Lucian Freud Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Our eyes can get bored and our sense of the unusual can become lame when we look to a tradition so established within art: the portrait. Even with the less habitual nude (we see people more often clothed, than not) – our sensitivities can become tamed. What I believe Freud introduces is quite rare to contemporary art, that is, more curious ways to paint the portrait (nude or otherwise), which – crucially – are not crude. This is not to say that he is better, or worse than his competitors, but that his paintings are distinctive.

His style is recognisable – it didn’t change much over his 70 years of portrait painting. Once he had established himself in it around the 1950s, his paintbrush only got more heavily laden (as, coincidentally […or not?], it did for Rembrandt, Turner and some other great masters).  Take an early (1963) and a later (2002) self-portrait and not a lot has changed in his technique. His manner – thick realism as I shall call it – is not uncommon in 20th and 21st century painting. It’s effective, but not precious. What strikes you about Freud, when seeing so many of his portraits (130) together in one place, is how curiously he arranges his paintings, and (almost always as an implication), how unique the impression given from those who sit for him.

Let me first clarify, of the numerous portraits exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the majority are nudes, and but whatever means these avoid being erotic, they are nevertheless intimate. Drawn out on a sofa or bed, the floors of the rooms in which they are found slope towards the viewer as though gravity draws the subjects to us. With a broad hog’s-hair brushstroke, Freud treats each body uniquely and not without scrutiny. Sitters squint, and squirm as though hoping to avoid the painter’s telling brush, which leaves them physically bare. Yet, what is most interesting is that while naked, his subjects generally do not appear emotionally vulnerable. Here is the paradox, and here is where I have become particularly curious.

What one observes then are models, who like Bambis, limp and contrived, appear helpless to the image that is being cemented of them. Freud plays on this idea continually, preferring to paint his subjects asleep. Take for example ‘Baby on a Green Sofa’ 1961, which is a quite extraordinary example of a nuanced expression executed with so brash a brush. This baby is quite clearly having a dream. When have you seen that in a painting before?

Freud has painted some of the most curious, and thus engaging, portraits I’ve seen. The first example of such is ‘Large Interior, Paddington’ of 1968, in which, from a towering viewpoint we must audit an unusual scene. A child, probably around 8 years of age, is abandoned at our feet, half huddled in a fetal position: one hand seeking to snuggle between its legs, and its feet hoping to find comfort in nestle into one another; its other (upper) half contorted but clothed, its bottom left bare. A straggly plant creeps suspiciously towards the child, lingering above like a strangling breed about to pounce. And a jacket in hung on the wall behind, telling us that someone has been there. In this unwonted and telling compositional format, where we look down upon a discovery, the components of a tragedy are laid bare to make sense of, yet the only figure that could tell us, is temporally paralysed, and silent.

‘Freddy Standing’ of 2000-1, too, has a charisma quite rare. Freddy, nude, staggers from the corner of a spoiling room – his feet held at a width apart, that is just past stable. He appears like a weary and beaten Christ, striving intentionally but sorely towards his goal, transfixed by the knowledge he must meet it. His body is gaunt, and his hair, overgrown, much alike the sleeping girl in the wicker chair who rests quietly in the background of ‘Evening in the Studio’ 1993.

Her figure is contrasted to ‘Fat Sue’ who right in our eye-line, has landed like an elephant. We believe she too is asleep, except that I find it hard to believe that she could sleep in such an unwieldy position. (Though, it wouldn’t be so Freudian if she, like her antithetical figure, was so neatly laid out.) And at the apex corner of the triangle, a dog naps, laid out as though a trestle table: small, medium, and extra large. Though, Freud contends that his “predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions”, it is not something in which he wishes to “overindulge.” A similar dog, in a similar triangular composition – Freud later shuffles ‘Evening in the Studio’ to compose yet another striking design: ‘Sunny Morning: Eight Legs’, 1997. One of the many portraits that are not only beautiful, and ‘real’, but intriguing.

Lucian Freud Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery is open until May 27.


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