Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Lucian Freud Portraits at National Portrait Gallery

Lots of people have been looking forward to seeing the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition which opened yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery - and which travels to Texas later this year. It's now all the more important since his death last year.

In summary, this legacy exhibition is excellent and I'd very much recommend booking tickets now as they are selling very fast.
Lucian Freud Portraits is a life represented in paint rather than a biographical retrospective

Reflection - Self Portrait (1985) by Lucian Freud
one of a number of self-portraits in the exhibition
One recommendation and three tips for visitors

This exhibition is first class - a definite 5*.  The content is both comprehensive and absorbing - and it covers seven decades of painting by one man which is a rare phenomenum of itself even when the painter has not been dubbed (as he was - until his death) "Britain's greatest living painter".

I highly recommend this exhibition to anyone who values drawing and painting and who is interested in portraiture.  This is an exhibition of portraits by a really great painter of the 20th century.  None of us are likely to ever see any other exhibition of Freud's portraits as good again in our lifetimes.  It's definitely not one to miss.

In my view it could only ever be topped by a comprehensive retrospective which included some of his paintings of other subjects - including his portraits of horses and dogs.

Tip 1: you need a lot of time and/or need to see it more than once!  I saw it twice on Wednesday - once in the morning at the press view and then again in the afternoon at the Members PV.  I know I'm going to have to go again - and the reason is that the exhibition is huge.  There's 130 paintings, drawings and etchings in the exhibition and if you spent just a minute on each one and moving to the next, it would take you more than two hours to get round!  The thing is very many of the paintings demand you take a lot longer to look at them.  It also takes a little time to get in front of some of the paintings.

At the end, I felt like I'd given short shrift to some of the paintings even after seeing the exhibition twice.  Some I also wanted to go back and stare some more at - and people are standing and staring for a long time in this exhibition of paintings by the man who perfected the method of painting via the long hard stare.

If I was a member of the NPG and had not already seen it, I'd go in the morning and have a very good look round the first half, have lunch and then see the second half.  Sometimes you just need a break to be able to take in the huge quantity of visual information.

Tip 2: get the audio guide.  This is one of those exhibitions where you'll get a lot of extra value from the explanations by the curators and the comments from the sitters and his family and friends

Tip 3:  do try and read something about Freud before you visit.  There are some exhibitions which you can visit purely for the painting.  There are some which really repay some homework before you visit.  There are layers and layers in this exhibition - and I don't just mean the paint.  I very much recommend Martin Gayford's Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud as one way into understanding the man himself and how he paints - from the perspective of the sitter.  Another book which I found unexpectedly illuminating was Lucian Freud: The Studio the catalogue for the last exhibition in Paris which is now difficult to get hold of.  I found the catalogue produced for this exhibition provided more value if you already know something about him - it's quite opaque in some respects.

This review is rather later than I planned.  I usually dislike writing the review the same day as seeing a major exhibition simply because of the amount of visual information which needs to be digested.  I find I have a much clearer picture of it the following day because that's when I find out which are the images that I can immediately recall and whether I have a story of the exhibition in my head.

However this time I decided that I wanted to read the exhibition catalogue first - which was a good idea as it turned out - it contains some very interesting and unique perspectives by different individuals.  I also learned which were the pivotal paintings in the exhibition.  Then my family had a small hiatus in Thursday involving the arrival of a new baby which was a tad distracting!

I hope you liked the two videos of Sue Tilley and David Hockney.

So - on with the review [Note: the exhibition includes paintings of naked people.]

All quotations in this review are from the catalogue "Lucian Freud Portraits" unless otherwise stated.

A Life in Paint
The exhibition is organised over ten galleries and is broadly speaking chronological.  There's also an awful lot to see!
To give a sense of its size to those familiar with the gallery, the space it occupies normally houses a  'normal' NPG exhibition and a significant part of the permanent collection.  The cloakroom has been relegated to the basement, one of the normal entrances has been closed and the lift is not stopping on this floor!

It contains many (but not all) of his self-portraits.  Sitters represented in the exhibition are predominantly family - particularly his mother, two wives and daughters, lovers, girlfriends and close friends.  There's a particularly good suite of pictures of his mother Lucie - painted after his father died.

I've always thought the painting you can see below must have been an interesting one to set up.  It's also a painting which reflects one of Freud's other interests - creating paintings based on those of past masters - in this case Pierrot Content by Jean-Antoine Watteau

Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) (1981-83) by Lucian Freud 
from left to right: his lover the painter Celia Paul, his daughter Bella Freud,
Suzy Boyt's son Kai Boyt (not Freud's son) and his ex-lover Suzy Boyt
plus Star, the child who substituted for the planned inclusion of his grandaughter May
Also included are a range of his extended art family - ranging from artists such as Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Michael Andrews, John Minton and David Hockney to people within the wider circle such as George Dyer who was Francis Bacon's partner and the art critic Martin Gayford

Finally there are the models who work for him - Leigh Bowery, Nicole Bateman, Sue Tilley - and his friend, studio manager and fellow dog lover David Dawson.

