REVIEW – Lucian Freud: Portraits

I was lucky enough to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Lucian Freud: Portraits’ exhibition today. It has been running since 9th Feb 2012 and finishes on 27th May 2012. The ticket price is a jaw dropping £14.00, but they appear to be selling like hotcakes. The tickets are being sold in half hour slots to help control visitor traffic, although for my tastes it was far too full. I like to be quiet and contemplative about my art, and I felt that being nudged out the way by middle class ladies who clearly had more of a right to be there than me was rather wearisome after a while. Such is the curse of the blockbuster art exhibition.

Let me make it clear at this stage, I do not claim to know anything of relevance about fine art, contemporary art – indeed I’m not sure whether Freud is now classified as a fine or contemporary artist, or indeed a portrait artist or a member of some art movement that I almost certainly haven’t heard of. Despite this, I am a firm believer that people should be free to make their own interpretation of art as they please and given that this exhibition moved me more than many art exhibitions I have seen recently I decided to have a stab at my thoughts on Freud’s work.

I thought that despite the often small rooms that the exhibition spanned, there was a good sense of progression through Freud’s career presented in the exhibition. In particular, I enjoyed some of his early works where you can see he is just learning to ply his trade as a portrait artist. Some of these pictures, like Girl with a Kitten, have very large, almost manga style eyes and quite a cartoon like feel to them. However, they are also somewhat distorted in their presentation and this gives them an unsettling edge. The painting which drew me in above all others was Girl in Bed, especially the fine work on her hand and her fascinating expression. I’m not sure that I am allowed to reproduce the work here, so I have image URL’d the image from the Telegraph website, which should hopefully track back to source, however let me know if I’m on the wrong side of right here!

The exhibition makes very clear that a transitional point in Freud’s career was in the late 50s when he begins to ‘reveal the landscape of the human face’. This is the point where his work becomes more recognisably his own, more realistic in presentation but another degree more unsettling and in many respects, bleak. Freud seems to emphasise the greys and greens in the skin of his sitters – hinting at the vein and bone that lays beneath the surface of us all. For me, however, the key point of interest is the expression of his subjects. I found that for most of his works through the 60s and 70s, Freud pulls out a very stern, negative, wistful or even fearful expression in his sitters. While traversing this large exhibition, I found this to be quite oppressive. I just couldn’t empathise with the idea that most people are severe or negative most of the time. I read a quote from Freud saying that he felt that if a painting didn’t have drama, then it was pretty much just a waste – nothing more than its constituent parts of paint on canvas. Throughout the bulk of the exhibition I found myself arguing for humanity, that our drama need not always be so dark – that so much of human drama is about beauty and laughter and love. However, after I left the exhibition I found I had to agree with much of what I had interpreted to be Freud’s position when sat on the Tube, looking at the scowls and misery of my fellow passengers. It made me wonder if our default expression was naturally one which engenders negative emotions.

I was interested to see the progression of Freud’s style throughout his career, even to the point of his final, unfinished work. I was particularly interested to see that he developed his use of texture at the end of his career. This gave an eerie feel to some of his latest works, in some cases the texture of the paint being so severe that the sitter’s face looked blurred, anonymous – which to me was very much at odds with the distinct emotion and personality that were apparent in some of the earlier works.

I was surprised to be particularly drawn to the portraits of the Benefits Supervisor, or Big Sue. These are some of Freud’s more famous works as far as I am concerned – being someone to whom Freud was very much a background name rather than a key interest before visiting this exhibition. I found Freud’s depictions of her voluptuous form, generally in positions of repose, to be somewhat warmer than pretty much all of his later works excepting those of his mother. I found it really interesting that subjects I perceived he ‘liked’ he seemed to act more charitably towards – Big Sue and his mother generally look calm, ruminatory, or even peaceful in many of their portraits – a stark contrast to his treatment of people like Naked Man with Rat, who almost looks in pain (and who incidentally is one of many interesting paintings featuring animals, treated very much in the same way as Freud treated humans – they appear all to be one, ‘subjects’.

For introducing me to a great artist I have not previously known well, I applaud the NPG. For a social recluse like myself to be jostled around by so many ‘real’ art lovers in one go I feel I have to detract points (even though it’s not the NPGs fault), so I give Lucian Freud: Portraits a top notch 9 out of 10 Extreme Points!


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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