One of the foremost British artists of the 20th century, Lucian Freud, is best known for his figurative paintings, but he also made many etchings, often of the subjects and sitters featured in his painted works. A selection of 38 of these intricate and intimate prints are now on display at V&A South Kensington, exploring this lesser-known aspect of Freud’s work.

Trial proof of Head of a Woman, 1986–7, etching by Lucian Freud. (c) The Estate of Lucian Freud.

Since most of these proofs have never been exhibited before, the free exhibition offers fresh insights into Freud’s working practice and is a remarkable record of Freud’s sustained engagement with printmaking.

Acquired in 2019 through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, the collection of 143 prints features rare pieces that reveal Freud’s distinctive approach to etching and the subtleties of the printmaking process. Some of the proofs relate to published prints; others are impressions of prints that Freud abandoned or rejected. Many are unusually large for etchings, creating a powerful visual impact and offering further evidence of the artist’s unconventional approach to the artform.

Highlights amongst the works on display include Large Head (1993), a portrait of performance artist Leigh Bowery, Pluto Aged Twelve (2000), a study of Freud’s pet whippet, and The Painter’s Garden (2002-2003). The latter is particularly notable for the delicacy and density of the mark-making, and for Balakjian’s skilful application of ink to the printing plate to enhance the effects of light and shade. One of the most striking works in the display is Freud’s only etched self-portrait, Self-Portrait: Reflection (1996), an honest and unflinching study of his own gaunt face. Alongside selected single proofs, the display also features multiple variant impressions of the prints such as Reclining Figure (1993) and After Constable’s Elm (2003). These trial proofs – some marked in chalk with the artist’s proposed amendments – show how Freud and Balakjian developed a creative partnership in which the printer’s exceptional skills supported the artist’s achievements in print.

Freud took inspiration from etchings by artists he admired such as Rembrandt and Whistler, some of which are included in the display, but his own prints are much larger. They are characterized by bold mark-making and often retain the evidence of his revisions. He worked on his etchings as he did on his paintings, with the copper plate placed upright on an easel. Though the prints often depict the same subjects as his paintings, they were conceived and realized as independent works of art and have a distinct aesthetic. For Freud, this alternation between painting and etching was a valuable means of finding a new perspective on familiar subjects, and refreshing his ideas about composition, form, and surface.

Trial proof of Pluto Aged Twelve, 2000, etching by Lucian Freud. (c) The Estate of Lucian Freud.

The exhibition, Lucian Freud’s Etchings: A Creative Collaboration, is at the V&A Museum until 25th August 2024 in the Paintings Galleries and is free to visit.

A collection of 143 etchings by Lucian Freud was acquired by the V&A in 2019 through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. 38 of these will be displayed as part of exhibition. Other works from the collection are available to view by appointment in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.


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