The National Portrait Gallery opens its doors to a public exhibition of Lucian Freud portraits this month. Freud worked closely with the gallery before his death, last July, and was said to be excited that his show would exhibit in the same year as the Olympics.
Admittedly, I am an art novice; so much of my review is based on the emotion Freud’s work evoked rather than his technique and the history behind the work. This I left the tour guide to explain to myself, and the other, probably more knowledgeable, members of the press, all eager to view the renowned artists work.
Freud’s first work, the first of 130 paintings, dates back to 1940, when the German born painter studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at eighteen years old. The painting depicts Cedric Morris, Freud’s tutor during his time at college. It is known that Morris had a huge influence on Freud’s work. Although still only a young man, his work was already beginning to get noticed and he was encouraged to paint more by Sir Kenneth Clarke, the director of art at the National Portrait Gallery at the time, which made the exhibition even more poignant.
Freud’s work in his early years is fascinating. The precision of each brush stroke is breath-taking as well as the surrealist theme running through them, with people, plants and animals in unusual juxtapositions. ‘Man with feather’ caught me as being strangely fascinating. It is the earliest self-portrait in the exhibition dating back to 1943. Freud paints himself holding a feather and on the ground behind him there are quite a few mysterious looking shapes. In the background there are two shadowy figures. One is of a man wearing a hat and another is of a beaked bird. Freud never revealed what they meant but this extraordinary surrealist addition captured my attention.
Moving through the exhibition you notice Freud’s style evolving as he began to experiment with different techniques such as chiaroscuro. Freud’s exploration of light and dark is most evident in the early portraits of his first wife. ‘Girl With A Dog’ shows Kitty sitting on a bare mattress, pressed up against wall paneling with a grey blanket as her only backdrop. Her breast is exposed and beneath it lays a Bull Terrier with its muzzle in her lap. The painting shows the very fine and meticulous brush strokes of his early work, and also begins to illustrate Freud’s obsession with painting what he called ‘complete portrait’ or the liberated figure.
As the journey through Freud’s life progresses his paintings become slightly stranger. ‘Reflection with Two Children’ struck me as dark and bizarre with its odd spatial representation being accomplished with a mirror on the floor. The peculiar angle gives Freud a supreme authority. He dominates the foreground, leaving little room for his children who appear in the bottom corner and seem totally oblivious to their father who is painted as a giant figure.
Most interesting was the way Freud showcased the paintings of his mother. This would have been too intimate a subject matter for most painters to contemplate, but Freud celebrated it as a bonding experience, a way of spending time with a woman who he loved and knew was getting older. He painted his mother Lucie in 1970, the year her husband Ernst died, and in the following years to come, showcasing her depression during her period of mourning.
The more Freud painted the more he became passionate with painting the nude form or as he described it the ‘complete portrait’. Walking round the exhibition what becomes clear in his work is his interest in the light on naked flesh.
Freud’s friendship with the famous Leigh Bowery produced some great works. The performance artist posed for him in the nude, which allowed him to perfect the ‘complete portrait’. These paintings where unusual in that they portrayed Bowery without the costumes, body piercings and trappings he was known for, but rather focused on him in his natural form. This coupled with Bowery’s weird and wonderful positions, directly owing to his size and supple nature, resulted in some ornate and ambitious paintings.
It is remarkable how Freud, even towards the end of his life, did not become set in his ways. If consistent in anything it was change, even in his eighties. The paintings ‘Naked Portrait with Red Chair’, ‘Flora with Blue Toenails’ and ‘Naked Solicitor’ all are prime examples of how Freud was still not done tweaking his own style – each one so different in method – keeping his work fresh and exciting.
The exhibition culminates with paintings from Freud in his eighties, a period in which he became most energetic by painting everyday. Freud’s unspoken thoughts about getting older are probably most poignant in ‘Self Portrait, Reflection’ in which he depicts himself holding a blue scarf like a noose round his head. The guide told us that Freud used the impasto (applying paint so thickly so that brush strokes can not be seen) building up the colours for his face until he seemingly blends into the paint-encrusted background.
The exhibition also features his last painting, an unfinished piece called ‘Portrait of the Hound’. This is a highly emotional piece as it gives us a glimpse of how this sometimes sheltered artist worked, spiraling the image out from the centre. This painting was something Freud continued to paint until he was too frail to do so. It was found unfinished on his easel when he died.
What I found most interesting, on viewing this exhibition, was that it was in fact a vivid pictorial timeline that documented the changing minutiae of Freud’s life, exploring his entire career and shifting styles from his first painting to the very last. It was an education, for sure, but even a greenhorn art viewer such as myself could not fail to see why many considered Freud to be the most eminent British artist of his time.
Lucian Freud Portraits
National Portrait Gallery
9 February – 27 May 2012
Contributing Writer: Ryan Holmes