Head down to Piccadilly and up to the Royal Academy for the last blog of the year which, by happy coincidence is, arguably, going to be about one of the best shows of the year. The exhibition in question being an interesting, entertaining and rather cleverly curated display of self-portraits that have been drawn, doodled, sketched and painted during the course of a long and successful career by one of the true Titans of British art: Lucian Freud. Bucking the irritatingly fashionable trend for displaying artworks in a Post-Modernistic muddle of random competing thematic threads, the shows is surprisingly sensibly laid out in a proper chronological order. And so, consequentially, the displays very neatly chart the changing physical features and physiognomy of the artist as he ages from callow teenager to confident young man and then from successful middle-aged professional to the grizzled grand old man who died brandishing a brush in one hand and a tube of paint in the other. It’s a great long fascinating bumpy journey and one that’s mirrored by the equally interesting evolution of Freud’s very distinctive stylistic developments.
So, to begin at the beginning, the first, slightly curious thing to note in the opening room of the exhibition – which starts when Freud is still a bit of a bolshie teenager – is that these early ink sketches display no very obvious natural talent for figurational representation. Because he ended up as such a very skilful people painter, I suppose I sort of assumed that Freud must have been one of those child prodigies like Picasso or Dali who pick up a pencil before they start to crawl and can then copy a Rembrandt by the time they’re in short trousers. But this seems not to have been the case and instead, at least judging by the handful of early works that have been gathered together here, Freud seems to have been a fairly average student. The drawings are ok but nothing special and are certainly not very obviously recognisable as self-portraits, not least because they all look dissimilar from one another. In fact, were it not for their accompanying labels, I’d have thought a couple were more likely to be sketches of student friends rather than supposed portraits of the artist as a young man.
All starts to change in the next room where, in the space of just a couple of years, Freud has grown up into becoming a seriously talented artist, but perhaps more of a commercial artist than a fine artist. By which I mean that the very flat, very detailed drawings here look like the kind of cool, impersonal generic illustrations that could be used for magazine ads or book covers (as indeed some of them were). In these works Freud almost seems to go out of his way to turn an expressionless face to the world. So there are no smiles or snarls, grins or grimaces, that might reflect something of the inner feelings of the artist, just a very measured poker face that keeps everything very well hidden. The one time that Freud does let the mask slip is in a rare intimate double portrait that shows him and his second wife – she with her face poking through the bed covers and him stood glowering above her. She looks nervous and unhappy and he looks cruel and unconcerned. It’s a powerful painting that confirms Freud as a potentially very good artist, definitely capable of capturing the tension in a painful scene that positively crackles with menace, but, by the same token, it also suggests that the artist himself may not have been a very nice man.
Unfortunately, there are no subsequent paintings to suggest that any revision needs to be made to this initial piece of amateur Freudian analysis. And so, the slightly depressing thought then follows that maybe it was the very fact of Freud‘s own chillingly cold personal disposition that gave him the detached objectivity he found so helpful when looking at a face or feature – regardless as to whether it was his own or someone else’s – and rendering it in paint.
At the same time as he ends his presumably unhappy marriage, Freud also makes a conscious decision to turn against his early illustrational drawing techniques and what come next is a much looser, more experimental phase, influenced to some extent by his friendship with that other giant of British art, Francis Bacon. But while there are some colourful commonalities between the blurry bruised pink and bluish palettes of the two great artists at this point in time, Freud avoids getting sidetracked into a meander around the world of Bacon‘s Surreal existentialistic fantasies preferring to stay in the real world and stick to experimenting with a more direct form of realistic representationalism.
Gradually Freud seems to retune his paintbrush and starts to paint with a greater sense of control and focus and, again, there are some very strong works from this period, especially the paintings where Freud gazes imperiously down at his audience, a pose that one imagines came fairly naturally to the artist. And it’s also around this time (in the mid-1980s) that the very well respected critic Robert Hughes proclaimed that, in his highly regarded opinion, Freud was the greatest extant figurative artist in the world. It wasn’t just Freud that concurred with this self-elevating view which, in some ways, seems to have then become a sort of a self-fulfillng prophecy as demand for the artist’s work grows and he ups his already prodigious output in order to meet it.
It also means that Freud has literally and, I suppose, metaphorically less time for self reflection. At any rate, the next room of artworks in the exhibition switches away from self-portraits to painted studies of other people – a couple of female nudes sprawled on his shabby studio sofa; a full length standing male nude (the artist’s son, in fact); and a besuited pair of Irishmen, one seated, one stood and, behind the two, a truly great background view through a window onto a street of terraced houses. And it’s at this point that one has to acknowledge the skill of the excellently crafty curation for, if one looks carefully enough it turns out that, while none of these works could conventionally be described as a self-portrait, Freud has, nevertheless, wittily inveigled his way into each and every one of the paintings. In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t resist inserting himself into all his films by making brief comic cameos, so it is with these pictures where Freud makes his personal presence felt by way of a dark reflection in a window pane, or a sight of his feet jutting into one of the the scenes or just a darkening stain on the carpet. The latter effect being Freud‘s shadow looming above one of his recumbent nude models – a decidedly creepy situation which uncomfortably echoes that of the earlier painting of him and his wife mentioned before. I’m not sure how often Freud went to the trouble of including a vignette of himself in his paintings of other people – I think he probably did so only very occasionally – so congratulations to the curatorial researchers who managed to track down this handful of intriguing examples. It would be interesting to know if there were particular reasons as to why Freud chose to include traces of himself in these specific works, although part of me thinks that this might well be mystery that is best left enigmatically unsolved.
The final room of the show returns to straightforward self-portraiture that range from some small works that concentrate of facial close-up face, through a group of medium scale head and torso shots and then the bold closing valedictory statement work where Freud bares all to the world and stands before us defiantly naked. The old man looks a bit boney and wrinkled but he’s clearly unbowed and shows the signs of having lived a long and complicated life and yet having compromised very little along the way.
As to whether Robert Hughes was right in his assessment of Freud’s preeminence in figurative painting, it’s certainly true that the artist produced some really very strong images – there are at least a dozen really memorably great paintings in this show – but then there are also a few duffers, notably amongst the smaller works. Occasionally Freud also seems to mess up the perspective, make a mistake with the anatomy or simply chooses to set his model in an unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable pose – the painting of his son definitely looks a bit of a shambles to me. And I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has felt a bit embarrassed when confronted by some of his more obsessionally intimate studies of the female form. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of anyone else who has come along recently to challenge Freud‘s position and, since the representational art that he perfected has fallen so very far out of fashion today, in later years he may well come to be seen as being the last great master of that noble if out-dated tradition or realistic figuration and candid self-portraiture.