Blockbuster Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing a life-time’s encounter with human flesh
The press view for Lucian Freud’s exhibition of Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was infused with all the mania one would expect from such a blockbuster. Including over 130 works – from a 1940 portrait of his tutor, to the painting left on the easel at his death in 2011 – this was an exhibition conceived with the living artist back in 2006, to be staged in the year of the Olympics as a cornerstone cultural event.
The exhibition kicks off with his sharp, angular modernist-style portraits, not yet structurally ‘realistic’ in the vein of his later works, but nonetheless rendered with eye-wateringly crystal-clear intensity. ‘It was during this period that Lucian was learning to paint’, we are told, with Freud being ‘very aggressive about it in those days’, sitting knee to knee with the model, and working methodically from area to area to pick out every delicate subtlety of the face. The work Girl with Roses (1947-8), for example, may stare at the viewer with surreal, over-sized bulging eyes, but they glisten sharply with glassy, photographic detail, painstakingly elucidated with minute brushwork. Similarly, the 1952 Portrait of John Minton is exaggeratedly morose with puppy-dog eyes, and sickly, pallid jowls; but again, we see an excruciating, hyper-real attention to detail, with Freud working hard to educate himself about the surface stuff of skin and flesh.
After these piercingly tight early works, we move onto the mid-1950s, a period in which Freud seems to have abandoned his preoccupation with the minutia of surface, and begun to engage instead with overall form. Standing up – instead of huddled cheek to cheek with his sitter – Freud begins to paint much looser and more vigorous portraits, using course hog’s hair brushes to almost chisel-out three dimensions from the canvas. For Freud, paint suddenly becomes a near-sculptural material, hewing out the crevices and following the contours of his pregnant lover Bernadine Coverly, for example, in an effort to capture her physicality – her body as a present of object. Similarly, in a portrait of the subsequent baby, Freud dissects the face into distinct planes of colour, to create a series of interlocking plates that together evoke the hard shape and curvature of the infant’s features.
These works are followed by the Heroic (and almost exclusively nude) phase, with the exhibition delivering a near-comprehensive selection of iconic and monolithic portraits of the towering performance artist Leigh Bowery, and the sprawling ‘Big Sue’ Tilley. These are coupled with Freud’s experimentation with gritty Frank Auerbach-esque impasto, through which protruding pubic hairs and perky nipples are to be spattered and built-up onto canvas. His 2006-7 Ria Naked Portrait represents the apex of this late stylistic development, the model’s face having been roughly obliterated through pock-marked granulation.
For one who has never been a real fan of Lucian Freud’s work (*cough* me *cough”), this show is something of a revelation, moving the focus away from those ‘great ads for Weightwatchers’ – as one punter would have it, and for which he is best known –, and presenting a much broader picture of stylistic and creative evolution over seven decades; of an artist ever-engaged, ever-rigorous, ever-investigative, during a life-time’s encounter with human flesh. Words Thomas Keane / Photo Paul Carter Robinson © 2011 ArtLyst