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Lucian Freud Show Explores Crucial Relationship Between Etchings and Works on Canvas
Bella. 1981, Oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 11 7/8" (35 x 30 cm), Collection Roy and Cecily Langdale Davis. Photo: © Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library. © 2007 Lucian Freud.

NEW YORK.-Lucian Freud: The Painter's Etchings, on view at MoMA from December 16, 2007, to March 10, 2008, highlights the artist's exceptional achievements in the medium of etching and explores the crucial relationship between these works on paper and his works on canvas. In a career spanning more than six decades, Freud (British, b. Germany, 1922), has redefined portraiture and the nude through his frank scrutiny of the human form. Although best known as a painter, Freud has made etching a constant part of his artistic practice since 1982. The full scope and significance of Freud’s achievements in etching are represented here, ranging from rare, early experiments of the 1940s to the increasingly large and complex compositions created since his rediscovery of the medium in the early 1980s, including a new work completed in 2007. Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings, Freud’s first solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art and his first museum exhibition in New York City in 14 years, is organized by Starr Figura, The Phyllis Ann and Walter Borten Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, The Museum of Modern Art.

Ms. Figura states: “Although Freud’s etchings speak for themselves in terms of their quality and strength, this aspect of his work remains relatively little known as compared with his paintings. This exhibition reveals the integral and vitally important place of etchings within Freud’s oeuvre.”

In an unusual cross-media installation, some 68 etchings of the 82 that Freud has created to date are juxtaposed with 21 related paintings and five drawings, revealing the dramatic dialogue among mediums in Freud’s oeuvre. Also included are three large copper plates from which three of Freud’s most extraordinary etchings were printed.

The exhibition is organized around the themes that are central to Freud’s oeuvre, including, most prominently, the works that he calls “Naked Portraits” and “Portrait Heads,” as well as other subjects that he occasionally turns to, such as dogs and views of the garden behind his house. Within each gallery, etchings, paintings, and drawings are paired or grouped to underscore Freud’s long-term fascination with particular subjects or sitters, to highlight his intense preoccupation with the physical properties of his different mediums, and to suggest how the mediums of painting and etching nourish and inform one another in Freud’s practice. Among the individual sitters who appear in more than one work within the exhibition are Freud’s mother Lucie, his daughter Bella, performance artist Leigh Bowery, and the British lawyer and political advisor, Arnold Goodman.

A grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the artist was born in Berlin in 1922. He emigrated with his family to London in 1933 to escape the Nazi takeover of Germany, and became a British citizen in 1939. His formal training was brief but included an important period in 1939 when he studied at painter Cedric Morris's East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham. Freud began to work full-time as an artist in 1942 and had his first solo exhibition in 1944 at London’s Lefevre Gallery.

Freud often describes his work as autobiographical, stating in 1974: “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, in rooms that I live in and know. I use the people to invent my pictures with, and I can work more freely when they are there.” Often awkward and anything but idealized, his works reflect his belief that art should be based on observable reality—and for Freud reality is disturbing. His etchings and paintings depict the people in his life, mostly family members and friends who, once they’ve agreed to participate, come for several hours on a regular, sometimes near-daily basis to sit for him. Freud is known as a very slow worker. Each painting takes from several months to more than a year to complete, and each etching also typically occupies months of the artist’s time. The finished works bear the evidence of progressive revision and reinforcement.

Freud and Etching - Freud’s etchings are often directly related to specific paintings and are sometimes part of an extended series of works dealing with a particular subject. He makes them not by consulting his paintings, but by undertaking a separate round of sittings in the studio; each new encounter provides its own fresh revelations. Painting and printmaking offer him alternative means of acquainting himself with a subject—one gestural and colorful, the other linear and black and white—and, in fact, etchings have largely taken the place of drawings in Freud’s oeuvre. Contrary to possible assumptions, Freud’s etchings sometimes precede rather than follow the execution of related paintings. When etching, Freud always works directly from his models and uses variously bunched, feathered, and hatched lines to bring their individual features into relief. Pared down to linear essentials and depicting figures cropped or isolated against empty backgrounds, Freud's etchings achieve a startling sense of psychological tension and formal abstraction.

Freud typically has several projects going on at any one time: at least two or three paintings and usually at least one etching. Not a typical printmaker, he treats the etching plate like a canvas, standing the copper plate upright on an easel and working slowly over the course of several weeks or months to complete his image. Unlike most other artists who have made as many prints as he, Freud does not work in any print technique other than etching, nor has he ever incorporated color into his etching. He works on prepared copperplates in his own studio, delivering them to a trusted printer for proofing only after the image is complete. For him etching is an intimate, autographic medium, comparable to drawing but with what he has called an “element of danger and mystery. You don’t know how it’s going to come out. What’s black is white. What’s left is right.”

Freud made his first six etchings between 1946 and 1948, all of which are on view in the first gallery of the exhibition. In the 1940s, Freud’s work was based on a miniaturist technique, in which forms and textures were replicated through precise lines and smooth edges. Etching, with its potential for minute linear details, was naturally suited to this style. After 1948, Freud stopped making prints for 34 years and focused exclusively on painting. His rediscovery of the medium in 1982 was prompted by the publication that year of a major monograph about him and his work by the renowned British art historian Lawrence Gowing. To satisfy the desire for a new etching to be inserted into each of the 100 copies of the deluxe edition of the book, Freud created 15 prints then chose four to be published in editions of 25 each. The subjects of all 15 etchings—13 of which are included in the exhibition—are people who frequented Freud’s studio at the time, including Gowing; the artist’s mother, Lucie Freud; and his daughter, Bella Freud. Freud’s etchings from 1982—and ever since—are still based on a slow and intense process of observation and scrutiny, but their fluid style reflects the more painterly and gestural approach that Freud had by then developed in his works on canvas.

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