Affirming to use the museum “as if it were a doctor”, Lucian Freud hunted down the paintings of the National Gallery at night: “I come to look for ideas and help, to observe situations in paintings. Often these situations have to do with the arms and legs, so the medical analogy is actually correct.
Freud was really tracking down the five-century Western figurative tradition and positioning himself in a business that when he started in post-war London everyone thought was over. As the National Gallery’s beautifully installed and superbly selected retrospectives show, Freud’s singular achievement was to revive and renew an outdated idiom – painting from life – so profoundly and with grandeur that his images are the essential visual testimony to how people in England in the past 70 years have looked, felt and thought.
Incapable of a dull brushstroke, he made the ordinary iconic and monumental. Sue Tilley, a benefits supervisor from London, rolls on the floor, a mound of livid, twisted flesh and twisted limbs, in “Evening in the Studio.” Bulky, blotchy, inflexible bookmaker Alfie McLean sits flanked by his lean, wary son in ‘Two Irishmen in W11’, in front of a view of the capital’s terraces and towers. In “Guy and Speck,” former jockey Guy Hart leans back, baggy and edgy, stroking his bull terrier with one rocky hand, flashing a signet ring with the other. One hand took five weeks to paint.
Freud said that “one of the most exciting things is to see through the skin the blood, the veins and the marks”. This meticulous clarity levels the privileged and the everyday in spectacles of flesh and fabric, texture and weight, playfulness and gravity. Life-size Andrew Parker Bowles steps out of his resplendent gold-braided, red-striped uniform in “The Brigadier.” A heavy, domed head by painter Frank Auerbach, dominated by his broad forehead, seems to portray the process of thought itself. In the magnificent central gallery, facing giant figures cavorting in the studio, a tiny canvas hypnotizes: under a diadem of flamboyant impasto, shining on soft gray hair, “Queen Elizabeth II” looks with determination but wearily, the bright eyes, tight lips, wrinkled skin – the most compelling royal portrayal in a century.
As all this suggests, no artist of the last hundred years – the exhibition marks the centenary of his birth – occupies a place in the National Gallery more naturally than Freud; the resonance of his work with the collection vibrates from the outset.
In the linearity, the sharp contours, the compressed graphic brilliance, the young Freud recalls the first Flemish and German realisms. His frightened, wide-eyed first wife, Kitty, “Girl with a Kitten” (1947), clutching her pet so tightly it nearly strangled it, is reminiscent of Holbein’s “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.” In “Girl with Roses,” Kitty again, each lock of hair outlined in filigree strokes, and her terrified expression in an eerie stillness. “The Man with Thistle” is a pellucid self-portrait, taking on the anxiety of the thorny plant on a shelf, reminiscent of the stone parapet of Renaissance portraits.
The hawk gaze never changes, but as the self-portraits develop – the barefoot, sagging skin, unsteady posture, brandishing a brush like a sword, from “Painter Working, Reflection” (1993); frail and determined at 80 against a rough pigmented wall scraped with a palette knife in “Self-Portrait (Reflection)” (2002) – the comparison is with Rembrandt. Meanwhile, in the multi-figure compositions of the 1970s, as the nude becomes increasingly prominent and the paint is looser and thicker, building forms from color, extravagance and complexity resemble Rubenesque.
In “Large Interior, London W9” (1973), a background nude fights for pictorial space with the prominent likeness of Freud’s elderly mother. (The women posed separately.) A crazy sequel, “Large Interior, Notting Hill” (1998) has a dressed-up man reading, a dog curled up at his feet, and behind, Freud’s assistant and dummy, David Dawson, naked, breastfeeding a baby. The Baroque splendor of Freud’s 1990s, shown to supreme effect only in these lavish galleries, crescendo with reclining Tilley, a billowing nude under an antique rug, in “Sleeping by the Lion Carpet” – a touch of pageantry offsetting the figure detailed forensic.
Like his friend Francis Bacon, Freud understood that “opening the valve of sensation” was the way forward for figurative painting; what further astonishes is how the heightened realism of awkwardly intimate scenes acquires a psychological charge through its detachment. It’s also unnerving in the series’ first wedding portrait – the crystalline “Hotel Room” (1954), Freud a sinister figure standing at the window, staring coldly at his golden-hued second wife Caroline Blackwood shivering in bed. – only in the last: huge Leigh Bowery and the sylph Nicola Bateman naked on a mattress, turned away from each other, in “And the Bridegroom” (1993).
Seeing his first alienated figures, Herbert Read called Freud “the Ingres of existentialism”. David Sylvester has spoken of his “genius for bringing out the worst in people”. Although Freud insisted on zoological metaphors – people as animals – the psychoanalysis of his grandfather Sigmund, the patient on the couch, inevitably comes to mind. The sharper the truth, the more compelling and baffling the numbers, of naked girls on display – 27-year-old “Bella” defiantly keeps her cool, but 14-year-old Annie tries to cover her nipples with her hair for the sake of it. cruelly titled “Laughing Naked Child” – to Freud’s mother.
She was only accepted as a role model after her attempted suicide, when she had become too passive to threaten him with her intuitive understanding. His resigned intelligence and tenacious dignity inspired some of the greatest portraits of old age ever made, exhibited here in a small separate room, moving.
Painting still confers power, but the sense of inquisitor and victims is extreme throughout. In “Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait)”, Freud disrupts conventional representation by depicting himself, through a mirror on the floor, as a monster reaching to the ceiling, towering above his tiny son and daughter. “Painter and Model” features Freud’s lover Celia Paul, brush in hand, bare feet suggestively squeezing a tube of paint, focusing on the uncomfortable naked man, the artist Angus Cook, lying in front of her. Both appear miserable, puppets in the presence of Freud, who is painting.
Nothing else mattered. “I want to paint myself to death,” said Freud, and sure enough, days before he died in 2011, he was still dealing with the whippet’s ear in “Portrait of the Hound.” Lovers, wives, children and dogs are absorbed in the work, the arc of which is autobiographical even as it reflects the variety and richness of the world at large. All his life, Freud became an old master; he is gloriously at home in Trafalgar Square now.
October 1-January 22, nationalgallery.org.uk
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