lucian freud: painting people at the national portrait gallery

22 March 2012 § 1 Comment

On my way to the Hayward last Sunday to take a look at the David Shrigley exhibition I was blocked off by the St Patricks day parade. I quickly gave up any thoughts of going south of the river and parked up. Negotiating samba dancers and steel drum bands playing Caribbean music (St Patrick of Antigua perhaps?) I made my way past irritating orange-bearded leprechauns and giant Guinness hats to the National Portrait Gallery.

They have named the exhibition Lucien Freud: Painting People, a strange title, as if the next exhibition might be called  ‘Lucien Freud: Painting Still-Lifes’ or ‘Abstracts’ – Freud of course never painted anything other than people.

Nevertheless it is quickly evident that this is a very impressive show that has gathered together some 130 works, predominantly oils, and includes many rarely seen pieces. The curators have sensibly chosen a largely chronological hang which nicely clarifies Freuds often subtly changing styles. It also interestingly puts together groups of works where the sitter was portrayed several times – we all know about the ‘Benefits supervisor sleeping‘ but how many of us realised that there were three more very similar, sizeable, portraits.

As well as the above-mentioned government employee Freud painted a fairly closed variety of wives, girlfriends and children along with sundry friends and an occasional lord, lady and fellow artists

His famous selfishness meant that he needed people who would put up with his notoriously lengthy sittings and these very often seemed to be those closest to him. David Hockney calculated that he spent some 130 hours in a fixed pose but when Hockney asked Freud to return the compliment he allowed him just 2 1/2 hours!
Freud would only paint from life saying ‘I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me’. It often seems as if that turned out to be bored sitters with blank expressions and although that is probably what Freud wanted there are certainly few smiles here. What Freud seems to be painting are bodies, often it seems that all he wants is merely flesh.

The exhibition starts well, his precocious talent evident from his searingly precise early portraits – each hair neatly delineated, every fabric crease clear. Spiky plants, nervous cats and varied gazes adding extra meaning. Later he adds more background before moving on to freer brushstrokes and ever more nudity.

And there is plenty of nudity. There are bodies of all sorts – lovers, wives, daughters and, as if there is not quite enough flesh to be found, the more than ample Leigh Bowery and afore-mentioned benefits supervisor then appear. At this point (from about the 1990’s) it was hard to maintain interest in examination of every successive painting – I yearned to see clothed models or background detail – some blessed relief from the  relentless visual attack of the naked bodies.
Ever more acres of green, grey and pink appear in increasingly awkward poses, the flesh topped with impassionate, sad or distant faces, eyes gazing blankly in to the distance. More and more Freud seemed to be painting Beckettian existentialism. Most traces of emotion and expression have long disappeared – these are now paintings of blank acceptance of human frailty and decay. It is an exhibition that is not easy to follow right to the inevitable end, but one highly deserving of a visit.
Lucien Freud: Painting People runs at the National Portrait Gallery Trafalgar Square until 27 May 2012

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§ One Response to lucian freud: painting people at the national portrait gallery

  • kaarenkingston says:

    As one who won’t get to see the Lucian Freud show because of distance (~3000 miles), thank you for “taking me there”. And thank you for writing that I can understand–I don’t need an art history/criticism degree.

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