9 February – 27 May 2012
It’s rare to leave an exhibition feeling totally exhausted, but this one requires so much concentration that I was definitely exhilarated and exhausted! Lucian Freud went in and out of fashion but stayed true to his own vision as a realist painter, starting out in the 1960s when it was hopelessly out of Vogue.
The range of sitters and the transitions covered in this exhibition make it far more akin to a painting journey. Travelling from his early works with their tenderness, naivety and dainty brushstrokes through to the ‘man as landscape’ style that he is most remembered for. What’s interesting about Freud’s portraits, apart from the obvious technical and observation genius, is that he knew all his sitters. There is that sense of knowing the person we see, of wanting to get closer to them, to observe them in all their physicality.
Far removed from the formal portrait commission Freud’s work is intimate to the point of awkwardness. The earliest portraits in this exhibition date from the 1940s and many are based on his first wife Kitty Garman (daughter of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman). I loved “Girl with Roses” (Oil on canvas, 1947-8) where each hair is painstakingly recorded in detail. A comparison between the earlier portraits of Kitty and those produced shortly before the marital breakdown doesn’t fail to elicit a sense of pathos.
The earlier works set the autobiographical tone of the journey. The galleries take us on a tour of Freud’s life, loves, friends and acquaintances. The presence of the hotel linen used as painter’s rags in many of the paintings and the starkness of the rooms are as important as the figures themselves. Freud would insist on the sitter’s presence even as he painted the background, thus making the entire room an extension of the personality depicted. It’s hard to use the word ‘nude’ when describing Freud’s unclothed figures, as they are so totally naked. There is no Greek Ideal creeping in, just raw physicality. In many works the human and the animal are shown together.
“Naked Man with Rat” (1977-8), “Girl with a White Dog” (1950-1) and Freud’s last, unfinished “Portrait of the Hound” all show the human and animal combined. Indeed in “Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait)” (Oil on canvas, 1967-8) Freud took this one stage further and merges himself into the background on a painting of a houseplant. There is no greater strata stretching out for his figures over the surrounding nature, everything stands in equilibrium.
The most tender portraits are of the artist’s mother. Even in reclining poses she remains fully clothed, not as other sitters who seemed to be naked under their fabric, but clothed in a way which placed her apart from mere physicality. The paintings began after Lucie Freud was widowed, and this fragility is treated with sensitivity.
After moving to a larger studio the scale increases, and the genius of the painter emerges in all its glory. Described by Bruce Bernard as a man who “learned much of what has happened in art over six hundred years while almost hermetically sealed in his studio with his models” , Freud for all that referenced art history. This is done to greatest effect in “Large Interior, WII (after Watteau)” where a group portrait of Freud’s nearest and dearest echos Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “Pierrot Content” (1712).
My generation’s introduction to Lucian Freud was via Leigh Bowery and ‘Big Sue’ who posed for his epic portraits in the 1990s. These portraits are wondrous in their exploration of the flesh and the larger bodied models. Painted on a large scale they need to be seen from a distance and have incredible impact.
“Sleeping by the Lion Carpet” (Oil on canvas, 1996) is an exploration of feminine flesh, without the historical idealism normally associated with the topic. Sue Tilley is seen on the sofa with the carpet behind, the furnishings look tatty but expensive, and her sheer size seems out of place with the environment, whilst at the same time blending into it. Rumour has it that Freud offered to pay Big Sue in kind for posing for him, to which she replied she would much rather have the money!
For anyone with an interest in psychology, portraiture or autobiography there is something in this exhibition. A wonderful record of an extraordinary talent.