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A review by James Buxton w for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Lucien Freud Portraits

Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985

Private Collection, Ireland © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive


National Portrait Gallery

9 Feb – 27 May 2012


“The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art...”
Frank Auerbach on Lucien Freud.


If Lucien Freud hadn't been a painter perhaps he would have been a butcher; one only has to look at the photos of him in his studio to see what a visceral approach he took to painting, i.e. David Dawson's photo of Hockney and Freud taken in 2002. Freud enters his paint splattered studio in such a way, it could almost be staged. He wears a white rag tucked under his belt like a butcher’s apron, in his hand he holds one of his hog's hair brushes with such as threatening demeanour it could well be a knife. His alert, suspicious gaze looks directly out at the viewer, while Hockney sits placidly beside his portrait, the antithesis of Freud's sudden vigour. 

Widely regarded as the greatest living British portrait painter of the Twentieth Century, the National Portrait Gallery's retrospective of his work was created in unison with the late Lucien Freud and is the largest ever exhibition of his paintings. It spans his entire career from his first etchings and portraits of the early Forties right up to his last unfinished double portrait of his assistant, David Dawson and his dog, Eli, entitled, Portrait of the Hound, 2011.

Freud professed to view humans merely as animals, “I am inclined to think of “humans”. if they're dressed, as animals dressed up.” Freud had no time for superficial distinctions such as items of clothing, he was obsessed with the primal, atavistic nature of our faces and bodies, from which he drew his inspiration. Yet rather than paint simply realist paintings of people as they could see themselves in a mirror, he painted psychologically penetrating portraits of his sitters over a course of many months, draining the essence out of his subjects so that he was able to portray some aspect of their inner lives on the canvas. Hockney calculated that it must have taken Freud around 130 hours to complete his portrait, while Harry Diamond, a photographer and friend of Freud's since the 1950's stated, “If someone is interested in getting your essence down on canvas, they are also drawing your essence out of you.” Freud demanded absolute concentration from himself in order to express his subjects “essence”, and required his sitters to patiently endure this unsparing process, to be transformed from a human animal into a work of art.

From Freud's earliest portraits, one is aware of his painstaking attention to detail - in Girl with Roses 1947-8, a portrait of his first wife, Kitty Garman, one can see the incredulous level of detail that has gone into rendering her hair. Each single strand of dry hair springs out of her brown locks, like the thin roots of a plant. Her green eyes bulge out of the painting expressing a deep anxiety as her hand claps a wilting rose.

However in the mid 50's Freud spurned sitting at the easel and stood up, and with this sudden change in position and perspective, his paintings became more dynamic and vigorous, moving away from the smooth surfaces of his previous paintings of his wife and contemporaries to more textured compositions. In the Head of a Child, 1954, one can see how he is using colours in a much more experimental way, with a mould like, almost organic feel to them. In A Woman Painter, 1957-8, Freud introduces a marbling effect to the face, which becomes more and more prominent in his work.  By the time we get to Woman Smiling, 1958, Freud achieves what many critics have called the “landscape of the face”. Here the flesh is alive, her ruddy cheeks blossoming out of her pearl white skin. You can see the choppy waves of Freud's brush strokes, and the textured thickness with which he applies the paint. In a Young Painter, 1957-8, the effect of Freud's portrait is almost hallucinogenic, as the fractured shades of chromium white, red and green blend in the ridges of his face and the thick swirls of colour morph together.



In Freud's paintings there is a sense of metamorphoses, from paint into flesh, “As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.” In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s this desire to make his paintings “alive” so to speak reached its zenith as he developed a technique  using the paint in such a way that he could bring all the lurid texture and colour of human flesh into an expression of his subjects emotions and moods. In many of his paintings the subjects seem to be suffering, as if he had penetrated through the artifice of canvas and paint into the actual inner workings of their minds.

Images of strained and furrowed brows, the nobbliness of a nose, wrinkles, spots, zits, nothing escaped Freud's unrelenting scrutiny. It is as if he put his subjects skin under a microscope, so detailed are his examinations of the human face.

Freud painted his friends, family and people who interested him, and one can see from the portraits of first two wives and his mother, that he was well aware that his paintings would carry an autobiographical narrative to them. However Freud knew it was necessary for a painting to have a sense of drama for it to be a success, hence his diverse choice of subjects. In Two Irishmen in W11, 1984-5, there is a huge sense of the presence of power emanating from the seated man, while the boy hides his arm behind his back, suggesting some threatening uncertainty. Freud was well known for dallying with nefarious characters, and this portrait perhaps preserves some characters from London's underbelly. In all of Freud's paintings there is a sense that even though they are static, there is something bubbling beneath the surface; the tension is so taut that even the viewer feels uncomfortable. In his paintings the drama comes from the interaction between the subjects and the viewer and in Freud's own words he always sought his sitters “inner life that's ticking away”.

