One of the last truly great painters to come from British shores, Lucian Freud is an artist of such a high esteem that trying to coerce the experience of seeing his paintings into words seems sacrosanct in its futility.  However the latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London demands to be seen and so an attempt at realising his paintings in words must be made as it really is a special exhibit.

Freud seems to be the perfect artist for the National Portrait Gallery.  Not only were portraits his speciality, his obsessions with face and figure as well as the relationships built up between the sitter and the artist make it easy to sit both his own personal manifesto on art next to the Gallery’s making it a perfect partnership.

With the artist’s recent death still in mind, the whole of the exhibition takes on a rather sad tone, almost acting like a beautiful epitaph.  However it would be wrong to hide from the sheer joy that some of the work brings out in the viewer, even with the darker and more unrelenting of paintings. Spanning the artists’ entire life, the exhibition mixes work from all of Freud’s periods whether they be the early, more experimental and cubist portraits to the huge, graphically detailed nudes of his later years.

Girl with a White Dog is a particular highlight on show from his earlier days, showcasing Freud’s first wife Kitty seemingly aged beyond her apparent years.  His paintings have a cartoon like glee from this period (as can be seen in Interior at Paddington currently on show in the Walker Art Gallery) and dark sense of humour can be taken from some of these works.  It’s telling though that it’s not a sense of humour everyone partakes in when the guide reveals that Kitty and Lucian separated not long after the picture was finished…

Some of the more serious but gentle works in the exhibit are of the painter’s mother, which showcase a deep understanding of the ever-changing relationship with one’s parents.  They also say a lot more of this relationship, with more accuracy and subtlety, than the work of his Grandfather, which is an achievement in itself, especially as Lucian does so without the use of words.

Some of the darker and more visually controversial works of Freud’s later life are the real highlight of the exhibit and are rightly left till last in the walk about.  His infamous nudes of Benefit Supervisor Sue Tilley are flabbergasting, not just in the detail found within every brushstroke but simply at the sheer size of the canvas’.  The visuals appear to be hinting at intimacy but the size overwhelms this and makes it both a fascinating and uncomfortable set of portraits that are far more controversial and thought provoking of the Brit Art contemporaries of the same era.

Sadly though, the exhibition ends on sad note.  It was however always going to be with the death of Freud still hanging like a spectre over the whole affair.  Portrait of a Hound is the last painting to be noticed in a room full of masterpieces.  It is however with a subtle but emotional jolt that the viewer notices a gap in the painting where the painter has clearly not finished his work.  An artist who was clearly still in the prime of his career even at the age of 88, it’s an extremely emotional experience to see an unfinished piece of work by someone who spent years on a single canvas before declaring it fit for the world to see.

Though some of the paintings will no doubt not be to everyone’s tastes, Lucian Freud’s Portraits is a collection of monumental work by one of the greatest artist’s to have ever lived.  This alone should justify the price of admission.

Adam Scovell

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