tue 23/07/2024

Lucian Freud: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Lucian Freud: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Lucian Freud: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

A moving and deeply impressive exhibition of an artist with a singular vision

'Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)', 1981-3: a strange and beguiling theatrical group portrait

Sitting for Lucian Freud was quite a commitment. Unlike Hockney, whom he painted and who painted him, Freud was a very slow painter and he was methodical. Paying close attention to detail and absorbed by different textures, he was intent on building up surfaces meticulously, layer upon layer. This meant that sessions would usually go on for several months, sometimes years.

And because Freud felt that their presence affected the surrounding space, like the ripple effect on water, he even required his sitters to continue to sit for him even if he was occupied with painting the crumbling plaster of his studio wall.

For Freud (pictured below right: Reflection [Self-Portrait], 1985) verisimilitude was paramount – naturally he was a truth-seeker. But you can say that's the case with most portrait artists. What marked Freud out – or at least just one of the things that marked him out – was his strangeness, and this belies any straightforward description of him as a realist painter.

This strangeness, which is both seductive and unnerving (and later, even repellent in its perceived cruelties), was at its most striking at the beginning of his career, when he was painting highly stylised portraits. But it was an inclination toward dramatic peculiarities that never deserted him. With over 100 paintings and works on paper taking us through seven decades of Freud’s career, this brilliant and captivating exhibition does justice to that singular and abiding vision of arresting oddness.   

We begin not at the beginning, but with a series of etchings from the Eighties and Nineties which you can see just at the entrance to the exhibition. In these mostly close-up portrait heads in compressed spaces we find Lord Goodman in His Yellow Pyjamas. His head viewed from below, it’s clearly a likeness that’s designed to suggest a striking resemblance to an imperious walrus. Humans are just a species of animal, Freud had often remarked, and although none of the early portraits are nudes, we see this most evidently when the human animal is unclothed.


Similarly arresting is the slant-eyed, satirical coolness of the early paintings. These have more than a passing resemblance to the younger Scottish artist John Bellany and his odd, slyly sinister fishing folk. The earliest painting here is a roughly textured work featuring Freud’s art tutor Cecil Morris, painted when Freud was just 18 in 1940. But we are soon confronted by the meticulously smooth-surfaced portraits of his first wife Kitty Garman. In Girl with a Kitten and Girl in a Dark Jacket (pictured below), both painted in 1947, Kitty’s huge, moist eyes – as well as the Egyptian-looking cat’s (the creature appears as if on the point of strangulation) – are as big as sailing boats. She looks as if she’s lost in a deep trance, whilst the paintings themselves possess a fiercely hypnotic intensity.

I adore Father and Daughter, 1949, in which two pairs of bewitching eyes stare us out. The little girl is squeezed into a coat several sizes too small, the sleeves reaching just under her elbows. Everything about this painting looks as if it’s holding its breath and bristling with tensile, nervous, even dangerous energy.

Looser, coarser brushwork characterises Freud’s later paintings, and in some, such as Smiling Woman, 1958-59, the mottled flesh looks almost at the point of dissolution. The gaze, too, has softened, the eyes downcast, life concentrated inwards. The tense brittleness has given way to a raw, unguarded intimacy. And textures are more carefully rendered – the chintz of a battered sofa, the weave of a rattan chair, the worn, shiny leather of a pair of pink pumps whose bulging contours follow the shape of the foot.

Some of his best-known paintings are here: the beguiling theatrical group portrait of Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), 1981-83 (main picture); the severely angled Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait), 1965, in which Freud resembles a suave Sixties East End gangster; and the fleshy, mountainous landscape of Sue in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. (Sue features again in one of the more bizarre paintings in this exhibition, Evening in the Studio, 1993, in which her awkwardly lolling figure is made to resemble a weird Hans Bellmer doll.)   

And Freud’s very last painting is here, too. Portrait of the Hound, 2011, is a large scale painting of his assistant David Dawson and Eli, Dawson’s whippet, and it remains unfinished. Freud worked on it for four years until he was too frail to continue. One can't help but be moved by it. And one can't help but be deeply impressed by the singular vision that leads us here. 

Looser, coarser brushwork characterises Freud’s later paintings, and in some the mottled flesh looks almost at the point of dissolution


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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