I’ve just been to the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, and I have a lot of somewhat contradictory views about his work. This isn’t surprising, since the exhibition spans seventy years – the first painting, a self portrait, dates from 1940 (when Freud was only 18), the last, an portrait of his studio assistant, unfinished at Freud’s death in 2011.
The early-early pictures are very detailed but somewhat distorted portraits: even then, he painted what he saw rather than what others would have liked to see. What he saw was attractive, though: over time, that changed, as if he saw people as meat – living meat, perhaps, but meat nonetheless.
He was very good at painting eyes, however: the eyes were always alive, reflecting the light, in contrast to the flesh he painted later on.
His later pictures seemed uncomfortably voyeuristic, perhaps because I knew that he was painting his wives (he had several), his lovers (many more) and his children (from both wives and lovers). Many of his nudes appear quite sexual despite also appearing like dead meat – quite a feat, I think.
He painted several composite pictures – two or more people in the same picture, but sitting at different times; and frankly he wasn’t that good at stitching them together… The dimensions are wrong: in “Large Interior, W9”, the nude behind his seated mother just looks really out of proportion, whilst the harlequin in “Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau)” looks outsized, misshapen and contorted.
The way he painted nudes – sexual but dead – creates a strange tension. The knowledge of his relationships adds to this. He seems to have had sex with a great many of his models. (He painted the Queen, too. I wonder…) The pictures can be disturbing. There is real sense of mortality in a lot of his work – perhaps because the nudes so often look like corpses. (It may, of course, just be me.) Even the self portraits look a bit dead.
There are several photographs shown as well – most by David Dawson, his last studio assistant, but also images by Henri Cartier Bresson and photographers from Freud’s Soho drinking circle. These said more to me about Freud than his paintings, perhaps because I relate to photographs. Which is again a little disturbing. Was he really so hidden? (In his self portrait “Interior with Plant, Reflection, Listening” he disappears – only part of his body is painted: so perhaps his painting was all about hiding.)