Tuesday, 3 July 2012

PORTRAITS -Lucian Freud -The National Portrait Gallery -Wednesday 24 May 2012

lucien freud,painter,lucian freud portraits, exhibition

Francis Bacon
Pencil, 1952

Francis Bacon Portrait by Lucian Freud  from National Portrait Gallery

He effortlessly captures the great man’s potent mix of coyness and danger with a deft and economic use of line. In a pose staged by Bacon himself, with the open trouser and hands on hips presenting him as both coquettish and Machiavellian, Freud presents to us a practised seducer, luring the viewer into a world of surprising tenderness with an underlying threat of violence. The pencil portrait of his friend is executed on white paper with two conté crayon sketches on either side. These are black and white works on Ingres paper from ’46 & 48 respectively. In these the hard square lines of compressed graphite and wax enmesh themselves into the chain and laid line surface. The effect is a softening one in which a radiant and glittering white surface is kissed with graphite details, like metallic etchings revealing fine hair and more detail but not quite containing the substance and hard reality of the Bacon. It is a great pity his unfinished oil painting of the great man is not here, reminiscent of a cross between Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” and Harry Redknapp, the earthy painting is a fantastic study, painted with huge empathy.

In the same room as the Bacon are three paintings of his first wife Kitty.

Girl with a kitten
Oil on Canvas, 1947

Painting, artwork, Girl with a kitten, Lucian Freud, contemporary art

Girl in a dark jacket
Oil on Panel, 1947

portrait artist Lucian Freud's painting of Girl in a dark jacket

Girl with roses
Oil on Canvas, 1947-8

artist, portrait artist,Lucian Freud's, Girl with roses,great art, oil paintings

Almost Illustrative, in the best and most beautiful sense, very green, flat and with Kitty sharing the same expression, what is most striking about them is how very different they are from the later works.  Like Magritte without the surrealism, or Miro without the abstraction, they contain a huge amount of information below the flawless flatness of their immaculately worked surface. It is not the last time in this exhibition that I can sense something Hitchcock like and stylized in the composition and style. Much has been written to align this period of Freud’s work with early Netherlandish painting such as the work of Jan Van Eyck, (he of the Arnolfini Portrait) and while the hyper detailed sable brush work can be seen to have been applied with the same painstaking patience, the huge eyes and  stylized outlines hint at something else. The war may have ended but the art world was still deep in the eye of a storm. Abstract art had given birth to action painting and had thrown the post war canvas on to the floor for artists to violently flick, dribble and hurl there pigment at it. Freud’s friend and contemporary Francis Bacon had rendered his own shocking and violent, existentialist whirlwind in his Three Studies For Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, three years earlier. Yet here was Freud painting like Dali without the sur prefix, his own realism almost old fashioned and art nouveau like, the hard outlines of this poster work crisply delineated but with each hair and detail perfectly realised.

Sleeping Nude
Oil on Canvas, 1950
Oil Painting, by the great modern artist, Portrait painter,Lucian Freud

I am already shedding my preconceptions and am struck by the lack of blue. In reality I thought the acres of flesh would haunt me, skewing my chromatic calibration and drowning me in deep fathoms of sallow blueness. Maybe it is the years exposed to the habitual colour lies of computer monitors, or the generational nature of Televisions unfaithful reproduction, producing a facsimile of diminishing accuracy, like the texture free print and its inability to reproduce the reality of a great painting. Curiously I return from the exhibition unable to locate the source of this blue preoccupation or any evidence of it in any format. It is as though the power of witnessing the original work has somehow irrevocably established a new treatise between viewer and artist.

Great horizontal light throws a much more sympathetic green light on the model, modestly voluptuous, and luxuriant, both fabric and skin are allocated a depth and sumptuousness that makes your thumbs itch. It is only two years since the feline and flat Girl with roses but already it seems a lifetime away, nearly another artist and yet here it is in the same room, demonstrating a marked move towards something deeper.

Interior with plant, reflection listening
Oil on Canvas, 1967-8
artwork, by, famous painters, Lucian Freud's Interior with plant

Freud top left peering out without the benefit of eyes, only shadow where they normally reside. I cannot help but imagine a 360 degree sound field, and can not decide if interpreting it would place him in the front or rear left speaker. The perspective is not uniform and the whole composition is wrong headed. A nod to the secret life of plants? Surely this can not be an example of Jungian symbolism or Freudian psycho babble?  It seems like an aberration, a curiosity or drug induced audible hallucination in a straight man’s world.

