Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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