Lucian Freud @ The National Portrait Gallery:
Astonish Disturb Seduce Convince
These four words were used throughout the exhibition to capture Freud’s intent – and he doesn’t fail to deliver. The grandson of Sigmund (the psycho analyst) was born in Berlin to an Austrian Jewish father and so in 1933 his family had no choice but to flee.
Renowned as one of the great realist painters of the twentieth century, Freud’s work spans over an incredible seven decades and goes through many transitions. Some of his early work starts out almost childlike and quite two dimensional. Gradually over time he starts to breathe life into his faces, bringing flesh alive in a very textured way. Finally he progresses to much a more rough and striking vision with paint almost daubed onto the canvas and after moving to a much larger studio, his later portraits are of a gargantuan scale – both of the paintings size but also the sitter. For me the most striking element consistently throughout his work, is his ability to perfectly encapsulate apathy, depression and other human emotions.
In the 90’s, his series of pictures entitled “Benefits Supervisor” featuring Sue Tilley (a friend of another sitter for Freud, the performance actor Leigh Bowery) are certainly some of his most ambitious large scale works. I wonder how “Big Sue” as Freud would call her, felt about seeing one of her images complete with over large stretched skin folds and sweat chaffing – especially in view of the fact Freud was also known to make all his models appear much older than in real life. Freud did not judge his sitter he merely observes and Yet it was one of these paintings that enchanted the world at auction went it went for £17 million – the highest ever achieved for a living artist.
Many of the colours on Freud’s palette are reminiscent of how I would visualise the second world war years; dark insistent greys, deepest conker, Ochre, Sienna and camouflage tones. Few of his paintings contained any pastel or what you might refer to as pretty colours. He used light, texture and colour to add to the overall feel and mood of a painting but it was to be his remarkable flesh tones that critics would comment most about. Some facial expressions and patchy muted skin tones were so dark they looked as if they belonged in a morgue and yet at the same time made you feel the painting, rather than just seeing it visually.
Later in his career, flesh was to become punctuated with daubs of heavy leaded Cremnitz whites, almost sculptural in their texture. There were also times when he piled the paint on in quite an aggressive manner. This worked well on toe nails and pubic areas but in one of his later portraits the face is actually made in this angry manner and close up looks almost as if the sitter had leprosy. But Freud had complicated and sometimes disconnected relationships, so of course it could have been a technique or perhaps just plain anger.
Freud was nervous about using what he called conventionally beautiful models (although he did have a thing for Kate Moss) and instead mainly painted from his close circle. This suited him in another way, he was confrontational and sometimes argumentative yet despite producing such astonishingly revealing and intimate portrait’s, he was a deeply private man hardly ever giving interviews.
He was particularly clever at revealing the angst ridden and suicidal. I looked straight into the eyes of the artist John Minton painted in 1952 and without knowing anything about him thought here is a man who looks like he could take his own life, which in fact is exactly what he did. This image was haunting and painful.
“I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories”
There is something quite dark and sinister about a lot of the emotions expressed in Freuds work as if somehow the world is too much for him and that he sees it through a twisted psyche full of torture and unfathomable complexity. Many of his images convey a vulnerability which is boldly present in his work Large interior in Paddington – where one of his daughters posed uncomfortably in the foetal position for hours on the studio floor, her lower half exposed. I found it quite moving to hear she had once said “this was the only way of having a relationship with my father”
Freud documented his marriages and relationships with his family in his work. We follow some of his relationships to their conclusion, initial portraits are bright and full of hope and as time goes on we clearly see the tell tale signs disillusion and discontent….