Lucian Freud / Antony Gormley, two shows at the RA, both by contemporary British artists. Apparently very different from one another, yet with one major characteristic in common. What is it? An unrelenting focus on the self, rather than on anything in the larger world that surrounds them. In both cases, the basic statement is: ‘Don’t kid yourself, baby – L’art, c’est moi.’
What is it? An unrelenting focus on the self, rather than on anything in the larger world that surrounds them – ELS
Lucian Freud, quite recently deceased, might be forgiven for this. Though this is a show that consists mainly of self-portraits, with very few additions, it has been put together in his honour by other hands. A sequence of self-portraits, drawings as well as paintings, covers the whole course of his career. Freud had an early phase, essentially as a draughtsman who painted and then evolved into being a painter who drew. The exhibits belong to categories that were dominant in art till quite recently – paintings both finished and also some that were for some reasons left unfinished; drawings produced as independent objects, plus others that were part of the studio process, notebook pages and the like.
Freud did not confine himself to self-portraiture. The self-images are less dominant in his oeuvre than they are, for example, in the work of Georg Baselitz. However, as the RA exhibition shows, he had a life-long habit of smuggling himself into paintings in which the declared subject was some-one else. In the full-length nude of his son Freddy, you get just a glimpse of him reflected in the pane of a nearby window. In the nude of Flora with Blue Toenails, you see the shadow of the artist’s head, cast on the sheet upon which the model reclines.
More than this, there is the fact that Freud’s whole output, almost in its entirety, was about what happened in his little kingdom, the studio. Many of his models for nudes, mostly young women (Freddy seems to have been an exception), were, in fact, his own children. Freud is said to have fathered at least fourteen of these, by a number of different women. One message you get from the show is that, as far as Freud was concerned, the outside world didn’t count.
In fact, the models he used also don’t seem to have had much hold over him either. An early painting, Hotel Bedroom (1954) show the painter standing over his then-wife Lady Caroline Blackwood, who is tucked up in bed, looking away from him. The artist looms above her, a black silhouette. With one hand pressed to her cheek, she seems completely alienated. Later on, Blackwood is reported to have said that this was precisely how she felt.
There is one major painting which is in the catalogue, but which is not alas in the show. Painted in 2004-2005, at the very end of Freud’s career, it is called The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer. This is exactly what it shows – Freud standing at his easel, and, seated on the ground beside him, a nude woman worshipfully clutching his legs. He seems a little put out to have had his labours interrupted in this fashion.
The truth is that Freud, for me at least, is a claustrophobic artist. That is, I feel more and more claustrophobic the longer I look at his work. My reaction is: ‘Give me air – I can’t breathe! If this is all that painting, in its traditional form, can now do, please give me something else.’
Traditional forms have very little to do with Antony Gormley’s work – ELS
Traditional forms have very little to do with Antony Gormley’s work, which is on view in much bigger spaces in the same building.
Claustrophobia, is however on offer, as is a degree of self-obsession. One gallery is so wholly filled, floor to ceiling, with tangled metal rods that you need to be a bolder soul than I am to venture into it. In other rooms, huge box-like forms made of rods hover close above the visitor’s head. And yet another gallery is filled with to the depth of two or three feet, with murky slush, like a long-deserted swimming pool in need of a good cleanout. Wading boots are not on offer. Just stand on the edge and look.
The more striking part of the show does offer representations of the human body. Nude, they stand on the floor, project from the walls and hang upside-down from the ceiling. These are, I think, casts made from the artist’s own body, as has been the case with other works by Gormley. That is, he is, as Freud also is, though using a different means of representation, insistently physically present in the work. Once more, the statement is: ‘L’art, c’est moi’. In the case of some other more abstract three-dimensional works, it doesn’t take too long to work out that these are paraphrases of human form, and that, with perhaps a few exceptions, the form is that of Mr Gormley. Other abstract forms, inertly clinging to the floor, are simply there for you to trip over.
However, there are traditional elements, as well. Gormley is a fluent and attractive figurative draughtsman. If he doesn’t paint like Freud, it’s not because he can’t. He doesn’t want to.
What he does want to do is, in a manner very much of the present moment, to offer the visitor ‘an experience’. In current art-speak, this means that he wants to push you around a bit, metaphorically at least, and maybe even a little bit physically. The idea is that you enter the show, pass through the various sensations it offers (‘Trip you up, guv? Yes, of course.’) and duly emerge at the other end as a slightly different person.
The problem is, as with so many recent events of this kind, that the results are ephemeral. The mannequins can no doubt be re-cycled elsewhere, though they don’t convey that much when you encounter them as individual objects. But when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits – 27 Oct — 26 Jan 2020 Antony Gormley – 21 September — 3 December 2019 Royal Academy London