Friday 24 February 2012

Fascination, fear and excitement

Lucian Freud Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

We don’t usually associate Lucian Freud with sport, with its connotations of the outdoor life and team spirit, of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Instead, we think of him as an indoors man, forever showing us the dark emotions lurking within all-too-abundantly fleshy human subjects enclosed by four walls. We remember him, too, as the Soho hedonist, the coeval of not only his fellow-painter and bad boy Francis Bacon but also of legendary low life chronicler Jeffrey Bernard. So it might seem a bit of a contrast with these familiar associations when we discover that this exhibition of his work is a countdown event for the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, which is the largest culture celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements. But even if this festive athletic event and its attendant celebrations weren’t on hand to excite and delight us, his death last year would have made this major examination of his output almost inevitable.

Uncovering the human condition by looking at the body and the emotions it contained - showing the feelings and passions lurking under the human skin - was Freud’s lifelong artistic aim. We see his ‘Man with a Feather (Self-portrait)’ (1943) showing the artist shrouded in darkness with a small house behind him. He looks worried: is it because he’s in a wartime blackout, fearful of the dangers of the night? Or because the house (at whose windows can be seen the mysterious figures of a small man and a bird) holds unexplained terrors? Or is it because he is a painterly novice, wondering whether his work willgain him acceptance into the demanding ranks of art? Yet, decades later, ‘Reflection (Self-portrait)’ (1985) shows us the distinguished artist looking bemused, as if wondering why he paints at all and whether his work has been in vain. Meanwhile, ten rooms are devoted in this exhibition to the prestigious amount of work that he produced and to help us judge how successful he was - and the ways he achieved that success. What best captures his attempts?

Freud used a mixture of family, friends and strangers as sitters for his work. ‘Girl in Bed’ (1952) shows his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) looking upwards in bed with a mixture of expectation and a hint of amusement, whilst his ‘Portrait of John Minton’ (1952) shows the face of the painter, art teacher and homosexual habitue of Soho and Fitzrovia worried and fighting back depression (he would go on to commit suicide in 1957).

‘Two Irishmen in W11’ (1984-5) shows a black-suited father and son in a room through the window of which can be seen the skyline of west London. Both have empty faces, possibly reflecting the loss of someone close and which seems supported by their funereal attire: the son rests his hand on the back of the chair on which his father sits, as if he wants to place it on his father’s shoulder but knows that this might be a gesture of intimacy – or consolation - too much. ‘Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)’ (1981-3) shows a group portrait of Freud’s close friends specially gathered together for the painting, which makes us think instantly of the tensions which exists in any group of friends and which can require only one ill-chosen word to come - unbidden - to sunder the social surface. ‘Man in a Silver Suit’ (1998) shows a man whose depression is evident not only in the expression of hopelessness on his face but in the tension of his wide-splayed fingers.

But Freud also wanted to show us the skin enfolding human emotions. He has used nudes of both sexes to help in this work, but his fascination with, and portrayal of, naked women has - unsurprisingly - landed him within suspiciously puritanical controversy. On one level, this is to be expected, given past PC feminist critiques of the ‘male gaze’. On another level, however, this criticism is surprising - given the current controversies over such things as cosmetic surgery, size zero fashion models and other instances of allegedly prescriptive modes of female body style - as the painter didn’t restrict himself to one particular idealised version of the feminine figure.

Nevertheless, Freud’s depiction of women is not misogynistic and one suspects that, had Freud ignored the human female form altogether, he would have been accused of another form of sexism: excluding women from artistic depiction. His critics seem almost wilfully to ignore the fact that he not only glories in human flesh but that Freud shows naked men - warts and all - too. ‘Naked Portrait’ (1972-3) shows a woman semi-curved on a bed with a faraway expression on her face - or is she simply wondering when she will be able to stop holding her uncomfortable pose? ‘Leigh Bowery (Seated)’ (1990) shows the club entrepreneur and performance artist (his decadent club, Taboo, functioned near the end of the 1980s New Romantic clubbing and fashion scene, and onstage he could dance gracefully despite his bulk - he knew how to bare, and bear, his body to best advantage) parading his plump form - although seated – almost defiantly: he dares usto insult him. ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), one of a series featuring Bowery’s clubbing friend, Sue Tilley (who worked as a benefits supervisor with the Department of Social Security), shows her resting on a couch. This naked civil servant assumes an uncomfortable pose but seems at ease with her form. Meanwhile ‘Freddy Standing (2000-1) shows a naked, dishevelled male, tired but ready for a fight - verbal or physical.

In addition to criticism of his use of the naked form, some of the subject-matter of Freud’s work might also let him in for another accusation - that he was a lover of hanging-out with high society. But any temptation to look on Freud as a social climber is dispelled by ‘Man in a Chair’ (1983-5), showing us industrialist and collector Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza who seems to be reflecting on the ultimate meaning of acquisition. ‘The Brigadier’ (2003-04) gives us Freud’s friend and riding companion Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles in a reflective, almost sad moment as he sits with his jacket unbuttoned. The high life is not, necessarily, a comfortable or carefree world to inhabit, and Freud doesn’t shy from showing this.

Freud kept working as long as he could, but he was too frail to complete his ‘Portrait of the Hound’ (2011), showing us his assistant, David Dawson, with his whippet, Eli. The couple seem in peaceful symbiosis. The outer edges of the painting remain uncompleted, giving us an unintended practical demonstration of how the artist carried-out his work by starting at the centre and working outwards.

Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund, attempted to examine and explain the workings of the human mind and – whatever the faults of his methodology - helped to expand our understanding of them, including their more disturbing aspects. In a sense, his grandson followed in his footsteps. But instead of using the consulting room and couch, the younger Freud employed the studio and the paintbrush. Freud took the trouble to paint his subjects in the way that he did to bring out their full humanity. In doing so he makes us, with fascination, fear and excitement, examine that of others - and our own.

Till 27 May 2012

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