Lucian Freud: Drawings @ Blain/Southern – REVIEW
‘Everything is autobiographical. Everything is a portrait’ Freud claimed of his own work. Yet the National Portrait Gallery has decided that their stock-in-trade must not be diluted. Only conventional portraits may grace their walls – so the rest is to be found at Blain Southern. From the meticulously precise line or stipple drawings of his earlier years to the fleshy, jowled, sculptural portraiture of his later work, you will also find a chicken in a bucket – feet ominously protruding amidst splayed feathers – a dead monkey on a dish, a unicorned zebra, some thistles, and one or two fillies. The euphemistically named ‘fragment’ drawings (think Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde) in humourously curlicued frames (Freud himself chose the frames for each of the works – the whole exhibition having been planned in collaboration with him and his biographer William Feaver) complete the scene, producing a far more intimate exhibition than the NPG’s blockbuster counterpart.
One thing we realise as we move through this incredibly thorough and beautifully curated exhibition is that, despite the intimacy of the settings and the drawings themselves, there remains the coldness of the detached observer. Despite the myriad personal relationships depicted in these drawings – friends, lovers, wives, children – we see someone who was interested, above all, in the human animal. Nothing is modified for anyone’s pleasure or convenience – his gaze is unflinching, but perhaps also unkind. Not many of them could be described as possessing warmth, but in its stead we are offered honesty, clarity, fascination, pity, humour. For my money the portrait of his patron, Peter Watson (previously sequestered in the collection of the V&A) is the most moving drawing I have seen in a long time. Each detail is drawn with razor precision and intent, the gimlet eyes seem carved from a face of granite. But despite the taut flatness of the skin, the almost pedantic detail of the corduroy suit, there is such feeling conveyed that it remains more human than the fleshiest of his canvases. Melancholic, intense, profoundly pathetic; who needs warmth with that on offer?
His early obsession with surface and planes leads to an especially fine study of a squid and sea urchin, presented as a symphony of counterpoint in form, texture, colour – yet held equipoised. It is not just his intense and almost fevered attention to detail which might qualify these works as portraits, but the personality he brings out in both. And here we have a new insight into Freud – that he is not just the painter of human flesh, but also of spines, scales and fur. The feathers of a dead heron presented to him by his lover, seem just as worthy of attention as her eyes might have been. The leaves of a thistle are the perfect vehicle for his line, so much so that you cannot imagine them being drawn by anyone else. In the upstairs room we have the more conventional portraits for which he is most famous. In Woman with an Arm Tattoo, we get up close and personal with burst capillaries, large pores (is that even stubble on her cheek? or maybe cellulite) – we are in familiar, carnal territory here. Yet we also have one of the later self-portrait etchings, and the last smoked copperplate he ever drew on – still unetched, some white corrections to it believed to be the last marks he made – a truly moving relic. With tickets for the NPG’s exhibition apparently in greater demand than those for the Da Vinci show or Coldplay, this free yet far from easy exhibition is an absolute must see, revealing another side to an artist we thought we knew so well, but who remained distant and elusive to the end. Words: Isabel Seligman © 2012 ArtLyst