Reflection with two children
Oil on Canvas, 1965
Oil Painting, reflection with two children,great art, contemporary art by Lucian Freud

Looking down into a mirror on the floor, the painter gathers his jacket with a claw like hand. The hand has a tortured spasticity as though the tendons are shrunk by some neurological calamity. It is a view that encourages dislocation, the painter looming and looking with contempt and disdain, his one claw like hand grasping his jacket with a weird scale that show’s little deference to his small children below. The perspective and cinematic nature once again reminds me of Hitchcock. It is very much a product of it’s time. He is like an actor with his place in the frame echoing the same aesthetic of films from the time. Freud is Michael Cain as Harry Palmer, or Jack Carter, all London chic and brooding machismo.

Frank Auerbach
Oil on Canvas, 1975-6
portrait painting, of Frank Auerbach, by Lucian Freud, artist

What I originally thought was Freud turns out not to be. Surely this is a boxer or physically engaged man?, the strength of  his bone structure revealing his massive forehead, almost weaving away from incoming blows, his intensity, square and solid, but no it is the Painter Frank Auerbach. The robust nature of his own work is mirrored in the solidity and unmovable bulk of his great brass like and sculptural head, and yet he is presented abridged, cramped into a narrow frame leaving you to imagine his heaving shoulders, rolling like bowling balls beneath his grey t-shirt.

The Painter’s Father
Pencil on Paper, 1970
one of the famous painters, pencil on paper, portraits, The painters Father, Lucian Freud

His apparent difficulty in capturing his father says much. Rather than being concise and economic like the Bacon it seems unfinished. Each absent line suggesting a misapprehension, or misunderstanding, of his Papa. The broad nose and Hesseltine/Tarzan like receding floppy fringe reveals only the inherited physicality and none of the emotional content. Perhaps all sons and fathers suffer from this sense of unfinished business whatever the relationship.

I do not go along with the assertion that Freud’s paintings of his mother are Rembrandt like. I can glimpse little of her character in what seems like an effort on the painter’s part to avoid darkness she seems over studied, posed and photographic only in

The Painter’s Mother Resting
Oil on Canvas, 1976
The painter's mother Resting, a,painting, portrait painting,art pictures,

does both painter and sitters guard fall and glimpses of a connection reveal themselves. The soft cotton woolly bed cover and silky paisley nightdress hints at the uncomfortable familiarity they shared.

A man and his daughter
Oil on Canvas, 1963-4
A man and his daughter, by, portrait painter, Lucian Freud,oil paintings. great modern artists

The scarred bank robber looks strangely at ease and flushed with colour, from the crimson gash of his old wounds to the depth of his fallen brow and orange nose. His daughter in contrast looks pale and yellow rigid with if not outright fear at least a little apprehension. Her heavy square face betraying an awareness of life’s brutality her father’s precarious profession has exposed her to. It is as though somehow she has revulsion more of his betrayal than the scars his colleagues have left on his face.

Boy Smoking
Oil on Copper, 1950-1

The national Portrait gallery, Lucian Freud Exhibition,Boy smoking,The art gallery

Small, intense, and detailed, the young man's furrowed brow reveals a laconic attitude that emerged along with the idea of being a teenager in the nineteen fifties. There is a whiff of James Dean about his hair and pose but he looks like a British barrel boy, comfortable smoking. For him it is neither a prop nor studied affectation. Though apparently caught in the act of breaking into Freud’s studio with his brother, there is not a hint of judgement in the artists rendering of him, only empathy.  

Hotel Bedroom
Oil on Canvas, 1954

artwork, by, portrait painter, Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom

Freud looks elfin like and small in the background. There is an amazing and fastidious facilitation of his fine sable brush in rendering the detail in the texture of the fabric he is wearing. The light is on his wife and he looks like a Gaiman/Sandman character, from another god like dimension while his pale glowing wife nibbles her finger, lost in thought on how two people in one room can be so far apart as though in different worlds.

Oil on Canvas,portrait painting, by, Portrait artist, Lucian Freud

Painter and Model
Oil on Canvas, 1986-7

Not shying away from having his cock, balls and ass hole occupying the apex of the picture, Freud tries to look uninterested as if he is the passive model in his painter wife’s portrait. She plays along not engaging the viewer in eye contact, and while her face is bright in contrast with her paint sodden smock, it is Lucien who dominates this composition. He does not exaggerate his boyish arms.  From here on in the scale of both paintings and subjects gets ramped up. It begins with

Two Men in the Studio
Oil on Canvas, 1987-9

Two men in the studio by Lucian Freud,great art, arts,

Is it Cerith Wyn Evans who dominates this picture? Like a pale Welsh Giant crushing Angus Cook? His feet are huge like hooves and I do not recognise him without his waxed moustache. Much is made of the crumpled material painted in the studio background and whilst the technical accomplishment is no doubt well executed it is the figures that dominate. Freud was a great painter of people. Not adequate or good, great. His portraits of Leigh Bowery are huge, monumental works that fill my minds ear with cellos intoning themes from Beethoven and Wagner.

