Most London art galleries are asylums. Dosshouses of delirium sited along the smoked-glass terraces between Hoxton and Shoreditch. Their interior walls are windowed with rectangles of primary colours and phantasmagoria: mad ungeometries that barely pass as decoration. Their floors are usually obstacle courses: lazy sculpture, found junk and postpostmodern scraps that crowd and muscle the visitors, who hold their chins and moon their lunchhours between the Hayward and the Serpentine.
It is already a silly scene. But with the recent death of London’s longest-serving realist, the City’s galleries are sure to turn sillier. Lucian Freud, Britain’s ersatz Yossarian, died a month ago from a gum infection. From his private, West Town studio Freud exported canvas after canvas of stubbornly figurative painting. The work was isolated from the collegiate optimism of the wider art scene. Frank impasto portraits and nudes were turned out in vacuo – ignorant of prizes or politics or the work of his peers.
The style of Freud’s nudes was Roman, candid, rather than heroic Greek. Huge portions of bruisable human flesh, redolent of the abattoir. He would spend months with each sitter, from Kate Moss to the Queen, trying to digest their mannerisms. The portraits were frequently unflattering, but each was full of crumpled character. After such pains taken, his nudes will reward a second look.
But who now will temper the madhouse of British art? Can anyone step up to the palette? Our art market is now so plutocratic: a plinth of mega-collectors and bankers and taxes that supports ten to fifteen younger stars. It’s hard to think of a painter who could replace Lucian. He started his career as part of the avant garde. He died a relic. A figure from a time when painting was human, serious, worthwhile, and sane.