The Animal under the Clothes: Lucian Freud Portraits Exhibition

by Sam Parfitt

Lucian Freud Portraits

National Portrait Gallery,London

9 February – 27 May 2012

Lucian Freud, grandson of the great psychoanalyst, was one of the great realist painters of the twentieth century. Freud had a life-long preoccupation with the human face and figure and painted subjects from all walks of life – from the criminal underworld to her majesty the Queen. In particular, he painted family, friends and lovers. His paintings as such record the life of a relationship, not only that developing outside the studio but that of the sitting itself. He said quite unassumingly of himself: “I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.”

During the last few years of his life, Freud helped plan this exhibition, a major retrospective that spans seven decades and over one hundred paintings. Ranging from his early almost forensic and existential portraits painted at age eighteen to the final moving portrait of his studio assistant and pet whippet which his death last year left unfinished.

Despite the sold-out crowds, I found room after room in near complete silence. Everyone was drawn into the enigmatic presence and intimacy of his portraits, at once compassionate and tender, yet thoroughly perverse. Freud was interested in the inherent life in people, and painted this directly, at the expense of any notion of self-indulgence or sentimentality. His is a confrontational realism that hopes to “astonish, disturb, seduce and convince.” As such, his models find their naked bodies spread-eagled on a bed, sprawled against rags, twisted, splayed, genitals parted or slumped at the picture’s apex, heads leaning or lolling and eyes down or averted beneath the artist’s gaze as he stands over them.

Freud regarded humans as animals and found appetite undisguised in the animals he often depicted. Hunger and lust, or desire for comfort and reassurance were revealed when people took off their clothes and shed their facades. Fortunately, her majesty kept her clothes on, yet even she did not escape his intense concentration on physical essence, exposing her vulnerabilities and bringing to mind the famous line, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

I found it interesting to learn that he used to remix his palette at every brushstroke to never get a uniform skin tone; to see up close, especially in his later paintings, the way in which he worked and reworked a breast or an eye so as to leave behind a great encrusted mound of paint that stands up almost an inch from the canvas. Indeed, it is this rough later style, facilitated by the switch to coarser hog-hair brushes, which is so unique to the artist and transforms the flesh into a battlefield erupting into great creamy blisters and boils.

Adrian Searle, writing for the Guardian, comments that despite the incessant inventiveness that this retrospective traces, Freud always returned to the ‘mystery of presence’ and continued to find ‘new ways to describe the experience of being in a room with someone else.’ Freud often said that everything he did was autobiographical, and indeed, he never just painted a body in a room, but painted himself painting, recording a confrontation, a relationship. In the age of the conceptual and the commercial, there is something infinitely refreshing about the humanity and honesty in his work. Nothing is standing for anything else here, nobody is representing anything, it is simply a profound description of the experience of being in a room with another person.

“You’re living and your relationships grow and mature or decay.”

Lucian Freud


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