If I have one criticism of the hang,  it's that the pivotal paintings - in terms of significant developments in his painting practice are not immediately obvious from viewing the exhibition alone or looking at the images in the catalogue.  The summaries on the gallery walls of what's happening are very high level.  To my mind it only becomes clearer when reading the essays within catalogue or listening to all the accounts of pictures in the exhibition on the audio guide.  Hence my two tips above!

The Beginning of the Exhibition

It's rather difficult to follow the chronology of the exhibition at the beginning.  When you enteryou need to start on the right in Corridor 1 which has the early paintings and self-portraits, a drawing of his very good friend Francis Bacon and paintings of his first wife Kitty Garman who he met in 1947 and married in 1948.  She was the daughter of the great sculptor Jacob Epstein and his lover Kathleen Garman.  His early paintings are described as being detached and objective - but I don't think he ever stopped being either of those.  He just stopped being overly precise in a very stylised way.  One of the things I learned as a result of this exhibition is that:
  • prints by Durer used to hang on the wall of his childhood home in Berlin
  • he was characterised as The Ingres of Existentialism by art historian Herbert Read in 1951
Freud's painting in the 1940s and early 1950s was characterised by an unsparing vision and linear approach, which had drawn comparisons with the work of te nineteenth century master Jean-August-Dominique Ingres.  Freud used this to describe his subjects who often appeared to be leading angst-ridden lives.
Paintings of Freud's first wife Kitty Garman by Lucian Freud
(left) Girl with a Kitten (1947)
(centre) Girl with Roses (1947-8)
(right) Girl in a Dark Jacket (1947)
One of the things which I learned reading the catalogue is he had an early interest in sculpture hence to me this connection with Epstein suddenly seemed to make more sense.  That was until I found out that one of Freud's former lovers was Lorna Garman, Kitty's aunt!

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to say Freud was very well known as being more than a bit of a ladies man.
Part recluse and part raconteur - with numerous wives, girlfriends and children
I went through the exhibition expecting to find out more about who the portraits were of and maybe a bit more about the context of when and why they were painted.  In fact, neither the exhibition - which is, in essence, a representation of his life and the people in it through portraits and painting - nor the catalogue do much to expand on the various relationships.  Consequently I'm not sure I learned much more about his life.  I was left wondering who all the women were and trying to sort out who was who amongst the lovers, wives, daughters, mother, friends and models.  I wondered why, in particular, some felt more comfortable or obliged to hide their faces.  I left feeling confident I know which were the paintings of his mother Lucy, the first two wives and who were some of the paid models but came away knowing very little about the rest.  I guess I'm only spotting the absence of comment having previously read books about Freud.
In any Freud, we are bound to run across one or more paintings in which we stop and ask 'What exatctly was the relationship between Freud and the subject?'  It is the moment when we recognise that these paintings are not only about the surface of the body, there is something remarkably personal about them, though not easily defined.
It's as if knowing who is who and what is what is a privilege only available to those in the inner circle - and I was left thinking that maybe even some of the members of that circle are also probably guessing at bits of it.

The other thing which is odd about Freud paintings is the way they are so very much about the individual and yet more about the way they look and less about who they are or the way they feel.  In some he's painting emotion but more often it's as if he was painting a still life - it's the shapes and texture and colour and tonality of the skin and the hair which seems to interest him.  He paints people like animals and animals like people.  One only has to go back and look at the early paintings to know that this is a man who could sit and work in a very controlled way painting filigrees of hair and all the fibres in a bathrobe.

One might be tempted to think this is all very psychological - given who his grandfather was - but I don't think that's necessarily the case at all.  In my view it was just that Freud was very reserved about sharing all of his life with everybody in his life - or anybody else - and was also very objective, very analytical and very precise.

I gather one of the the very practical matters which determined who sat for him were his very disciplined habits as to his painting sessions.  He painted almost every day for decades - with two main sessions in the morning and the evening.  His paintings also took forever - and many people declined the pleasure of his company for months on end.
They need to be punctual, patient and nocturnal.
The first pivotal painting includes his second wife Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Hotel Bedroom includes two figures - Freud is in the background in shadow - greyed out - and his wife is lying in the foreground - almost as if she were somebody on their death bed.  Her portrayal is significantly different from the earlier portraits which present a very fresh appearance.  It's often referred to as being about the breakdown of a marriage.  I actually think it's quite cruel - there's something of vampire and victim about it.  It's certainly the case that Lady Caroline was very much less than impressed with the way she was portrayed

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud
This was a painting which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1954 in which Freud, Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson represented British Art.

