Monday, 20 February 2012

Lucian Freud Portraits

The third big art event is at the National Portrait Gallery, a major exhibition of the work of Lucian Freud, with 130 paintings on display.  See the NPG's website here.

Critic Laura Cumming writes: Lucian Freud Portraits is the final act of a prodigious career. Freud was still working on the show until his death at the age of 88 last summer. A whole floor of the National Portrait Gallery has been cleared away for the labours of a lifetime and the experience is grave, mysterious, compelling and inexhaustibly strong right up to the last portrait, where the brushstrokes simply cease mid-sentence.  What was Freud's true subject all these years? The book of his art seems to be open in this monumental show, beginning with those early portraits that appear almost Flemish in their cold acuity. Here is Freud's first wife, Kitty, with her wistful fallen rose hanging opposite his self-portrait, hawk-eyed behind the barrier of an outsize thorn.

Here is his second wife, Caroline, limpidly beautiful in 1952: are there any more shining eyes in art? But within two years he has become an anxious shadow, in the devastating Hotel Bedroom, ousted to the window's edge by the vast bed in which she lies, eyes now swollen. He looks at us, she looks away: an impasse of guilt and irreversible pain.  Continue reading:  

This exhibition of 130 of Freud’s works looks at his output from the early 1940’s up to his death last year and focuses solely on his portraits. He worked only from life and what you see here is not only the finished works, but some of the surrounding narrative, with rare photographs taken by his assistant. The subjects include famous sitters (HM the Queen), members of the public (Sue Tilly, the Benefits Supervisor), and members of his own family.

Freud once said “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn't actually there in front of me” and I can understand why some subjects were a little shocked by the results. The Queen is presented in a tiny A4 size painting, with a most severe expression. The Daily Telegraph called it ‘unflattering’ but you can now see it in the Royal Collection.

I hadn’t seen any of Freud's original work before this exhibition, and at first impression, these seem to show quite blocky or chunky faces, almost crudely executed, without apparent feeling for the subject. But after studying for a while I came to see that each face has enormous detail, with a wonderful range of colours and shades to the skin.  There are lots of his nudes, almost all at full length, usually of close friends, frequently of lovers, sometimes of the various mothers of his 14 children, and of his daughters, and even his newborn baby.  Some don’t make for easy viewing and nobody seems glamorous in the conventional sense.  I liked them but most of all I liked Freud’s self-portraits. He mainly puts himself in empty backgrounds, is sometimes seen from below, and seems a large, forbidding, threatening figure. And yet there is something quite touching about them all.

This website claims to have almost all his works, and there are more images here

There was a very interesting programme on BBC2 this last weekend, Lucian Freud: Painted Life, which is available on iPlayer until 25th February.
 Painted Life explores the life and work of Lucian Freud, undoubtedly one of Britain's greatest artists. Freud gave his full backing to the documentary shortly before his death. Uniquely, he was filmed painting his last work, a portrait of his assistant David Dawson.  The film shows how Freud never swam with the flow and only achieved celebrity in older age. He rejected the artistic fashions of his time, sticking to figurative art and exploring portraiture, especially with regards to nude portraiture, which he explored with a depth of scrutiny that produced some of the greatest works of our time.
This is another hugely popular exhibition, almost overcrowded at first.  My tip: Tickets are sold for timed slots, with entry every half hour. The result is a rush at, say, 3.30, with the first two or three rooms really crowded.  So go in 15 minutes later and you should find that it has eased quite a bit.  Lucien Freud Portraits runs until 27th May. 

To complete the circle, one of the side works at the Portrait Gallery, is a lovely photograph taken by Freud’s assistant David Dawson, of David Hockney sitting in 2003 for Freud, with DH sitting beside the completed portrait and LF also in the shot.  

By coincidence, at the cinema on Saturday I saw A Dangerous Method, a film by David Cronenberg about the relationship between Lucian’s grandfather Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen) with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton.  And still to come in this bumper art year is Tate Modern’s 2012 big event, to coincide with the Olympic Games, a huge Damien Hirst show. It opens in April and runs to September.

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