Although Lucian Freud died last year, the exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery is very much a living show, a survey curated in collaboration with the artist. This is not meant to be a tribute show or a memorial retrospective and the NPG did not try to change the feeling of the hang they were working on with him.
Instead, it is a show spanning seven decades of Freud’s portraiture and it does this beautifully. Paintings of people were central to Freud and, indeed, he felt that all of his works were portraits.
Lucain Freud, Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The exhibition comprises 130 works from which it is possible to trace Freud’s stylistic development and his movement towards a denser application of paint. It starts with the early works – head and shoulders portraits where an often alarming tension permeates the canvas as though Freud had not quite become comfortable with his own hand. In the mid-1950s, when he began using stiffer hogshair brushes and loosening his style, he also started to work standing up – a drastic change for an artist who had always painted while sitting down, in a confined space. From here on, you can feel his work become more alive and energetic as he moves around the canvas and uses his whole body to paint. After Freud stood up, he said he never sat down again. This is the start of the Freud that we truly know. The canvases then increase in size from the 1980s when he seems to offer himself and his sitters breathing space.
Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. Own photograph.
Broadly chronological, the exhibition begins in 1940 with a portrait of Cedric Morris, Freud’s tutor at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing; it ends with the unfinished work that was on his easel when he died. For many, this final piece will be the highlight – a huge unfinished portrait of David Dawson – Freud’s studio assistant and closest friend – with his whippet, Eli. Portrait of the Hound is a deeply affectionate work, showing the intimacy between artist and sitter, their mutual understanding and respect. Both the dog and Dawson are completely relaxed in Freud’s presence.
Lucian Freud, Portrait of the Hound, 2011. Image via www.artknowledgenews.com.
Enough has been written about Freud’s many lovers and children that I do not feel the need to discuss Freud himself in depth – I don’t want to detract from what an amazing exhibition this is. This is Freud’s life in paint showing the cast of fascinating characters he met along the way. With sittings often taking several months (some even years), the works are a result of Freud’s intimate study and concentration. His relationship with the sitters is often attributable to the success and fame of his portraits.
Lucian Freud, Nude with Leg Up, 1992. Own photograph.
The show includes many of Freud’s well-known works such as portraits of Francis Bacon, Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, one of his many paintings of Big Sue, set a world record of £22m when it sold in 2008. I was lucky enough to see Sue, posing in front of the three portraits of her including in the exhibition. Her vivacity and larger than life personality was infectious and seeing one of Freud’s sitters up close brought new meaning to the work. His truthfulness is inescapable. Freud’s expert depiction of flesh (acres of which can be seen on show here) was in part attributable to his use of Cremnitz white – a dry pigment with a stiff consistency (it has so much lead content that the tube weighs twice as much as normal) that he began to use the mid-1970s.
Sue Tilley posing in front of one of her portraits. Own photograph.
Usually when I go round an exhibition, I make copious notes but this art is so incredible that it speaks for itself. I’m not trying to discredit the critics who find that a biographical approach is inevitable when discussing Freud or the many excellent monographs on his life which have told me so much about Freud over the years but, here, you must just look and revel in the opportunity that is being afforded you and give his work the close attention it deserves. It is an intimate exhibition and the scale of some of the smaller rooms is intended to mimic the scale of his studio.
Lucian Freud, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait), 1967-8. Own photograph.
My only criticism, and this is really a sign of the exhibition’s greatness. is that it will be too busy. It was even a scrum at the preview this morning. The works deserve quiet solitude but the small rooms here are going to be unbearable at peak times. This criticism, however, just shows how incredible Freud is. He deserves the heaving throngs that will fill the NPG from tomorrow.
Lucian Freud, detail of Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985. Image via www.dawn.com.
This is a living exhibition; Freud’s paintings allow us to see the real people behind the paint with human frailty at its most magnified. There’s no hiding in a Freud, no distractions – the works are compositionally simple and successful. He scrutinises every detail and the intensity of some of his paintings still has the power to shock us 40 years on.
There are many works here that we know but far more that we don’t. This show is a triumph. Most people can recognise a Freud but, until this exhibition, I don’t think many could understand the evolution of his painting.
Lucian Freud Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery from tomorrow until 27th May 2012, www.npg.org.uk.