Lee Bowery Seated
Oil on Canvas, 1990

artist Lee Bowery painted by portrait artist Lucian Freud

Sue Tilley Room

Big Sue the Benefits Supervisor

Curiously the big one made little impact until I sat down and viewed it at eye level. Almost as though one had to join her in recline to fully empathise. At this juncture and maybe simply because of scale, texture becomes a more obvious ingredient. Like drying porridge the rendered goose bumps and flecks of whirling cellulite add a hyper real dimensionality to these gargantuan grand canvases. Predictably

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Oil on Canvas, 1995

Sue Tilley painted by Freud hanging in one of the greatest art galleries

draws huge numbers, but unlike many other works in the exhibition, people’s attention is rather briefer than the model’s ample Titan like proportions. They gaze and then look really closely, as if hoping that close examination will reveal a hidden layer of Gold or map showing the location of Bullion and then they are gone. It is a fine painting but perhaps they are right in adjudging it as not his best.  To my untrained eyes it is not even the best in the room. The two other Tilleys, hung on the opposite wall are more expressive.

Benefits Supervisor Resting
Oil on Canvas, 1994

great art, oil painting by Lucian Freud

sees Tilley on the other end of the sofa, head thrown back with the black screen that recurs in many of his works behind her. The sole of her right foot is revealed, her left resting in the alcove of her ankle. She is lit by God and seems to revel in her bodies inviting pose.

Sleeping by the Lion Carpet
Oil on Canvas, 1996

portrait painting from the national portrait gallery,The art gallery

Here Tilley is sleeping on a chair or chaise longue with what looks like a tapestry or painting of an African Savannah behind her. A lion and Lioness stalk a Gazelle maybe ironically as the woman sleeps with in eyeshot of Freud and his painterly hunger for the rendition of her flesh. His eye ravaging her as she sleeps, Lucien the gazelle stalks her in the pursuit of another kind of capture. Here is his brilliance, his unstoppable pursuit. The fact that many paintings span two years reveals his unrelenting hunger for the hunt. While Lenkiewicz and other modern masters reveal their own voracious sexual desire in their works, Freud seems to focus in revealing his subjects desires, fears and actuality. While obviously no monk, Lucien was clearly in love with both his medium (overwhelmingly Oil on Canvas) and the unabashed non prettifying documentation of portraiture. His towering technical prowess, whilst never failing to illuminate the detail, the light and the darkness, the broad wash of colour and the minutiae of every drape, crease and layer of texture never gets in the way of capturing the essence of the model. He utilises perspective (the screen) colour and composition but only in service of the person inside the model. It is this element that takes you out of the Gallery and through the paintings, not only into the lofts and studios of Freud, or indeed merely into the lives of the sitters. By being so focused and relentless, one is gifted a glimpse into the mind of a true great, a modern master.

Ria,Naked Portrait
Oil on Canvas, 2006-7

Ria,naked Portrait by the portrait painter Lucian Freud

 The porridge effect is most pronounced here in the head of the girl, in fact all over this canvas. Pushed to the back and top one senses tenderness, a painting he wanted so much to get right. I thought that maybe this was because she was a relative but it turns out it was probably more to do with his advancing age and determination to do his best work

Self-Portrait, Reflection
Oil on Canvas, 2002

Self portrait by one of UK's most famous artists Lucian Freud

Seeming not to recognise himself Lucien looks old and frail almost as though he needs the distance of a mirrored reflection to face his aged self. The arms length perspective measuring of extending an arm and capturing the proportions of a model have been replaced with an assessment of his own features only bearable at  a distance and through the bent refraction of a mirrors inverted image.

I am beginning to see why in 1997 the excellent Waldemar Januszczak asked, Is painting dead? The infamous Turner prize television debate, in which Tracey Emin left to be with her mother, outraged at the suggestion that such a thing could be seriously considered. To learn to paint requires time and dedication, to become proficient and expressive takes longer still. To develop and master a personal style with which to voice such expressiveness will drain yet more grains of sand from one’s own personal hourglass and that is before any consideration is given to art, the works and artists who have gone before, and navigating this conversation, to establish a place in paintings long and distinguished history. The task is momentous, a huge undertaking of almost unfathomable difficulty.

To attempt it is worthy and commendable, to touch it’s unmatchable directness must be magical, but to throw your soul into the fire and fight long and hard, through every waking hour, day and night, well and sick, ecstatic and dejected, to rein it in and master it, that can only be said of a select few. When it comes to portrait painting Lucien Freud was certainly one of those few and possibly in modern times, the greatest.


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