LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
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LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)

Untitled (Interior Drawing, The Owl)

LUCIAN FREUD (1922-2011)
Untitled (Interior Drawing, The Owl)
signed and dated 'March 1945 Lucian Freud' (lower left)
pen and ink on paper
21 ½ x 16 1/8in. (54.5 x 41cm.)
Executed in 1945
The artist.
Private Collection, England.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 13 October 2011, lot 18.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
London, Blain Southern, Lucian Freud: Drawings, 2012, p. 78, no. 34 (illustrated in colour, pp. 79 and 213). This exhibition later travelled to New York, Acquavella Galleries.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.


Arriving on the page like a vision, Untitled (Interior Drawing, The Owl) (1945) is a beautiful early drawing by Lucian Freud. The artist uses razor-fine black ink to depict a taxidermied barn owl in a glass case, which rests on a rush-seated wooden chair. Every detail is drawn with the young Freud’s unmistakable, clear-sighted sharpness. His unwavering attention brings the owl’s variegated plumage – from the scalloped, speckled quills of its wings to its downy talons and the soft, radial feathers of its heart-shaped face – to electrifying life. He exaggerates the bird’s beak, and embellishes its rear claw into a fearsome spur; its huge, dark eye sits like a vortex at the heart of the picture. Densely observed cross-hatching maps the ribbed weave of the chair, the textured bark of the owl’s perch, and the dark frame of its vitrine, which is fixed with a wire for hanging on the wall. In contrast, Freud leaves the surrounding room and the case’s interior pristinely blank: the effect floods the picture with light, enshrining the owl like a relic on an altar. Freud’s total devotion to what he sees is palpable. Signed ‘March 1945’, the work was executed three months after his twenty-second birthday.

‘If you look at Chardin’s animals,’ Freud once said, ‘they’re absolute portraits. It’s to do with the individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific. So I think portraiture is an attitude. Painting things as symbols and rhetoric and so on doesn’t interest me’ (L. Freud, quoted in S. Smee, ‘A Late-Night Conversation with Lucian Freud,’ in Freud at Work, New York 2006, p. 33). It is precisely this hyper-specific focus that makes Freud’s early drawings so unforgettable, and his direct, unsentimental captivation with dead animals so crucial a part of his artistic development. Closely related to celebrated pictures such as Dead Bird (1943), Dead Monkey (c. 1944) and Rabbit on a Chair (1944) – which features what may be the same woven seat – the crystalline treatment of the owl’s feathers also links it to the magnificent painting Dead Heron (1945), arguably the masterpiece of Freud’s early animal studies. Lawrence Gowing could have been discussing the present work when he described the heron’s ‘ruffled plumage within such an impeccable edge, cut like a stencil … Tattered ends of feather and rumpled barbs fray into claw-like splinters … The resolution is definite and unarguable without a sign of anything softened or spared’ (L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, p. 24).

The piercing realism of these works often pushes them into the realm of the surreal. In their unerring, lucid totality, Freud’s subjects gain an aura of microcosmic significance: Albrecht Dürer’s Northern Renaissance masterpieces Young Hare (1502) and The Great Piece of Turf (1503), prints of which hung in his boyhood apartment in Berlin, are forerunners in their quiet beauty and clean, fierce treatment of detail. Drawing would dominate Freud’s work until around 1950, when he met Francis Bacon. With an unfolding fascination for human subjects, he resolved from then on to concentrate on paint. While this new focus would yield the visceral, bodily force of Freud’s incomparable mature portraits, the needle-sharp magic of his early drawings endures. Renouncing drawing was a courageous move from an artist who always refused to settle into the atrophy of style. As Nicholas Penny has written of this moment, ‘it is hard to think of another artist who turned his back on so much’ (N. Penny, Lucian Freud: Works on Paper, exh. cat. South Bank Centre, London, 1988, p. 14).

Gowing writes vividly of the emergent particularity of Freud’s 1940s work: ‘A personal flavour unlike any one had known was communicating itself to art; it still does … one feels the quality of sharpened perception and pointed response that makes one think of the lowered muzzle of some hunting creature, and think with involuntary admiration, unless it is apprehension’ (L. Gowing, ibid., p. 7). Indeed, there is a sort of mercilessness at play in Freud’s acute, hawkeyed approach – an unremitting honesty that goes straight to the nerve of being. For all its delicacy, the present work is also an exhilarating record of Freud’s matchless, concentrated vigilance. Bristling with distinct and singular spirit, the owl displays Freud’s faith in what Ingres called the ‘probity’ of drawing, in its absolute vitality as a way of looking at the world. Freud’s commitment is uncompromising, complete and compulsive, fired with the urgency of a moral imperative. The image looks as if it could not possibly have been any other way.

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