The most ambitious exhibition of the work of Lucian Freud for ten years is now showing at the National Portrait Gallery. It is the first to focus on his portraits. Nicole Fordham Hodges went along, and took a friend.
"Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait,” said Lucian Freud." I work from people that interest me and that I care about.”
I arrive at the exhibition with someone I know and care about. We part in the crowds. I get up close to a portrait of Christian Berard (1948). The hairs in his beard are portrayed in forensic detail, alongside the texture of his dressing gown. Both are given equal attention as if to say: we are also material. His head is slumped, his eyes drooping, with just a touch of light in them.
It makes me think of seeing my grandmother's dead body: my astonishment, almost wonder, at its substance, yet my confusion that it exists without her inside it.
Freud wrote: "as far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does." In his portraits from the mid fifties onwards, his broad strokes get under the skin, showing a landscape of bones and muscles. Face and body are given equivalence: Freud saw the head as "just another limb." The live gaze is fragile. Sitters are slumped or asleep, eyes look away or are glassy. Sometimes a little light falls on the water gathered in eye sockets.
There is no element of self-display, coyness or assertion in the naked figures: these are not nudes. Like Stanley Spencer's 'Double Nude Portrait', his figures are painfully exposed. Freud's view is elevated showing them in awkward positions. The full light bears down upon them.
Freud's paintings could take a year to complete. Sitters worked with him most days. I see time pressing upon these uncomfortable figures, straining their muscles, dampening their vital spark.
Sometimes Freud's sitters do inhabit themselves more fully. There is a queue to view Freud's sequence of paintings of his mother, Lucie, painted whilst she was deeply depressed and unaware of her son's presence. In 'The Painters Mother' (1972), her crossed legs, her grip on the armchair show her holding on to who she is. Her thoughts are held in the set of her mouth. She is left in charge of her own tension.
Freud's portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery are also exceptions. In 'Leigh Bowery (seated)' 1990 he is depicted on a level with Freud, his gaze direct. His index finger is curled casually up. One leg is arranged insouciantly over a chair: the other powerful leg is enough to root him. These are extraordinary nude portraits of a man whose personality is held firmly within his physicality – not almost extinguished by it. It is ironic that Bowery, unknown to Freud, was dying of AIDS related illness. Was this even the reason why Bowery was so present in his body? Either way Freud found Bowery a “remarkable” model, and said he found him beautiful.
In Freud's self-portraits the face is certainly not “just another limb” but being used as it is intended: to show the person underneath. 'Reflection(self-portrait)' 1985, is no study of the landscape of skin. Light falls from the side allowing some shadow. He is looking into his half-hidden, half-revealed self. His eyes are intensely appraising and a little confused.
This exhibition – the first to focus on his portraiture - left me disquieted and confused. Why has Freud all but killed so many of his sitters, dragging them down with their own physicality? Why has he not chosen - when he clearly had the capacity to do so - to focus on that essence which makes us individuals?
Time to go. I am reunited with my companion, see afresh both the tiredness in him and the strong presence of self. I think of Leigh Bowery's fully inhabited body, and am glad.
Lucian Freud Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2012. Please go to http://www.npg.org.uk/ for details