''The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.'' The paradox, as defined by the late artist himself, is a focal quality contained in the exhibition presented at the National Portrait Gallery; Freud’s portraits are beguilingly close to their subjects -- “the paint is the person” – and yet at the same time, uncanny, strange.
This impressive exhibition is packed with beauties of all shapes and sizes - from works on a smaller scale, such as the wide-eyed, Girl With Kitten, 1947 - to the emotive, large-scale And The Bridegroom, 2001 (depicting the terminally ill Leigh Bowery, and his wife).
The intrinsic dualism of portraiture, expressed in Freud’s work, is ineffacable. The laborious, lengthy process the painter undertook for each painting, and the relationship he built with his sitters has been widely publicized. And yet the impact of all this is felt first on a sensory level, and the story remains in the painting, not beyond it. Seeing some of Freud’s most ubiquitous paintings 'in the flesh' - such as Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 - provokes an irrevocable feeling of seeing a great painterly masterpiece, as one might feel seeing a Caravaggio, Boticelli, or Tintoretto.
Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait, 1972-3; © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
But of all the feelings it awakens, the eroticism of Freud’s work is this show’s most striking experience. We are accustomed today to a kind of homogenous nudity. It is a different kind of nudity to the nakedness Freud shows us, one that moves the eye slowly over every crevice and crease - fleshly, palpable, and imperfect. The portraits almost give off a scent. The apparent familiarity and ease with which the artist takes on the naked form must surely be the influence of Freud’s German heritage. Or perhaps his reportedly promiscuous private life.
The enigma of the portraits, too, is loaded with eroticism – the penetrating poise of Freud’s subjects ignites a heightened curiosity to learn their story, refused by the stark ambiguity of the works' titles.
Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), 1981-3; Private Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition highlights some of the salient leit-motifs in Freud’s work: the role of the artist (Bacon, Minton, Hockney, Auerbach and Freud himself appear), parents and children (a whole room, too, is dedicated to family portraits), sleep, people and animals -- his grandfather Sigmund would surely have had a field day analyzing Lucian’s interior world. But beyond the thematic proclivities of this show, it is the emotion, the 'drama' that Freud sought so voraciously to convey, that returns again and again. It's peak is the haunting incomplete final portrait of David Dawson, Portrait of the Hound, 2011, left unfinished before the artist died that year. It’s unbearably moving, and brings the viewer closer to the painter than ever before.
(Image at top: Lucian Freud, Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985; Courtesy The Lucian Freud Archive)