I was not surprised to learn that as a boy, Lucian Freud was expelled from school for dropping his trousers in public. It seems to me that he has been doing this ever since and saying ‘look if you want to – or walk away – this is me take it or leave it.’ Thankfully for him, more people have chosen to look, than walk away.
Despite Lucian Freud’s death last year, this is very much his exhibition. What I did not know, until I had spoken with curator Sarah Howgate, was that Freud was involved closely with every stage of this exhibition and it shows. Following his death, his studio assistant David Dawson stepped in. Dawson appears in his last, unfinished work, which is shown right at the end of the exhibition.
For him, it’s clear that painting is autobiography. He once said; “everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it is just a chair.” This, for me, is a key to his vision. Under Freud’s lens everything becomes distorted. Fingers and toes are swollen, often red and phallic. Flesh hangs. This is not a modern, photoshopped vision, its cold, meat like and real. Even if it is his version of “real”.
Freud’s world is grim and grimy, yet it is one where you can encounter a strange beauty too. One of the smallest works, “Boy Smoking” held an immense power way beyond its size. This tiny, paperback-book-sized work, tucked in a corner, mesmerised the whole room, outshining the bigger works whose space it shared. Painted on copper, this glowing and somewhat bizarre image of an almost decapitated head held (no body is apparent and it seems to sit on a shelf) held an ethereal beauty that for me, was missing from many of his later more in your face works. It was a personal favourite.
Another painting; “Two Irishmen in W11” illustrates the contrast between Freud’s world and that outside his painted domain. Two figures are shown in a scruffy, bare floored room. A ruddy faced, older man sits in a white(ish) chair, another younger and suited man stands. To the top of the painting is a view out of a window. It is a perfect vision of a street, spick and span, yet inside is dirt, detritus and flesh. Here Freud decrees his manifesto – I paint what I want and what I see. He was famous for turning down sitters or making ones he disliked uglier.
Another of works that struck me was his “Large interior, Paddington.” Painted from a high viewpoint, a large, overgrown plant dominates the scene. At its feet a small, semi naked child (his daughter Ib Boyt) lies in foetal position. The floor is dirty, leaves are dead, but her father is close by, represented by a shabby jacket. This is a glimpse into Lucian’s goldfish bowl, a world where his singular vision, reigns supreme. Its exudes a strange tenderness.
The slightly later “Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond” explores themes of exposure. The play of light on his face. Fully dressed, yet a bath and hand wash basin and fully seen. The chair, mouldering and tatty, its upholstery exposed, its nail holes look like leopard skin. Harry Diamond said of the sitting that he felt “depleted” and it’s no wonder. Freud has drawn out his human essence and mixed it with paint.
I still have yet to make up my mind as to whether I love or loathe Freud’s work. But go and make up your own mind – it is, after all, what Freud himself asks us to do.
Lucian Freud Exhibition
National Portrait Gallery
London WC2H 0HE