Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Art-iculate: Lucian Freud Portraits at the NPG

Last Wednesday morning I had the hottest ticket in town; the press view of the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. An exhibition that had been in the works for some time, it was with great sadness that it turned into a posthumous showcase following Freud’s departure last July. Having reached the ripe age of 88, Freud leaves behind a great legacy as Britain’s greatest portrait painter of the 21st Century.
Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985: Private Collection, Ireland © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
This sprawling exhibition - the first of its size devoted to portraiture, and the most ambitious Freud exhibition for over a decade - is testament to Freud’s extensive career displaying early works from the 1940s through to his last works of his long-term assistant David Dawson.

Displaying a mixture of 130 iconic and rarely-seen oil paintings and works on paper, Lucian Freud Portraits splits the artist’s work into periods of his career and groups of sitters, seeing entire rooms dedicated to his regular subjects, benefits supervisor “Big Sue” Tilly, and the towering figure of her friend, legendary Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery (pictured below).
Leigh Bowery (Seated), 1990: Private Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
Freud’s eclectic work knew no boundaries seeing him paint people from all walks of life; from aristocracy to the criminal underworld, shying away from private commissions, conducting all painting within the confines of his studio.

Like a visual diary, Lucian Freud Portraits depicts many of the people who came in and out of the artist’s life over the past seventy years from his lovers, through to his children (those we know publicly and others had with mistresses over the years), respected peers, friends and of course the Queen, whose portrait he famously painted in 2001. Of his work Freud once remarked, “I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know”.

The Brigadier, 2003-04 - Private Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
Chosen to demonstrate the psychological drama and unrelenting observational intensity of his work, these portraits are displayed in chronological order enabling visitors to trace the distinctive trajectory of his career, marvel at the evolution of his craft, and witness the development of his signature style for which he is so renowned, through the years.

The marked development through drawings and etchings and from the earliest head-and-shoulder painted portraits to those of the 1960s is stark. This is when Freud started standing rather than sitting at his easel to paint full-length nudes with thicker brushes and a denser application of pigments. When asked about this later in his career Freud quipped, “when I stood up I never sat down again”.
Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1 -Tate: Purchased 1952 © Tate, London 2012
Early works, particularly those between 1947 and 1951 of the artist’s first wife Kitty (as pictured above) show over-exaggerated features and whilst still good representations by anyone’s standards, compared to the work we know him for today they come across as amateurish. Working only from life the artist said “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me… Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

A master of oils, the skills and methods used are like that of no other artist, seeing Freud remix his paint with each and every stroke, the results of which are fascinating to see up close. The attention to detail is staggering, and I can genuinely say I’ve never seen so many shades of ‘flesh’.
Standing by the Rags, 1988-9 - Tate: Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, the friends of the Tate Gallery and anonymous donors 1990 © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
Favouring the colour green, present in the background in a variety of chairs and indoor plants, several portraits also display swathes of discarded fabrics on the floor in the background, giving an insight into how untidy the artist’s studio was, using these old linens to blot his brushes after each stroke.

Upon closer inspection many Lucian Freud Portraits are not what they seem, peppered with ambiguous facial expressions, unusual or uncomfortable poses telling spaces between figures in groups or double portraits adding to their psychological power. My favourite portraits are those of the artist himself, which punctuate the stylistic changes and further add to the life diary thread that runs throughout the showcase. I also love the extreme detail in Two Irishmen in W11 (pictured below) as for me it both sums up and showcases Freud's array of talents beautifully.
Private Collection, Ireland © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
One of my favourite artists of all time, Freud is a great representation of British art and it makes sense for this retrospective to be affiliated with the Cultural Olympiad. Opportunities to see such a remarkable and well curated assembly of a life’s work don’t come by often and who can say when these very works will next be reassembled. Forget Hockney, if you see any exhibition this spring it has to be Lucian Freud Portraits, which runs until 27th May.

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