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Art Imitates Life as Freud’s Sitters Reunite with their Nudes

In the flesh: David Dawson, Lucian Freud’s former assistant poses in front the painting ‘David and Eli’ by Freud at the Tate Britain, London. The painter went on to leave his confidant £2.5m and his Notting Hill home

Lucian Freud’s most important sitters have been reunited with their nudes painted by one Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century … fully clothed. David Dawson was Freud’s companion, sitter, Mr fixit and assistant for over two decades at his home and studio in west London until he died in 2011 while muse Sue Tilley, the former Jobcentre supervisor, popularly known as ‘Big Sue’ became the subject of Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and set a new world record price for a work by a living artist when it sold for £17.25m in 2008 to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

The two works featuring both sitters, David and Eli and Sleeping By The Lion Carpet have been included alongside around 100 works from Freud’s contemporaries Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Paula Rego at a new show at Tate Britain. All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life celebrates the painters in Britain who strove to represent human figures, their relationships and surroundings in the most intimate of ways.

Big Sue: Sue Tilley, who often posed for Lucian Freud poses for a photograph in front of ‘Sleeping By The Lion Carpet’ at the Tate Britain

Dawson, 57, a graduate of Royal College of Art embodied this intimacy between sitter and artist, posing over hundreds of hours in the nude for Freud at his Holland Park studio. Sometimes alongside the artist’s beloved whippet Eli. As Geordie Greig recalled a sitting in his biography Breakfast with Lucian, “Their ease and closeness was evident when I photographed Lucian painting him in his studio. David discarded his clothes and sat with the whippet Eli on a mattress, Lucian standing by the easel. A silent drama unfolded, the crucial link between them united by paint.

As a human animal I am interested in some of my fellow animals, in their minds and their bodiesLUCIAN FREUD

“The term ‘assistant’ fails to do justice to the intimate and fundamental nature of David Dawson’s role as curator, keeper of the door and guardian of the flame.” Asked by a student why he was fascinated by the human figure Freud replied: “As a human animal I am interested in some of my fellow animals, in their minds and their bodies.”

In contrast to Freud’s practice of working from life, the exhibition will look at Bacon’s relationship with photographer John Deakin, whose portraits of friends and lovers were often the starting point for Bacon’s work, including Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966. Earlier works by Bacon like Study after Velazquez 1950 will be shown alongside a sculpture by Giacometti, both artists having explored the enduring presence of isolated figures.

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