‘One remembers the little pictures as sharpened by their minuteness, as if to pierce the eye and haunt it. Sharpened equally by the penetrating authenticity, which made them irresistible and captivating’
‘Everything is equally there, and must be equally described. This objectivity, this evenness of attention mingled with a barely veiled otherness of all objects—rooms, faces, plants, furniture—lies at the core of Freud’s early work’
In this exquisite example of Lucian Freud’s early still-lives, a dried poppy-head and slumped hand puppet are subjected to a hawkeyed and thrilling exactitude of vision. On a bipartite field of dark green and white, the two objects are picked out with alert scrutiny. Intense attention is paid to the poppy’s porous surface and the delicate folds of the puppet’s ruff, ringed with the same bright carmine as its cap; the lines and shadows have a miniaturist quality, at once sharply realised and graphically flat. Before Freud turned his gaze so incomparably upon human subjects, the young artist studied inanimate things: fruit and flowers, dead birds and monkeys, potted plants, tables and taxidermy fill his early drawings and paintings. Originally owned by his parents, Ernst and Lucie Freud, Poppy and Hand Puppet was painted when Freud was aged just twenty-one. Contained in its delicate scale and simple composition is all the hard, concentrated energy and painterly command that would come to characterise his matchless and uncompromising career.
Freud’s rare talent was evident from an early age. Lawrence Gowing recalls: ‘People who met Freud in his middle teens, and a lot of people did, recognized his force immediately; fly, perceptive, lithe, with a hint of menace. I met him first in the winter of 1938-39 when he was fifteen or sixteen and already spoken of as a boy-wonder’ (L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, p. 9). The Freuds had moved from Berlin to London in 1933; Lucian spent the year of 1938 at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, and in 1939 joined Cedric Morris’s East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting. Despite Freud accidentally burning the school down, he stayed on with Morris until 1942, painting flowerpots and cacti in the artist’s stable in Langham before moving to London. During this time he developed the concentrated line and sharp clarity of his early period, as well as a faintly surrealist compositional edge: The Painter’s Room, also from 1944, for which Freud himself suggested Miró’s Le Carnaval d’Arlequin as an antecedent, features his favourite stuffed zebra head looming in garish red and yellow over a curious assemblage of sofa, palm tree and top hat; the poppy and puppet have a similar uncanny flavour. Freud, proud of his stylistic accomplishments, made it clear that he was not a surrealist: ‘Much as I admired early Chirico and Miró, I objected to the fact that under the laws of doctrinaire surrealism as approved by Mesens it was easy for people of no talent to practise art’ (L. Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, p. 23). While he always insisted – impossibly – that his own fierce literalism precluded any outside influence, Freud’s early work also shows Germanic hints of the still life work of Dürer, a print of whose The Great Piece of Turf (1503) hung in his boyhood apartment in Berlin. Herbert Read, writing in 1951, called Freud ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’ (H. Read, Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35), and herein lies a greater insight. Ingres believed in the intellectual and moral dignity of art, setting a philosophical value on the actuality of lifelike visual information; Freud, through absolute consistency to his detailed vision of what lay before him, strove for a similar truth.
Sinewy, lucid, unwavering, Poppy and Hand Puppet captures the total vitality of Freud’s painting, even in the absence of human life. In the finely-worked fabric surfaces and crisp, faceted definition of shadow there is a mercilessness, but also a timeless trust in paint as a mode of perception. The work is the record of a gaze unique in its attentiveness, command and probity: qualities that would be brought to bear ever more magnificently in Freud’s developing portrait practice. As Gowing writes memorably, upon seeing Freud’s early work ‘one feels the quality of sharpened perception and pointed response that makes one think of the lowered muzzle of some hunting creature, and think with involuntary admiration, unless it is apprehension … The treasures that he began in these years to incorporate in painting could be the amenities of his own life or the fate of some beautiful animal, the parts of an inviting body or the features that are each an earnest of some craved and intimate rapport. The details were on the surface miscellaneous, discrepant. On another level they are none the less homogeneous and consistent. They own a common motivation, which is the serious reason for representing anything and the only incentive to attain the quality that gives the contents of painting the value they have in life. Painting for him has the character of his appetite, the preternaturally sharp-eyed appreciation, which is also a kind of possessiveness’ (L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, pp. 7, 20).