It was during 1988 when I had my first encounter with the paintings of Lucian Freud. I had known of his work for some time and while I was on my foundation course, I was spending all my time in the life room. I traveled down to London to the Hayward Gallery to see this collection of portraits, nudes and interiors which was to have a profound impact during this impressionable period. Here was an artist who despite all other trends in the contemporary art world worked in the studio from direct observation, from the nude and head, still life and studio interiors over a very sustained period.
Following the work of LF over the years, from the Hayward to the Whitechapel, Tate to the Wallace Collection, I found myself face to face this afternoon with a number of familiar paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in the retrospective exhibition Lucian Freud Portraits.
I had forgotten how beautiful the portraits from the 1950’s are. I have always been fond of the paintings from this early period, the works ‘Sleeping nude’ (1950), ‘Portrait of John Minton’ (1952), ‘Girl with beret’ (1951/2) and the exquisite ‘Girl with a white dog’ (1950/1). LF was a wonderful painter of animals. These paintings have a smooth and linear technique, with a delicacy and subtlety a million miles away from the encrusted and textured surfaces of the later period.
The most stunning portraits are of those fellow artists and performers Freud worked with. I feel that here we see a real relationship, and affinity with these sitters Frank Auerbach, Leigh Bowery and David Hockney which is missing from many of the other portraits on show. The painter has often been criticized for the coldness and distance with which he painted many of his nudes.
A few of the portraits from the 1970’s really drew me in. These images are becoming a lot more painterly in approach, but without the surface of the paint getting in the way, which I feel begins to break the form. ‘Annabel’ (1972), ‘The Painter’s Mother II’ (1972), The Painter’s Mother Reading’ (1975) and ‘Frank Auerbach’ (1975/6) are wonderful portraits. A feeling of intimacy increased as the edges of the canvas come close to the subject so that the head fills the pictorial space.
Of the self-portraits ‘Reflection (Self-Portrait) of 1985 was the outstanding one of the show. A shame that the nude self-portrait with boots of 1993 was not included.
Of the later paintings, the male nude ‘Freddy Standing’ (2000-1) is an powerful image, a simple standing pose against a faded yellow wall, away from the contorted poses of many of the female nudes around it.
The portrait that I was most looking forward to seeing was the 2002 portrait of fellow painter David Hockney. This is a stunning portrait. Over the past few weeks, I have seen many interviews of Hockney (with reference to his own Royal Academy exhibition ‘A Bigger Picture’ currently showing), and this portrait captures the artists incredible character and that certain ‘twinkle’. Wonderful to see the results of the collaboration of these two artistic giants.
The exhibition is hung chronologically. the later spaces represent the last twenty years of LF’s career. Curiously, there are only three paintings here after 2004. For me, this was the most disappointing aspect of the show. I had been hoping to see a few of his most recent paintings, including a painting of a friend of mine who sat for LF a couple of years ago.
Alas there were very few works that I had not seen before. The last painting, the unfinished Portrait of the Hound a nude of David Dawson and his dog Eli is a poignant work, standing before it, knowing that here were the last brushstrokes made by the painter.