During a career spanning over fifty years, Lucian Freud has established a reputation as one of the foremost figurative painter-printmakers of our time. Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, but was taken by his parents to live in London when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Sigmund Freud, the artist’s eminent grandfather, arrived from Vienna to join his family several years later. A progressive secondary education at Dartington Hall and Bryanston School encouraged Lucian Freud’s early artistic aspirations, if not scholastic achievement, and in 1939 he gained a place at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts. Further studies under Cedric Morris at the private East Anglian School were disrupted when the capricious young student ran away to sea. During World War II, Freud studied part-time at Goldsmith’s College. In 1946, with his reputation as a prodigious draughtsman already firmly established, he made his first prints: small-scale etchings produced in a manner that reflected the same concern for fastidious observation and controlled, deliberate technique as did his drawings and paintings of the time.

By the mid 1950s Freud had become frustrated by the constraints of the precise linear style upon which he had built his early reputation. A lengthy period devoted exclusively to painting saw the redefinition of his visual language, and the emergence of the distinctive earthy palette and fluid, masterly brushwork that characterise the artist’s mature style. In 1982, after a hiatus of thirty-four years, Freud returned to etching with renewed interest. The artist’s achievements with printmaking now rival his achievements in painting.

The etching Woman with arm tattoo was produced in 1996, one of an extraordinary series of nude studies depicting Sue Tilley, or ‘Big Sue’ as she is known to her friends. Tilley was introduced to Freud by the performance artist Leigh Bowery, who had himself posed for a powerful series of nude studies initiated by the artist in 1988. The depiction of these ‘larger-than-life’ models provided the catalyst for the production of some of the most monumental and challenging works of Freud’s career.

Woman with arm tattoo remains the largest of the artist’s etched works. It relates closely to the full-length painted nude study Sleeping by the lion carpet (private collection), also of 1996. In the etched version, extraneous background details have been removed and the composition has been severely cropped, so that the viewer’s focus rests upon the sleeping figure’s distorted facial features. The horizontal or ‘landscape’ format of the plate serves to emphasize the model’s physical scale, and an impressive array of etched marks are used by the artist to fastidiously describe the textures of skin and hair, and to record the effects of light and shadow. As in many of Freud’s etchings, evidence of alterations of contour and line has been left, in this case above the model’s left shoulder, in order to suggest movement.

Throughout his career, Lucian Freud has chosen sitters for his portraits and nude studies from within a circle of family, friends and acquaintances whom he either knows well or finds physically interesting. Despite having attracted occasional criticism from those offended by the uncompromisingly direct and confronting treatment of his idiosyncratically chosen subjects, Freud’s perceptive depictions are neither prurient nor gratuitous but, rather, are informed by intense scrutiny and are imbued with an unsentimental intimacy and yet a subtle poignancy.

Nicholas Williams