Saturday 2 June 2012

Lucian Freud - Portraits

Lucian Freud, Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery.

"My work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know. I use the people to invent my pictures with, and I can work more freely when they are there".

"Nobody is representing anything. Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it's a chair".

Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait), 1943

This is the earliest self-portrait in the exhibition. In this surreal painting Freud depicts himself holding a feather - he did not reveal what the mysterious shapes in the foreground are, nor the shadowy figures of a man wearing a hat or the beaked bird.

Woman with a Daffodil, 1945

Man with a Thistle (Self-Portrait), 1946

Girl with Roses, 1947-48

Depiction of Freud's first wife, Kitty Garman suggesting a tender, almost courtly love. She was pregnant at the time. She holds the rose almost like a medieval attribute.

Girl in a Dark Jacket, 1947

Garman described sitting for Freud as 'like being arranged'.

Girl with Kitten, 1947

Kitty Garman again. Freud achieved works of such detail by using fine sable brushes.

Girl with Beret, 1951-52

Attention is paid to every detail in these portraits, from the tone of the skin to each individual lock of hair.

Their distinctive vision and linear approach has drawn comparisons with the work of the 19th century master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and led the art historian Herbert Read to describe them as 'the Ingres of Existentialism'. His subjects often appeared to be leading angst-ridden lives.

Father and Daughter, 1949

The subject of this painting was "a clever bank robber ... the one who warned me he was going to rob a certain bank in a certain day" and he lived in the flat below Freud. This is a portrait of a violent man bearing livid scars  - "I think the husband or the boyfriend of a girl he was going with did that to him. They used to have a trick of putting a razor in a potato", but also a tender depiction of a close relationship between a father and daughter.  They are painted as though they are one body, while at the same time the girl's unblemished skin is contrasting with her father's raw scars.

Girl in Bed, 1952.

This is a portrait of his second wife, Caroline Blackwood - this was painted after they eloped to Paris and were living at the Hotel La Louisiane. It is loving and gentle, conveying Blackwood's wide-eyed innocence.

Hotel Bedroom, 1954

In direct contrast to Girl in Bed, and painted two years later, this oppressive composition depicts the artist and his wife in the same room, but they appear to be entirely separate from each other.

This is the last painting he made sitting down at the easel, as after that, in the middle 50s he decided to begin painting standing up and using coarse, hog's hair brushes. "My eyes were completely going mad, sitting down and not being able to move. Small brushes, fine canvas. Sitting down used to drive me more and more agitated. I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working".

Head of Woman, 1950

Freud had abandoned his soft sable paintbrushes by the time he painted this portrait, in favour of brushes made from coarser hog's hair. The brushwork has become bolder and more vigorous. There is a sculptural quality to the portraits.

Woman in a White Shirt, 1956-57

This model was a friend of Freud. She described him as 'mercurial... will of the wisp... you can't describe his being".

Red-Haired Man on a Chair, 1962-63

The way the man has been placed on a chair feels like a stage, thus moving the model further away from his subject.

This is the earliest work in which we see the linen rags that Freud used to clean his brushes, a recurring image in his paintings. His approach to painting was precise. After drawing a light charcoal sketch on to the canvas, he began to paint, radiating outwards from a central point rather than working all over the canvas simultaneously. He would mix the paint for one brush stroke, then wipe his brush clean with rags that had begun life as hotel linen. The rags would accumulate in mountainous forms around the studio and then they started to feature in his paintings.

Man's Head (Self-Portrait), 1963

In this self-portrait he is looking down on us.

Reflection with Two Children, (Self-Portrait), 1965

This is the first time he used the word 'reflection' in a title. He used a mirror placed on the floor, creating a low angle and a strange viewpoint. Two of his children, Ali and Rose Boyt, appear as doll-like figures in the foreground and they seem oblivious to the giant figure of their father.

Naked Girl Asleep, 1968

This is startling in its directness - there is something predatory about the artist's gaze. Freud was interested in people as animals, observing that without clothes, human beings reveal their basic instincts and desires.

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985

"The way you paint yourself, you're got to try and paint yourself as another person".

Gone is the youthful arrogance of his earlier self-portraits. This is an introspective work, his gaze elsewhere, appearing to look inward. His head casts a dramatic shadow on his chest.

Naked Man with Rat, 1977-78

This painting seems to be all about limbs. The tail of the rat curls over the man's inner high and dangles close to his penis.

We get the sense that Freud did not care about gender or ego - people were simply another species of animal. His nudes consist of almost as many men as women and the men seem to get equal time as surrogate odalisques.

Large Interior, Notting Hill, 1998

Here is an example of Freud's gender-neutral attitude. An older man in the foreground, reading a book on a small sofa, with a dog sleeping at his feet. In the background a younger, naked man breast feeds a baby. The original sitter for the younger man was the model Jerry Hall, who in the midst of the portrait found that she couldn't commit more time to sitting. Freud replaced her with his studio assistant David Dawson. "I was disappointed at first that it didn't work out with her, but in the end it didn't really matter to the painting. There was a certain quiet drama I thought about the original scene, and then with David as her replacement the drama got a bit louder".

Naked Man with His Friend, 1978-80

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1981-82

Standing in profile, an eagle-like stare, looking sideways at his reflection.

Bella and Esther, 1987-8

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985

Painter and Model, 1986-87

A reversal of traditional roles. The artist is Celia Paul.

Two Men in the Studio, 1987-89

Bella, 1996

Painter Working, Reflection, 1993

He painted this brutally honest painting at the age of 71. He is depicted defiant, as though going into battle - he brandishes his painting knife in the air like a sword, his palette like a shield, naked apart from his laceless boots.  "Now the very least I can do is paint myself naked... The way you paint yourself, you've got to try and paint yourself as another person. With self-portraits 'likeness' becomes a different thing. I have to do what I feel like without being an expressionist".

Benefits Supervisor Resting, 1994

Girl Sitting in the Attic Doorway, 1995

Sunny Morning - Eight Legs, 1997

Freud's assistant, the artist David Dawson and Freud's whippet Pluto. As he was working on the painting Freud felt that there was something missing from the composition, so he decided to incorporate a mirror image of Dawson's legs coming out from underneath the bed.

Louisa, 1998

After Cezanne, 2000

Freddy Standing, 2000-01

Self-Portrait, Reflection, 2002

The layers of paint have been built up until the head seems to disappear into the paint-encrusted wall behind.

David Hockney, 2002

David Hockney calculated that this portrait took 130 hours to complete.  "His method of painting is very good because, being slow, you can talk ... you get to know and watch the face doing many things... looking and peering ... coming closer and closer... he has this energy ... his portraits are as good as have been done by anybody... so layered, photographs can't get near it", Hockney said of Freud's work.

When Hockney asked his friend to return the favour and pose for a portrait, Freud sat for two and a half hours.

We were not allowed to photograph in the exhibition, so I took pictures of the photographs from Lucian Freud- Portraits, by Susan Howgate et all.


  1. Hi Eirene, Very nice writing on Lucian. I spent the whole day at the show 'Portraits', at Modern Art Museum, in Fort Worth Texas. I am writing a piece on the same.
    thanks, Sebastian Varghese
    (I am an artist from India)

  2. Hello Sebastian

    and thank you. It is such a good exhibition, I too spent a long time enjoying his paintings. I was not very familiar with his earlier work and that was a pleasant surprise.

    Good luck with your piece.