A life in paint
Flesh, nudity and promiscuity characterize the ‘Lucian Freud portraits' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 by Jewish parents and emigrated to London with his family to escape Nazism in 1933. He lived in the UK for all his life, becoming a giant of modern art and an iconic figure of the British contemporary art. The ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has been planned since 2007, when the artist and Sarah Howgate, the curator of the exhibition, planned to stage a chronological display of Lucian Freud's artistic production.
This is Freud's first exhibition that focuses on his portraits and it comprises 130 paintings and works on paper spanning the seven decades of his prolific artistic career, from the early 1940s until the very last day of his life. Unfortunately, the artist suddenly died on 20 July 2011 at the age of 88, a few months before the opening of the exhibition.
Although the theme of nudity is central to most of the works at display, it is evident that Freud's art slowly developed throughout the years. His first works, dating back to the 40s and 50s, recall elements of surrealism typical of portraits' painters of the time, but he soon abandoned such style to experiment with new techniques as the ‘impasto' based on cleaning the brush off colour after each stroke. These experimentations led to develop a style based on intense brushes and thick layers of paint that became the hallmark of the artist's latest portraits.
Freud's subjects are primarily his extended family, friends, lovers and, occasionally, himself. Sarah Howgate interprets Freud's portraits as the realization in paint of a personal relationship between the artist and the person of the painting that slowly developed over time. According to Howgate "his friends, family and acquaintances have always been eclectic, drawn from all walks of life, and this is reflected in the variety of faces and bodies that occupy Freud's paintings. Although many of his subjects have led complex lives, most of them - with the exception of a few public figures - prefer to hold on to their anonymity. Lucian Freud Portraits is a life represented in paint rather than a biographical retrospective."
This exhibition displays Lucian Freud's works in 10 rooms adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection. Rooms 1, 2 and 3 showcase works that cover the period from the 40s to the 70s. The highlights in this section are the two portraits of Kitty Garman, Freud's first wife, one entitled ‘Girl with Roses' 1947-48 made during Kitty's pregnancy, and the other entitled ‘Girl with a White Dog' 1950-51, completed not long before the couple separated. Both paintings highlight the surrealism phase that characterized the artist early productions. Works in room 2 highlight a new phase in Freud's production, where he began to draw more attention to the details of the subject as in ‘Woman Smiling' 1958-9, in which the face of his former student and lover Suzy Boyt becomes a land to be conquered in all its changing hues and shifting textures. Also, he started painting the complete figure instead of the head as in ‘The Painter's Mother Reading' 1975 and ‘The Painter's Mother Resting' 1976, which portrait the artist's mother with astonishing attention to body detail and smoothness.
In room 4, just opposite the exhibition entrance, is displayed one of the exhibition's highlights ‘Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau),' a large scale portrait of his lover Celia Paul, daughter Bella and ex-lover Suzy Boyt with her son Kai. The composition is inspired by a small painting by the 18th century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau that portray a pierrot teased by a group of flirting women. The only link among the subjects is the artist himself and the portrait clearly shows the promiscuity that marked Freud's life. In fact, the artist holds several accounts of love affairs and children, 14 of them formally recognized, but probably many more still unrecognized.
Room 5, 6 and 7 include his portrait ‘Reflection (self-portrait)' 1985, a particularly introspective work that he painted when he was in his sixties, and ‘Esther' 1982-83, the last portrait he made of his mother laying on a bed and dressed in white, recalling the typical posture for such subject from famous artists in the past. Rooms 8, 9 and 10, propose an overview of the last twenty years of Freud's life. In this section the nudes are the main subject of the paintings. Room 8 is devoted to Sue Tilley's, whose large body is painted in several portraits, such as ‘Benefit Supervisor Resting'1994, ‘Benefit Supervisor Sleeping' 1995 and ‘Sleeping by the Lon Carpet' 1996. The series of portrait draw Sue Tilley's asleep, lying languidly on the sofa, expressing femininity despite the proportions. These portraits underline Freud's predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions. Room 10 hosts portraits of David Lawson, his assistant, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, his riding companion, and painter David Hockney, among many other subjects drawn from acquaintances. All of them propose human bodies of a spectacular, unusual scale.
The exhibition ends with Lucian Freud's last portrait ‘Portrait of the Hound,' which features Freud's assistant and long-time friend, David Dawson, and Dawson's whippet, Eli. He worked on the subject for four years until he was too frail to draw, and the portray remains unfinished. Despite his notoriety, Freud worked incessantly for all his life with the enthusiasm and the energy of a young artist, painting in his studio family members and acquaintances until the very last day of his existence. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a tribute to Freud's iconic art.
‘Lucian Freud - Portraits' till May 27th at the National Portrait Gallery. St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE Londen. www.npg.org.uk.