Innovation Blog

Lucien Freud Dies at Age 88: What He Taught Us

By Shlomo Maital

  “Benefits Supervisor  Sleeping” 

Sigmund Freud’s grandson, Lucien Freud, a portrait artist, has died at age 88.  I think innovators can learn a lot from his life and work.

   “Don’t try to surprise!  Don’t try to shock!”  he once said.  “That only works once.”  Today a great deal of art, and for that matter, innovation, seeks desperately to surprise and to shock.  For example, Robert Rauschenberg, an artist once painted a canvas pure white.  He was lauded. The painting sold for $2.8 million.  (A deranged woman even defaced it once!).  But, what next? How many all-white canvases can you do?   Freud worked patiently at his portrait skills, gradually evolving a style that was realistic, but also had elements of surrealism and expressionism.  He found his own style, rather than copy that of others.

   Lucien Freud listened to his own inner voice. In an age when nearly all painters paint in abstract style, he was figurative.   He painted real people, recognizably.  But unlike many classic portrait painters, he never glorified his subjects or air-brushed away the pimples and warts.  The opposite – he revealed the person, as he or she truly was.  He once said, “I want the paint to work as flesh.  The paint IS the person!”  

    In 2008, his nude portrait of a heavy-set civil servant reclining on a sofa, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” sold for $33.6 million at a Christie’s auction, a record figure at the time.

  Born in Berlin in 1922, Freud was one of three sons of Austrian architect Ernst Freud and his German wife, Lucie. The family fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and eventually settled in London.  During World War II, the budding artist served with the British merchant navy.

       Look closely at his portrait of the “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”.  What do you see?  What do you feel?  Do you find innovation in it?  Do you hate it?  Love it?  Or both?