Published in Whitehot Magazine, 2012. Original article here.
For such a force of nature, Lucian Freud comes across as a man of basic needs. “I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know,” the painter has said, and looking around the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, this is exactly what you see. The canvases are filled with people from all walks of life, posing in his London studio, each of them having spent countless hours being observed, penetrated even, by Freud’s steely gaze. Because the painter’s wants may be basic, but they are also beyond negotiation; this is Freud’s world, and those wanting in must conform: show up, pose, surrender.
The ‘Portraits’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an overwhelming experience. Representing a career spanning seven decades, over 130 paintings are displayed, including the canvas Freud was working on when he died last July, aged 88. The gallery has been packed with visitors every day, and the admiration is clear to see on everyone’s faces as we slowly move between the rooms: we are in the presence of greatness. The story of Freud himself is the stuff of legend: the grandson of Sigmund Freud who lived a bohemian life fathering at least fourteen children, hailed as an undisputed genius whose depictions made supermodel Kate Moss look plain and the Queen look weary.
At least that is what it may seem like at first. The faces and the often-naked bodies are scrutinised down to their most extreme detail, exaggerating every imperfection, but look at the paintings long enough and the raggedness is transcended. Freud would labour intensively over each brush stroke, requesting the sitter to arrive daily over several months; with that amount of time spent watching someone it is no wonder the surface becomes just the beginning. The result will “astonish, disturb, seduce, convince”, just as Freud wanted.
Take ‘Lying by the rags’, where a naked woman looks like she has rolled down off the bed along with the crumpled sheets. Her skin becomes kaleidoscopic in detail, but there is a sunlit patch of floor in front of her, lovingly rendered with as much care as the main subject. ‘And the bridegroom’ depicts a naked couple sleeping, limbs gratuitously sprawled across the large canvas. But in Freud’s world an appendage is the same whether it is a breast or the tail of a mouse; the process of observing goes far beyond simple titillation.
Freud’s earliest works are different from the style he is famous for, but still there are common threads. ‘Girl in a dark jacket’ shows a woman with striking eyes, where meticulous attention has been paid to her irises and frizzy strands of hair. The nudes from the same period are shockingly smooth in comparison to the laboured, mottled skin of the latter works; sure it is pleasant to look at, but is it as interesting? In ‘Pregnant girl’, painted during the 1960s mid-period, Freud has started using more texture, with blue veins poking through the skin and deep shadows cast from the collarbone. It may be more classically beautiful than what comes later, but aesthetics is not the goal: this is a process of discovery.
The final section of the exhibition focuses on Freud’s last 20 years, and contains arguably some of his finest work. There’s no sign of slowing down, quite the opposite, this is an artist in his prime. The ‘Benefits supervisor’ series is fascinating, where Freud has pained a large, nude woman in a celebration of abundant flesh. The pictures of Freud’s assistant David and Eli the whippet show a strong, confident style and two subjects clearly at ease. In ‘Eli and David’ from 2005-6, David does the unusual thing for a Freud portrait and smiles, while Eli sleeps serenely. The result is a tender image, slightly softer in the brush strokes. Adding to the poignancy, these were also the subjects of the canvas sitting on Freud’s easel the day he died.
The departing feeling from the Lucian Freud exhibition is one of saturation, exhaustion and exhilaration. On the steps I overhear a fellow visitor’s comment to her friend that Freud seemed to care more for dogs than for people, and this is certainly possible. Take 2001’s ‘Naked portrait’, where the woman’s feet are cut off while careful attention has been given to the imprint left by her feet inside the shoes on the floor. It is all the same to Freud, he painted what he saw and that meant sometimes a hard-boiled egg or the back of a chair got centre stage. But every one of his canvases contain a person, who got to be observed by a genius with a single-minded obsession. I catch myself feeling more than a little envious of those who were chosen.