In the 80's, Freud's paintings became even more grainy and textured. In his striking, Reflection (Self Portrait) 1985) we are privy to the artists own inquisitive gaze turned on himself. His hawk eyes seem to peer out of the picture and look directly past you, while the masterful use of chiaroscuro illuminates his hooked nose and lined face with eagle like intensity. It is an incredibly powerful portrait that spurns the slightly affected demeanour of his earlier portraits such as Man with a thistle, 1946, and his monomaniacal, Reflection with Two Children, 1965. Here the low angled perspective allows him to loom over the viewer with imposing disdain attempting to make one feel awkward, while his two children appear like tiny trolls in the corner of the painting. To coin a phrase, Freud stops “sweating paint” in his later Reflection (Self -portrait) from 1985 and seems less bothered about asserting his own superiority over the viewer and more inquisitive about himself.






Freud's choice of sitters is as interesting to consider, as his application of paint; the two go hand in hand, and inform each other. Leigh Bowery and  Sue Tilley, aka the Benefits Supervisor are two cases in point, where the appearance of the models become a cause for intrigue as much as his psychologically demanding work ethic. Freud describes himself as having a “predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions” and both Bowery and Tilley are certainly perfect examples of such description.

Freud was impressed by Bowery's instinctual knack of knowing how to flaunt his body and portrays his formidable bulk with uncompromising honesty. There is a confrontational quality to Leigh Bowery (Seated), 1990, where he insouciantly eyeballs the viewer, one leg draped over the arm of the chair, his genitals splayed provocatively. In these paintings from the ‘90’s, Freud seems to exercise more of an awareness; there is a sense of staging and also obsession in his discovery of a particular model. In Nude with Leg Up, 1992, Bowery looks like a gigantic cherub, reclining against the backdrop of white rags, dreaming away.

Freud used hotel linen to clean his brushes and palette knives and they soon became an iconic part of his paintings. The use of such exorbitant amounts of hotel linen also suggests a contempt of luxury, turning the starched, white cotton sheets into filthy rags which he carelessly piled on the floor, which he then transformed into works of art, creating mesmerising folds and creases echoing the wrinkles in his subject's bodies,  adding shadow and texture to balance his paintings.

In the mischievously entitled, Benefits Supervisor Resting, 1994, the grotesque size of Sue Tilley is actually transfixing. In a Rabelaisian sense, we express a mixture of repulsion and fascination as we examine the vast folds of flesh rolling over her body, her head arched back in ecstatic slumber, resembling a fat Buddha in her repose. In the £17m Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995,the marble like quality of her pale, dun flesh is so eloquently expressed that it is only on closer inspection that we notice the grainy impasto, where the rough texture of granules of paint actually comprise her body and contribute to its tonal effect. According to Freud, “It's flesh without muscle and it has developed a different kind of texture through being such a weight-bearing thing.”.

In Freud's later work, he layers the paint on almost as if it were a skin itself; it bubbles and congeals, blisters and bursts across the canvas, like rust blistering on the side of a boat, as he approaches the application of paint in an even more experimental way than ever before. In one of his last paintings, Ria, Naked Portrait, 2006-7, the skin becomes plastered with pellets of paint swelling out of the canvas in clumps of matted colour. On closer inspection, the paint has been so thickly applied to her eye that it physically bulges out of the painting.

Freud's unique perspective and unswerving intensity of observation informs all his work and grants the viewer a new way of engaging with a human face and body. For rather than being able to look at Freud's paintings and simply recognizing them as someone's face or body, one can look at them as striking meditations on the thoughts and emotions of the people they portray.

Lucien Freud's paintings give us the inspiration to look into people's faces in more than just terms of beauty or ugliness, but in terms of art. Such terms do not apply to Freud's work, rather one realizes in the the light of his paintings, such descriptions are internal defence mechanisms that allow us to sustain a dualist view of the world, reasserted by society's idealised standard of beauty. Freud allows us to see again like children, to encounter the human faces that surround us every day as subjects of art in themselves, each more illuminating the more time we invest in examining it.




National Portrait Gallery
St Martin's Place
London WC2H 0HE
9 Feb – 27 May 2012


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Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved