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You can separate the art from the artist most of the time. But it’s not so easy when the art is as obvious a reflection of a stinking personality as Lucian Freud’s.
He’s one of art history’s greatest portraitists, but he wasn’t a great guy. His sitters famously suffered for hours at his hand while he captured every vile, honest detail of their contorted bodies. His family suffered, and his friends suffered too, he was an absent father, a serial cheater, etc. etc., because all that mattered was the art, the physical end product, the canvas on display. So here, in this major show of work from throughout his long career, we get to see if it was worth it.
The early works are quirky, sharp, cartoony and bug-eyed visions, all flat and youthful. The iconic ‘Girl with a Kitten’ and ‘Girl with a Rose’ from the 1940s are here, frazzled and shaky. But it’s not until the mid-1950s that Freud starts to look like Freud. A 1952 portrait of John Minton has the shadowy darkness, and the unbearably tense ‘Hotel Bedroom’ has the threat and viciousness. What you’re seeing here is the birth of a modern giant, a real painter of violence starting to let his true nature out.
What comes next is room after room of Freud at his best. There are portraits so close-cropped you feel like you can smell the subjects’ breath, there are awkwardly posed, vulnerable nudes, oodles of rippling flesh, exhausted men in suits, twisted perspectives, thick, thick, thick paint.
It’s confrontational, unapologetic and often pretty jaw-dropping. But it’s also very, very cold. Even his pencil sketch of his dead mother’s face feels like an opportunity to make art, not to mourn.
It’s rare that any sense of his sitters’ personalities comes through, or any emotion other than annoyance at being forced to sit for him for so long. But what he does capture is dynamics: relationships of power between him and his sitters, between the sitters themselves, and between him and you. The perspective he paints from means he looms over every one of his subjects, staring down at them, like in the unsettling, towering portrait of a vulnerable half-naked little girl. He twists his sitters into impossible shapes, manipulates and distends them. He captures their lumps and bumps and folds and zits without forgiveness or softness. When he paints a self-portrait, the perspective shifts. Now he looms over you, the viewer, in an act of total dominance. The position of power is always his.
It’s not pleasant, but they’re still amazing paintings. The men in suits, all exhausted from living their powerful lives, are my favourites, but there’s so much to lose yourself in: the worn leather on the brigadier’s armchair, the diseased dappling of the skin in ‘Portrait of the Hound’, the weird micro-portraits hidden in ‘Two Irishmen in W11’. If you like painting for its own sake, he’s damn near untouchable. It’s just a shame he was such a bastard.
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