THE NATIONAL GALLERY
LONDON WC2N 5DN
Open daily 10am-6pm, Friday until 9pm
Lucian Freud: New Perspectives Until 22 January 2023
“I go to the National Gallery rather like going to a doctor for help.” So said Lucian Freud who visited the National Gallery out of hours, as a special privilege such was his standing as one of the greatest British figurative artists in living memory. Part of the excellent “Modern and Contemporary Projects” at the National Gallery this landmark exhibition falls on the centenary of the birth of Lucian Freud (1922-2011).
Left to right: Hotel Bedroom,1954; Girl with a Kitten,1947; Two Men,1987-8
Left to right: Self-portrait (Reflection), 2002; Bella,1982-3; Francis Bacon (Unfinished),1956-7
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
Emphasis has been placed on Lucian Freud’s personal life as a celebrity artist, his notoriety, and his birth right as grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Born in Berlin 1922, Freud became British as a refugee from Nazi Germany (The Refugees 1941 one of his earliest pieces comes across almost like a Mexican tableau with his dark-haired family wearing jaunty hats in yellow and orange and his mother in a high-necked taupe jersey).
However, the curator of it all, Daniel F. Herrmann, is looking for new angles, hence the title. Herrmann focusses on Freud’s style developed from 1940s surrealism to his own style in the fifties becoming one of the most important figurative painters in living history. Herrmann is keen to emphasise how Freud stood by figurative painting regardless of trends in art at the time. Although Freud’s paintings look like snapshots they are constructed and fabricated over months, as in Hotel Bedroom, 1954. He characterises the sitter; eliminates paint strokes.
Freud was taken with the Northern Renaissance aesthetic and artists like Holbein and the German painters. His work was always an artistic deliberate choice. His painting technique- layers of thin paint and gesso at the time – were laborious, meticulous. Freud’s paintings included non finito (unfinished) to show his technique, Francis Bacon (Unfinished),1956-7.
In the first gallery at this extensive exhibition, we learn Freud was uncompromising in his dedication to painting to the point of self-proclaimed selfishness. “He rejected anything that might interfere with his independence including monogamy and his relationships of traditional roles of parenting.” In a series of portraits of his family (mostly female members), entitled “Becoming Freud” we find Girl with a Kitten,1947, in which his first wife, Kathleen "Kitty" Garman, holds a sorry looking cat in a stranglehold. There is also the aforementioned Hotel Bedroom, 1954, in which Freud, a dark shadow, poses behind his former wife Lady Caroline Blackwood – a painting which catapulted Freud as an artist from which he never looked back.
In the 1960s Freud forged his reputation as a portrait painter with a series of "Intimacy" paintings. Two Men, 1987-8 must’ve been a pioneering painting at the time showing a tender scene of two men asleep one dressed, one naked. But it was in the 1980s that Freud’s notoriety came to a head with a raft of naked portraits in which his subjects lie splayed, their genitalia exposed, their flesh bulging, sagging and puckered as if suffering from chronic eczema and varicose veins. There’s plenty of Sue Tilley, the benefits adviser, a massive woman slouched on a chaise longue in all her obese abundance.
The gallery entitled “Portraying Intimacy” accounts for the stir Freud engendered. In Bella 1982-3 his pubescent daughter lies as if paralysed, naked before the artist (her father), her face looking like she’s holding back tears. The portrait begs the question, how many teenage girls would lie naked for hours on end before their father?
Admittedly, many of his subjects look rather wretched. By the millennium, Freud turned to portraits of people in power most notably that of Queen Elizabeth II which is a surprisingly small oil (Queen Elizabeth II 2000 - 1, lent by His Majesty The King. No photography allowed). He takes no prisoners, even here, as she looks unflatteringly aged and almost masculine under a pretty crown. He turned to heavy brushstrokes now, deliberately showing old, crinkled and blotchy skin in a series of paintings of dignitaries.
In a suitably darkened side gallery, there are three portraits of his mother. His mother, Herrmann is keen to explain, studied art history with great historians. She was a super smart and formidable woman whom Freud captures after his father’s death as she aged, decayed and died. These are deeply personal, moving sketches of geriatric mortality (The Painter’s Mother Dead 1989).
Francis Bacon (Unfinished),1956-7 David Hockney, 2002 & Frank Auerbach, 1975 also featured in