COMPLEXION linen is a rich, fleshy tone, backlit with glowing warmth like the blushing skin of a ripe peach. British painter Lucien Freud infused many of his figurative paintings with this warm pink colour, particularly his male subjects, infusing them with a deeply intense, hot flush of life. On his enduring infatuation with pink and peach tones he wrote, “I don’t want any colour to be noticeable … I don’t want it to operate in the modernist sense as colour, something independent … full, saturated colours have an emotional significance I want to avoid.”
Born in Berlin, Lucien Freud was the grandson of world renowned neurologist Sigmund Freud, whose famous psychoanalysis came to influence his grandson’s intense relationships with his subjects. Lucien Freud moved to England with his family aged 11 in 1933 to escape Nazi Germany, spending the majority of his adult life living and working in London and becoming a key player in the School of London. As a student at the Central School of Art and the East Anglican School of Painting and Drawing throughout the 1940s, the backdrop of the war undoubtedly came to permeate his pensive, sombre paintings, which bristle with underlying anxiety.
As an intensely private and guarded man, the majority of Freud’s portraits were made of his close friends and family, with coral and peach skin tones lending them the rich warmth of familiarity, while also drawing out the underlying tension that occurs in close relationships through brighter pinks. Portraits of his close male companions in particular explored a complex melange of flesh tones that seem to simmer with life-blood, while higher coral notes suggest a brewing psychological tension between artist and subject. In Young Painter, 1958, the landscape contours of a charismatic man’s face ripple through varying shades of cream and dusty pink, while warm pinks threaten to turn hot in small touches on his ears, forehead and the bridge of his nose, brimming with increasing pressure.
Freud’s visual restlessness became more pronounced and expressionistic in the 1960s, exemplified in his portrait of his friend and Soho photographer, John Deakin, 1963. Here hot coral and peach pinks dominate the canvas, painted with fluid, flowing brushstrokes that weave together into a complex patchwork design. Freud captures the brutally honest truth of Deakin’s face here as warm pinks fall into the creases of his skin and blend outwards into his large, dominant ears. Freud referred to his close, intimate portraits as “a kind of truth telling exercise”, where he becomes “fascinated by everything about them.” When painting Deacon’s mouth, Freud remembered “it went in nicely”, although he had to repaint it since it wasn’t true to life.
The brooding, ruddy faced Head of the Big Man, 1975, made more than a decade later, captures bookie Alfie McLean as a towering hulk of manhood with a lingering sense of threat implied through reddening skin and an unflinching stare. Creamy pinks blend across his face before falling into deep orange-reds, capturing the earned wisdom we see etched into his melancholic eyes. Over the course of a 40 year friendship, united by a love of horse racing, McLean traded Freud’s gambling debts for paintings, taking a risk that would more than pay off as he amassed a £100 million pound art collection.
In the same year Freud completed the compelling portrait of his lifelong close friend and fellow School of London artist, Frank Auerbach, 1975 – 1976 portraying a furrowed, balding man fraught with mid-life tension and worry, as strands of warm pink run from his ears into his flushed, hot cheeks and around his neck, rising and falling like the folds of creased fabric. Such is the power of this work that critic Jonathan Jones referenced it as “the deepest, most intense painting of recent times.”