In his first large posthumous exhibition after his death in summer 2011, Lucian Freud’s Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery span seven decades and is a perfect opportunity to view his work from start to finish. It is here that his last works are revealed, alongside a huge amount of the relentless painter’s previous works. It is fascinating to step through the rooms of the exhibition to encounter each step of Freud’s development as an artist.
Freud began his work as a painter in the 1940’s, his constant subject being portraits, aiming to explore the relationship between the painter and the object. Most subjects are nude or partially nude, which impresses upon the viewer a sense of the vulnerability of the sitter baring their nakedness and true self to the viewer and painter.
Freud skilfully presents his subjects in a way that refuses to flatter, as opposed to many other painters who engage with preconceived views of ‘beauty’, Freud’s subjects appear as if they’ve been caught unawares and maintained a natural pose; sitting, standing or lying.
The beginning of Freud’s work is not as brutally honest as his later pieces. Early images from the 1940s reveal a different style that is more connected with work of the expressionists. An early work from 1943 ‘Man With a Feather (Self Portrait)’ shows an image of an uncomfortably portrayed man drawn in a style that at the time was common in the works of the expressionists during World War II.
His early work is reflective of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoshka’s self portraits, as if to do credit to his Austrian heritage.
In many paintings, such as ‘Girl in a Dark Jacket’ (1947), his portraits present smooth, attractive faces with large eyes emptily gazing at the viewer, often accompanied by anxious mouths. His style represents a realistic view of his subjects, albeit with exaggerated features. It is evident at this exhibition how dramatically Freud’s paintings have changed over time, as such a wide range of his works are on display.
As time wears on Freud begins using rough strokes and raw colours to create a different kind of lifelike painting, whereby the realism of the subject is emphasised by his use of colour. Instead of representing the people he paints with a limited palette of creams and peaches. He now uses blues and purples and dark reds to show true skin tones and shadows, depicting brutal paintings of the human figure.
Every line in the face and fold of flesh is shown without the airs and graces afforded to them previously in his work. His subjects, often anonymous, seem to be in a perpetual state of some discomfort, occasionally glaring menacingly at the viewer as though aware of their secrets.
This exhibition is an opportunity to explore Freud’s work in it’s entirety, an opportunity to fully appreciate the artist after his death. It is not intended as a tribute to the artist, simply a view of the artist’s livelihood and skill as a realist. It is also the first time it is possible to see the work that remains incomplete owing to the fact that he was still painting it before he died; ‘Portrait of the Hound’ (2011), a painting of Freud’s assistant David Dawson with his dog Eli.
Though it may not have been the intention of the exhibition, this showing of his portraits serves as a guide to the great painter’s life, gradually taking the viewer through his formative years and his relationship with his subjects, to the very picture that he was unable to complete due to his demise, we know from one of his quotes regarding his work that his attitude to painting was ‘I work from people that interest me and that I care about in rooms that I live in and know’ which allows the viewer to understand that through Freud’s paintings we are able to catch a glimpse into his life.
Lucian Freud: Portraits is on until May 27, 2012 at:
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place