Lucien Freud Portraits
It is a wonderful time of the year to be in London but it’s not Spring but rather Freud fever in the air. The excellent retrospective, Lucian Freud Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery affirms him as one of the twentieth century’s leading portraitists, an art world contrarian who rarely accepted commissions but rather focused on those he found fascinating and cared about, animal or human. The intimate Freudian world, into which the viewer is enveloped within the walls of these exhibition rooms, is populated by a cast of family, lovers and friends drawn from the upper echelons as well as the margins of society. As he succinctly stated ‘I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.’ For those of us who were not part of that world, this major exhibition is the closest approximation we can hope to have. Organised in roughly chronological order, the 130 selected works span seven decades from Freud’s earliest beginnings to the last portrait of his loyal studio assistant, David Dawson, with his pet whippet. Although this painting remains unfinished, it is a testament to the strength and bravura belying its creator’s 88 years and fading health.
The psychological intensity of his unsparing and direct gaze gives insight into the character of his subjects as well as into the nature of his relationships with them. Girl with Roses (1948-1949) is a tender depiction of Freud’s young first wife Kitty Garman, daughter of sculptor, Jacob Epstein, when she was pregnant with their first daughter, exquisitely detailed through the artist’s use of a paintbrush of sable hair. The couple’s marriage had foundered by the time the enigmatic Girl with a White Dog was painted in 1950-1951. Here Kitty sits on a striped mattress and her slightly downcast eyes give painful expression to her loss of hope. As consolation, a white bull terrier nestles on her lap, one of a pair given as a wedding present. The emotionally charged double portrait of the artist and his beautiful, wide-eyed second wife Caroline Blackwood in Hotel Bedroom (1954) not only marked the demise of their short marriage, a devastating blow to Freud, but also, an end to his very precise, linear technique, to the horror of many critics at the time, not that he much cared. With coarse hog’s hair brushes, he adopted that looser, more painterly style in his distinctively muted palette of fleshy tones that we recognise today as being typically Freudian.
Moving through the galleries, the canvases grow more monumental, their scale powerfully felt in the tight confines of Room VII where one is humbled by the force of the diminutive artist when surrounded by three large portraits, one of the artist Sophie de Stempel on the facing wall, another one of her in Standing by the Rags on the right wall which again appears in the background of Two Men in the Studio on the left wall. Other subjects include such extraordinary characters as the ebullient performance artist Leigh Bowery in Nude with Leg Up, the powerful but diminished Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in Man in a Chair and the voluptuous Sue Tilley in the remarkable Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which set an auction record for a living artist when it sold for $33,410,000 at Christie’s in May 2008. Some of the most poignant portraits on view are those of his mother, Lucie, after whom he was named and with whom he had a very complicated relationship. He felt suffocated by her intense love and only tackled her as a subject in earnest after his father died in 1970. She always believed in him and kept his earliest drawings, some of which can be seen at the commercial gallery Blain Southern on Hill Street, whose fascinating exhibition of Freud’s works on paper will travel to Acquavella Gallery in New York at the end of April. It is difficult not to be moved by all this attention to Lucian Freud, who passed away last July. His loss is keenly felt but these shows go a long way in assuring his immortality.