works tell us much about how Freud sees humanity, but they also have the power to tell us much about our own attitudes.