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It isn’t altogether news that the realist painter Lucian Freud, who died last July at eighty-eight, was something of a child prodigy—and was certainly a disciplined, adventurous, and ambitious artist already by his early twenties. At the current exhibition “Lucian Freud Drawings,” though, the variety, peculiarity, and technical mastery of his work from the 1940s, when he was in his twenties, may strike viewers as a gift from out of the blue. We follow a young artist who, while capable of tossing off charming doodles of friends and fantasy creatures, or making a brilliant caricatural sketch of a donkey named Tommy, was mostly concerned with delineating his subjects as precisely as possible. And perhaps as a byproduct of his seemingly obsessive need to be so accurate, many of his highly finished drawings are touched with odd or fanciful notes.
His subject might be, a little strangely, a dead monkey, which he brought home as a subject to study (this happened more than once). Or he could draw, amusingly and unexpectedly, a sleeping baby accompanied by a stuffed monkey, which eyes us with suspicion. In a stunning 1943 landscape entitled Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit, Freud barely gives us a glimpse of the famous loch, but he accounts for seemingly every leaf and pebble in the terrain. In his often spectacular portraits, which brought out the most in him, we face young male sitters who sometimes have a distinct sensual allure and young women who can express an unusual degree of apprehensiveness. Yet Freud draws facial features in such exaggerated ways that these pictures can seem cartoonish, or overly stylized, even inept, at the same time as they are spellbinding.
Freud’s early art has been linked to Surrealism, a vein of which, in those years, emphasized such an acute, sharp-focused realism. There was also an interest at the time in the awkward, stiff simplicities of folk art, and Freud, like a folk artist—or like an artist who is reluctant to give up the approaches that worked for him when he was very young—often seems to operate as if his portrait subjects’ eyes and lips (and possibly ears) are the only elements in a face that really count. Yet the best of his early drawings don’t come across as remnants of one period style…
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