Lucian Freud was one of the most influential portrait painters of his generation.
Reflection, Lucian Freud, 1985
I have always been interested in the new and the now. It seemed that painters and painting was somewhat old-hat, especially figurative work, but after seeing the new retrospective of Lucian Freud’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, it became apparent that I had made a huge oversight in not engaging with this artist.
Maybe I thought that there would not be enough substance beneath the surface to hold me. Despite my unfounded prejudice, on entering the NPG I was shocked and enthralled by how the work uncovered the human condition.
There is no denying that he could paint, he is first and foremost remembered as a master of flesh, pleasurable and throbbing with sexuality. A thigh, breast or leg becomes more than an element of human anatomy – they explode into a carnival of life. I can feel the voluptuous curves of the Benefit Supervisor Sleeping coursing with blood and warmth. I can almost imagine what it must have been like to feel so exposed. Pity the models; much of Freud’s paintings took thousands of hours to produce.
Benefit Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud, 1995
Some of the portraits reminded me of Warhol’s Screen Tests. Warhol would film the subject for prolonged periods of time with the camera capturing facial expressions and body language changing, as the subject became more aware of their surroundings. The lens would cut through layers of pretension and persona to reveal an unflinching brutal realism.
Freud’s portrait Leigh Bowery (Seated) displays this revelation of layers. More accustomed to latex, piercings and makeup, performance artist Leigh Bowery is painted naked, complete with sagging breasts and belly, with a facial expression that seems ever so aware of how exposed he has become. No longer subversive, he is human.
Like a large majority of Freud’s later work the Bowery series illustrates the artist’s desire to paint humans, warts and all. The paintings have the power to remind us how beautiful and ugly the human body can be, and like all art that moves us in such ways, death is always present. The exposed body rendered with such honesty also shows a body in decay. This concept is best illustrated by the artist’s own self-portraits that are scattered around the gallery, documenting the effects of age.
Leigh Bowery (seated), Lucian Freud, 1990
There is also great tenderness in Freud’s work, for example the numerous portraits of his mother. Suffering from a deep depression brought on by the loss of her husband, the portraits capture bereavement by painting her alone and withdrawn. I feel these images are Freud’s closest engagement with the subject. As if the painter wished he could do more for his mother but could only capture a solitary figure beyond consolation, even from her own son.
This retrospective contains a truly remarkable body of work, which at its root shows us what we really are. Behind all the pomp, ceremony and rituals of our day-to-day lives we are all just flesh and blood. Freud paints bodies that wrinkle and sag and faces weathered by time, but he also paints that more discernible quality that only the greatest portrait painters can capture- he shows the human full of happiness, pain and love.