Lucian Freud, the most celebrated portrait painter of the last half century, died yesterday at the age of 88. Truly great artists are polarizing figures, and their passing seems to demand we pass judgement. Kindred spirits champion their hero, detractors scoff half-respectfully, and others try to immediately frame their support or misgivings in the context of an historical or critical narrative.
Encountering a Lucian Freud painting, however, will always render historical or critical contexts irrelevant. His commitment to observation and the raw, intimate results are simply too engaging. Even a chance encounter with one of his works shows him to be an artist who endeavored to know his subjects through an observational process of unprecedented exactitude.
Lucian Freud looked. He looked with an unmatched intensity, a kind of scrutiny of which only a painter is capable. The relentlessness of Freud’s observation, more than his famous paint surfaces, set him apart as an artist. Looking, not paint, creates the sometimes unbearably real intimacy of Freud’s paintings.
Although Lucian Freud has taken his last look, we should not. His paintings instruct us to undertake a more passionate examination of our surroundings.