Lucien Freud, New Perspectives.

National Gallery, 1 October 2022 – 22 January 2023


Three years ago the Royal Academy mounted a relatively small show of Lucien Freud’s self-portraits.  There was certainly enough there to intrigue anyone interested in this significant contributor to 20th Century British art.  Now the National Gallery goes the whole hog with a big, comprehensive exhibition – over 60 paintings – to mark the centenary of his birth and to document the whole range of his seven-decade painting career.

Freud was always a figurative painter and doggedly stuck to his guns, resisting abstraction and any temptation to venture into landscapes, pop art, conceptual art or any other mode which became fashionable during his lifetime.  The vast majority of pictures here are portraits and a good many of those are double portraits, either person plus dog or, more usually, person plus person.  What is very noticeable is that in all the double portraits the two subjects never look at each other – they gaze in different directions – yet one senses a tangible, intense connection between them.  An early classic of this genre is Hotel Bedroom of 1954.  It looks like a snapshot in time yet it took months to paint.  The tension is electric.

Hotel Bedroom, 1954.  Oil on canvas, 91.1 x 61 cm.  The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, Canada
Hotel Bedroom, 1954.  Oil on canvas, 91.1 x 61 cm.  The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, Canada

Friends, family, lovers, colleagues and the occasional commission all feature in Freud’s portraiture.  There is a lovely little picture of David Hockney, for instance, and a rather sombre, large-scale rendering of Baron Rothchild.

Often the setting is the artist’s own studio with its shabby furniture and bare floorboards.  And increasingly frequently his subjects are naked.  Freud’s gaze is unflinching.  He used the term ‘naked’ paintings rather than ‘nudes’ to emphasise the vulnerability of his sitters, and the flesh he depicts does not have an attractive hue but is forever rendered in dull greys and ochres.  The flesh is emphasised by thick layerings of paint whereas the backgrounds are a thin, insipid wash.

Naked Solicitor, 2003. Oil on canvas, 96.8 x 103.8 cm. Private collection

Another strand of interest slowly becomes evident.  Freud was not just a painter: he was deeply interested in the history of his art and on occasion the activity itself is his subject.  Look, for instance, at Painter and Model, 1986-7.  It depicts a painter, Celia Paul, her smock already encrusted with dried paint, casually stepping onto a tube of paint on the floor.  The dark green colour squirms its way into our vision as if to say, “This is what all this is about – paint, and what we can do with it.”

Painter and Model, 1986-7.  Oil on canvas, 159.6 x 120.7 cm.  Private collection

Freud’s vision is not as bleak as Bacon’s, say: here there are no businessmen in suits snarling like dogs, nor medieval popes stuck within cages, but one senses he was forever conscious of the inexorable decay of our bodies and their ultimate demise.  A little side gallery features three small pictures of his mother, one of them after she had died.

To conclude: a big, important, not altogether reassuring exhibition which comes closer than most to depicting what it is to be a physical, living human being.

© Graham Buchan 2022