This apparent mercilessness is what makes Freud’s work difficult, but also mesmerising. Rarely is the human form captured in all its vulnerability, with all ofits flaws. Freud’s gift to painting was to demystify the nude—to find the beauty in the grotesque—and to do it without seeming unaffectionate. “For me the paint is the person,” Freud explained to Lawrence Gowing, a biographer.
A survey of tributes to the man reveals a delicious glut of adjectives. His nudes had a “fleshiness and mass,” observes Mr Grimes, with faces that “showed fatigue, distress, torpor.” His female subjects “seemed not just nude but obtrusively naked.” Michael Glover in the Independent marvels at the “gorgeous, swollen, egregious fleshiness” of his figures. Florence Waters in the Telegraph considers Freud's legacy of “gracelessly posed, grossly sagging” women. His work evokes thoughts of “a face sculpted in paint that appears to fold and puff like a cauliflower ear.”
But perhaps the finest recollection comes from Sue Tilley, the somewhat unwieldy subject of Freud’s painting “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, which sold at auction in 2008 for £17.2m ($33.6m). A 280-pound (20-stone) civil servant, Ms Tilley posed for Freud for several paintings—a physically arduous experience—and the results are often described as remarkably unflattering. But her description of their time, as printed in the Guardian, is enlightening for the way it captures the artist’s humanity and unhurried discipline.
Their regular sessions would begin with Freud cooking breakfast (“he used the best ingredients and did very little to them, gorgeous bread, gorgeous fish, cooked plainly”). Then she would sit for him, tired and uncomfortable, but not alienated from the process: “it taught me that it is real work: each painting took nine months, and he was seeking perfection right up to the moment he finished.” She recalls that she always felt "a bit jealous: he did exactly as he pleased. He was funny, miserable, horrible, kind, mean, generous, every character trait mixed up in one person". But, she clarifies:
He wasn't cruel—he painted what he saw. What strikes me most is, I look at my fat ankles and my fat feet every morning and I think they look just like that painting. Even the skinny girls don't look good, do they? He painted out of love.
Freud only painted people he knew, and he did so until he died (leaving a few unfinished works in the process). In Martin Gayford's book about the artist, reviewed in The Economist last year, Freud is captured calling his nudes “naked portraits”. He avoided professional models because he wanted to create the effect of, “My God, you haven’t got your clothes on!”
He worked to capture his subjects' individuality, if not always their exact likeness. “Quality in art is inextricably bound up with emotional honesty,” he said.