Roll up roll up for the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad. All the big wigs of the Brit-art A-list are in town, the banners are up, and the art posters line the saturated platforms of the underground as the PR machine goes into overdrive. As if in response to the cattle cry, the crowds have come to town – the galleries are packed, the gallery restaurants have waiting times of over an hour, and the gallery shops are partitioned by huge queues of customers cashing in on memorabilia of these big-billed art shows. It’s all really quite stressful.
Next in line to meet my sampling eye was the Lucian Freud portraits retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Having been in the pipeline for some time, and organised in collaboration with the artist himself, the NPG’s exhibition gained additional poignance when, last July, Lucian Freud died at the ripe old age of 88. He did so working right up until the end, and his unfinished portrait of his studio assistant and dog hangs at the climax of the show.
Portrait of the Hound (2011)
There is no doubting Freud’s stature as a preeminent star of British art. When his painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold at Christie’s in New York for the sum of US$33.6million in 2008, it broke the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist. It is consequently appropriate that he should be lined up along with the likes of David Hockney and Damien Hirst for blockbuster solo exhibitions which promise to showcase British art to the world. It is also appropriate that the show focuses on his portraits, for Lucian Freud is long associated with his unforgiving nudes, painted with a multi-layered impasto application of fleshy pale paint, striking often uncomfortable and usually unflattering poses, and portraying a deeply penetrated psychological profile cast free from boundaries, clutter or clothing for full and frank disclosure to the world.
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)
Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990)
In this show, the NPG give us plenty of raw unabashed flesh to stare at, as Freud’s emboldened, unrepentant portraits confront the audience rather than seduce. In the galleries, there was an almost tangible electricity in the air, as the scale of the show and the sheer number of these awkwardly posed nudes threw light on the often disconcerting relationships between artist and model, the somewhat fragmented and awkward relationship between artist and children, and the range of dynamic but often slightly disturbing characters on show.
Sunny Morning - Eight Legs (1997)
The paintings are never going to be easy to look at, not least because these are not ideological nudes. This is not like looking at the beautifully blended, perfectly shaped backside of the Rokeby Venus (by Velazquez) and appreciating the aesthetics of the scene. These portraits depict ordinary people, with very ordinary bodies in no holds barred portrayal, pubic hair out, penises dangling, sagging flesh. It would be like walking along the street and seeing everyone naked, their legs parted awkwardly, their private parts on full view. It’s not easy to look at, but these portraits are undoubtedly fascinating to view, just because they are ordinary people – people who have bared all to the artist and, through him, to the world.
Girl with a Kitten (1947)
Nonetheless, emblematically Freudian impasto flesh asides, my favourite paintings were those from the beginning of Freud’s career. In this delightfully chronologically curated show, the first few galleries, while packed, showed Freud’s fastidiously executed, perfectly drafted early portraits, when he used very fine brushes and paid close attention to every detail. Thus in the portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, you can see every hair on her head, and in the portrait of her wearing a yellow gown (with boob unceremoniously flopping out), each fibre of that gown’s toweling texture is painted. As Freud’s portraits grew less detailed and Freud’s preference was for thicker sable brushes, he still paid close attention to a number of background factors in his work. In Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (1968) for example, the leaves of the plant are painted with excruciating detail – every millimeter of the plant, from its shiny leaves and rough edges, to the dying leaves and dried up ends, are perfectly represented by Freud. His early paintings have lost none of their intensity in being scrupulously painted – the sitters look tense, and the widened eyes, typical of Freud’s portraits at that time, are full of emotional anxiety and unguarded vulnerability. From the very beginning, Freud had an exceptional talent for painting simple portraits loaded with dramatic tension and emotional complexity.
Girl with a White Dog (1950-51)
Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8)
As the show goes on, the works become more ambitious and the nakedness more frequent. This is all very well, but what upset me was not the nudity, but the increased coarseness of Freud’s finish. From his Benefits Supervisor onwards, the texture of his paint finish becomes more and more lumpy which really made my stomach turn. In his 2007 portrait, Ria, Naked Portrait, the face of Ria appears disfigured by a mass of lumpy built up textured paint on her face, which looks more like the affliction of some terrible skin disease. The effect is the same in his final, unfinished painting, Portrait of the Hound (above) where the face of his studio assistant appears contaminated by the same warty contagion. It’s an unpleasant finish which rather repulsed me as I walked away from this show.
Ria, Naked Portrait (2006-7)
Still, this messy end did nothing to dissuade me of the overall merits of this show, and the superb skill which Freud demonstrated throughout his career. Through his paintings, he has created self-contained independent souls who appear to jump from the canvas and steal the attention of the viewer. In this way, Freud leaves behind a multifaceted legacy which will live on wherever his portraits hang. In the meantime, this opportunity to see so many hung together is truly a must-see, and so much more fulfilling than 5 million purple trees lauded down the road in Piccadilly.
Painter and Model (1986-7)
All images above are the copyright of Lucian Freud.