Lucian Freud: New Perspectives.
Until 22 January.
The new exhibition about the German-British and internationally renowned painter Lucian Freud adds new views compared to previous exhibitions such as ‘All too Human’ at Tate Britain in 2018 about Bacon and Freud, ‘Lucian Freud: Self-Portraits’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2019 and ‘Bacon, Freud and the School of London’ in the same year at Chiostro del Bramante in Rome. The ‘new perspectives’ in the title conveys that the exhibition intends to comprehend and reflect on the painter’s seven-decades-long career as well as to commemorate that fact that it is one hundred years since he was born. The pictures are arranged in a chronological order that focus on themes and on how they are developed in terms of different techniques and different media.
Lucian Freud (1922–2011) was born in Berlin and was the grandson of Sigmund Freud. The family fled to London in 1933 to escape from Nazi Germany. He studied art at Goldsmiths College and at the Central School of Art in London and often visited the National Gallery, studying historical paintings and the great masters’ works; it was ‘like going to a doctor for help’, he remarked once. Self-portraits, portraits of friends, lovers, royalty, family members, fellow artists, business leaders and interesting ordinary people feature in the exhibition in a large selection of more than sixty pieces that offer a wide-ranging illustration of Freud’s complex and life-long artistic development; they propose taking a fresh look at his work, which is the result of constant research and effort to attain a personal style. Freud’s attention is on the subject’s gaze, their body and the personality of the sitter, which are reflected in the pose and in the techniques used.
The display features different pieces from the first self-portraits of the 1940s, such as Self- Portrait with Hyacinth Pot, Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait) and Man at Night (Self- Portrait)’, that show an unsettling linear clarity via smooth brushstrokes to the stylistic change that started from the 1950s and developed further from the 1960s together with his increasing reputation as a portrait painter. The background becomes more textured and the surfaces are built in layers of thick impasto. Renaissance paintings and German Expressionism are his main sources of inspiration when he depicts the realism of the figures that expose and sometimes exaggerate the physicality of the subjects. Sensuality, eroticism and vulnerability are visible together with a sense of mortality that is paradoxically conveyed in the overwhelming power of the flesh. His palette becomes more limited and the thickness of the texture allows him to reveal changes and details such as veins, wrinkles, hairs, swellings, folds of skin and cellulite, exposing ageing and decadence. The perspective of the composition is intentionally unexpected, such as in Reflection: Two Children (Self-Portrait), 1965, in which the subject is foreshortened, giving a distorted perspective, and in Evening in the Studio, 1993, in which the figure in the foreground is enlarged. The gaze of the sitter rarely looks straight at the viewer but is usually turned away from them, looking downwards or sideways, as in Woman with a Daffodil, 1945, or Girl with a Kitten, 1947.
Because of this rendering of the skin and of the body, the subjects look profoundly marked by life, possibly because they have had challenging experiences and/or unfulfilling relationships. They look battered, unprotected and old. Double portraits such as Two Men, 1987–88, Painter and Model, 1986-87, and And the Bridegroom, 1993 suggest intimacy and eroticism but also evoke vulnerability, lack of communication and isolation. In the self-portrait Painter Working, Reflection, 1993, Freud stands naked in his studio holding a palette in one hand and a palette knife in the other and wearing only a pair of boots. The iconography recalls St. Bartholomew the apostle, whose attribute was a knife, and it also refers to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in which the figure of the saint holds his own skin and a knife; it is considered a self-portrait of the artist.
Freud painted from life and established a relationship with the sitter or sitters. Long sessions and conversations with the subjects allowed an exchange of ideas that helped Freud to know the person and stage the scene. He worked both during the day and at night, using artificial light and depicting interiors with recurring kinds of furniture and objects, such as a sofa, chairs, house plants and beds.
The portraits of the 1980s and 1990s feature businessmen and figures of power in finance and the art world such as Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, Lord Jacob Rothschild and Bill Acquavella. The portraits are reminiscent of Raphael’s portrait of Julius II in terms of the pose of the sitter and of Rembrandt’s most recent self-portraits in terms of the rendering of the flesh. The modern sitters are men wearing suits, so only their hands and faces are exposed, but the fragility of the body is emphasised in the detail. The flesh therefore stands out; the human bodies are depicted on a large scale that plays with power and decadence and that can be interpreted as a meditation on death or as simply confirming the presence of the body in this world, which is the essence of our humanity. The exhibition thoroughly explores Lucian Freud’s artistic career, displaying an extended range of paintings that delineate his progress and relentless search for a personal stylistic perspective in the composition and the techniques he uses as an artist and an intellectual.
Carla Scarano © 2023.