(National Portrait Gallery, until 28 May)
I haven’t seen many exhibitions recently, so I was grateful when a more efficient friend invited me along to see the Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition at the NPG. I must find an opportunity next week to see Hockney at the Royal Academy before that closes, because we’re lucky to have retrospectives of Britain’s two great modern artists barely a ten minute walk from each other. The two artists were friends, as well as contemporaries, so it should throw an extra interesting light on both.
Until 2005, my attitude to Lucian Freud came under the vast umbrella of gentle indifference to any artist born after 1850. In that year, however, I made my first visit to Venice and in the pure white halls of the Museo Correr’s exhibition rooms, I stumbled over the exhibition Lucian Freud at the Correr: Fifty Years, curated by William Feaver and sponsored by the British Council. Whether it was the Venetian air, or simply the fact that this was the first time I’d really looked closely at Freud’s works, I was fascinated by his uncompromising figure-painting and the striking impact of his nudes. Many of the same works were on view at the NPG, although the exhibition at the NPG contains slightly more paintings and focuses only on his figure-paintings, whereas the Venetian exhibition also featured some landscape views painted from Freud’s studio window in Paddington.
The NPG show is large and has taken over the whole exhibition wing of the building on the ground floor, largely because Freud’s canvases are generally so big that you need a fair amount of wall to show more than a hundred of them. There were a lot of people there, but because the paintings are usually huge, you don’t have any issues about seeing the works, as you may have done at the Leonardo exhibition, for example. Arranged chronologically, the works range from a portrait of Cedric Morris, painted in 1940, to the Portrait of the Hound that was on Freud’s easel, unfinished, when he died in 2011.
Freud still intrigues me. I’m fascinated by the fact that each of his paintings took so long to paint, even when the end result looks as free and loose as a quick oil sketch. It emphasises the fact that he saw painting as a ritual rather than a means to an end, and he demanded that his sitters return time and time again to undergo his scrutiny. And what is the result of that scrutiny? There are conventional portraits in this exhibition, certainly – Freud’s pictures of the Queen and David Hockney and his Man with a Blue Scarf, for example – but so many of the pictures didn’t feel like portraits at all. They felt like figure studies or, sometimes, still lives where the objects happened to be human figures.
The status of the nude paintings troubled me in particular. I suppose it all depends on what you think a portrait should be. For me, a portrait should be a representation of a particular person where that person is identifiable and there is some sense of their identity or personality, some idea of an inner life. In Freud’s paintings of nudes, there was (for me) no sense of the models’ interior lives or personalities, no engagement that we could make with them as viewers. Their bodies were arranged as if for some kind of artistic dissection – incisive, brutal and honest – but not with the intent to record them as people. What I felt in many of the nude pictures was a sense of tyranny: a pose which often highlights the model’s vulnerability, and then a forced silence in which the model drifts off and becomes most notable by their absence in the final work. It was disturbing, if they are truly meant to be portraits.
On the other hand, as figure-paintings, or explorations of flesh, they are fantastic. I admire Freud for his frankness about, and relentless examination of, the human body. He shows us expanses of flesh painted in tones which initially make us recoil – the reds and whites offset with greys, greens and blues – but which resolve themselves into believable sculptural sweeps when you step back a few paces. Hollows, grooves and highlights on the skin, scars or irregularities, the cavities of gaunt cheeks and the broad shine of light on a forehead, are the building-blocks of his works. His work objectifies the human body, which deprives it of individuality and personality, but also gives it a grandeur and monumentality that is missing in lots of artists’ work. However, I should add that in his last works I felt he went slightly too far in his objectification of the figure.
These works also distracted me with their excessive impasto, through which I suppose Freud was trying to convey his sense of the texture and three-dimensionality of the body. For me, though, the jagged surface of the canvas was very difficult to read. Ria: Naked Portrait (2007) was a very good example of this: the body is painted in Freud’s familiar style, but the face disintegrates into an abstract jumble of impasto. I found this obscurely violent, as if he was trying to demolish the sitter’s individuality even more by scrambling up her face while her body remained spread out for us to see. That, I didn’t like.
Well done to the NPG for celebrating Freud’s life and work in this way (the exhibition has been in the pipeline since 2006, so of course no one expected him to die last year, which has given the show a tragic extra resonance). It was wonderful to see some of his etchings displayed just outside the exhibition, which are also included in the catalogue and which show his equal facility in that medium. Although I haven’t read the catalogue yet, I’ve noticed that, once again, the pictures aren’t discussed individually, but are simply reproduced as a mass of colour plates at the back, after some initial essays. This is a bit of a shame, as I always like to know specifics about each work – and for portraits, especially, it’s very interesting to know more about the sitter and the artist’s relationship with them. However, as the paperback edition is only £25 from the gallery, it’s a great way to have really good colour plates of Freud’s paintings (even though I’ve discovered this morning that most were already in the Venice catalogue, but never mind!).