Lucian Freud’s career trajectory is as rich and nuanced as his sitters themselves. Although he predominantly focuses on the human body, his portraits explore what is beneath the human body. They tread the line between portraiture, landscape and still life without completely adhering to any singular art movement or style. He is an immensely respected British painter and his posthumous exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this year is a testimony to his considerable contribution to British art.
The exhibition is as much a retrospective show as it is a memorial to Freud, who died last year in July, aged 88. The exhibition broadly spans over his 60 year career, which is divided into ten sections that highlight the developments in his work, starting from his early beginnings as a painter — after a tumultuous period at art school in the 1940s — until his more commercially successful years, leading up to his death in the 2000s.
His 1940s portraits are characterised by their linear, monotone appearance, which is apparent in paintings such as Girl With Roses, or Girl in a Dark Jacket, both depicting his first wife, Kitty Garman. In these early stages as a painter, the clarity of these paintings reveals his consistently forensic concern for detail, which gives them a stark and exposing quality.
His paintings from the 1960s start to include the naked figure in its entirety. In these works, Freud paints by standing over his subjects, casting them as specimens to be investigated on a surgeon’s table, rather than humans. He wanted to paint his subjects like animals, and his approach involved an intense investigation of the naked body. Freud does not try to eliminate their humanity, but seems to bring out the life of his subjects through this, in some ways, rather brutal technique. The nude figures are vital commodities in contrast to his earlier ‘dead’ objects in their often dingy surroundings.
By the 70s, Freud began to incorporate the surroundings of his studio or the living space, which would enhance the psychological dynamic of his paintings. This seems to be no more poignant than in his Large Interior, WII (After Watteau) made from 1981-3, in which his children and two former lovers are wedged together on a mattress, dressed up for some sort of performance. Its dislocated composition, stripped down interior, as well as their dispassionate faces seem to reinforce the feeling that they are just there for Freud, who is their only connecting factor.
Into the 1990s and the 2000s, his reputation as an established international artist looks to have encouraged him, as his work appears more dynamic and ambitious. His paintings of Leigh Bowery and ‘Big Sue’ really stand out; both seem to challenge the work he had been doing prior to the 1990s.
Freud’s paintings of ‘Big Sue’, or Sue Tilley, are distinctive because they really highlight the significance of the figure. In Benefits Supervisor Resting and Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, the civil servant lounges across a sofa far away from her career duties. You can get a real sense of her weight-bearing flesh and what it can do, distorting in shape when set in various positions. Layers and layers of paint have been built up, giving it a relief that comes out towards you.
The portrait of Freud’s Australian performance artist friend, titled Leigh Bowery (Seated), is also gigantic, but rather because of its physical dimensions. It clearly demands the most wall space of the exhibition, meaning that you have to stand far back to be able to take it all in. Bowery is seated somewhat uncomfortably in an armchair, with one leg cockily resting on an armrest; he is very much in control of himself and his body. Bowery doesn’t submit to Freud here. Bowery is equal to Freud, as he sits at a level position with Freud in the painting.
Other works seem to return to the type of figures Freud had been engaging with prior to his ‘Big Sue’ paintings. He notably paints a picture of another friend, the acclaimed artist David Hockney, who has recalled how they used to gossip while he sat for Freud. Freud’s paintings rely on the intimacy between the sitter and him, as he could easily just destroy a painting if it did not really work for him.
However, the works are not simply just portraits of the people he painted. The exhibition is an intimate portrait of Freud as a friend, father and lover, as well as an artist. His work may try to be an objective corporeal study, but the more Freud scrutinises the body, the more these figures become life-like with each application of paint. These works are full of life, in all of its forms and complexities.