After this painting, Freud's painting changed - because he stood up.
When I stood up I never sat down again.
My eyes were completely going mad, sitting down and not being able to move.  Small brushes and fine canvas.  Sitting downused to drive me more and more agitated.  I felt I wanted to free myself from this way of working.
central section of A Young Painter
by Lucian Freud
This becomes very evident in terms of the style of the paintings. Gone are the sable brushes and the precise delineation of every feature and every bit of fibre and in come the hogs hair brushes and more vigorous strokes.

Albeit the transitional period saw the use of very thin paint, a very washy use of oils - characterised by what seems to be translucent skin.  This is first seen in "Girl Smiling" a painting of his lover Suzy Boyt.

From 1990 onwards Freud's obvious enjoyment of flesh and skin is perhaps most obvious in the paintings in Galleries VI and VIII which relate respectively to two of his most famous models - the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery (and his wife Nicola Bateman) and Bowery's friend, Sue Tilley (Big Sue) who has worked at the Denmark Street Job Centre for 30+ years.

Leigh Bowery - extract from Nude with Leg Up by Lucian Freud 

Each gallery contains a number of paintings of the models and I'm guessing this is the first and only time they will be seen in such proximity.  Certainly the scale of both models emphasises Freud's interest in painting flesh and skin.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud and the life model Sue Tilley
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Eli and David by Lucian Freud
"I'm really interested in people as animals.  Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason.  because I can see more; and it's also very exciting to see theforms repeating right through the body and often in the head as well.  I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto, my whippet"
One of my favourite paintings can be seen on the right.  To me it seemed like a painting of real affection for two longstanding features of his working life.  That's when it occurred to me that Freud probably had a longer friendship and day to day working relationship with David Dawson than anybody else in his life.  It was very fitting that the end wall was devoted to paintings of him.

The one aspect which I like less and understand least are the huge lumpy encrusted areas in some of the late paintings.  I'm not sure I'm any the wiser having seen the exhibition.  I was completely nonplussed by the painting Ria, Naked Portrait 2006-7 in the final gallery where the face of the subject is unrecognisable and completely obliterated by crusted paint.  One gets the distinct impression of a "falling out of favour".

The exhibition finishes with Freud's last painting Portrait of the Hound 2011, which is an incomplete (ie it can never be finished) painting of Freud’s assistant David Dawson and his dog Eli.

The end of the exhibition
(Left) Sunny Morning - Eight Legs 1997 by Lucian Freud includes Freud's whippet Pluto
(right)  Portrait of the Hound 2011 by Lucian Freud includes Dawson's whippet Eli
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Details of the Exhibition

LUCIAN FREUD PORTRAITS From 9 February until 27 May 2012
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2H 0HE
TICKETS Admission £14. Concessions £13 / £12 With Gift Aid (includes voluntary Gift Aid donation of 10% above standard price): Admission £15.40. Concessions £14.30/£13.20
Supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch | Spring Season 2012 Sponsor Herbert Smith or telephone 0844 248 5033

Loans have been drawn from private collections and museums worldwide including Tate, MOMA New York, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, British Council and Art Institute of Chicago.

Lucian Freud Portraits is curated by Sarah Howgate, the National Portrait Gallery’s Curator of Contemporary Portraits, whose previous exhibitions include David Hockney Portraits, a retrospective of the artist’s works at the National Portrait Gallery, London, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other Exhibitions

This is an exhibition which will also travel to Texas later in the year.  I loved the quote by the Chief Curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Michael Auping
We have nothing like this in America. We are the land of Photoshop and no wrinkles!
  • Lucian Freud Portraits will be exhibited at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, United States, from 2 July until 28 October 2012
  • Other Exhibitions:  Tomorrow  I'll be publishing a post about two more exhibitions of work by or about Lucian Freud in London, both of which coincide with the exhibition at the NPG.


Michelle B. Hendry said...

I can actually get to the one in Texas! Thanks for the wonderful review, Katherine.

Making A Mark said...

That's brilliant Michelle :) Do tell me what you think when you see it.

Sharon Lynn Williams Fine Art said...

Your review was amazing and took me right there! Only dissappointed that the images were so small as to not be able to truly appreciate them :) Were all the older paintings under glass? What about the newer ones? Any hint of any conservation issues? Any evidence of cracking of the paint on the impasto ones? Again, thanks so much for this!

Making A Mark said...

All the paintings are under museum glass - not surprising given the financial value of this exhibition.

"Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" alone broke a world record when Christies sold it to Roman Abromovich at auction for $33,641,000 13 May 2008) on 8 February 2008.

They've had to get a government indemnity for this exhibition at the NPG - otherwise the insurance costs would be astronomical.

All the paintings are in excellent condition as well.

They're all painted in oil - and he was a skilled painter and knew what he was doing. The crusty features started when he started using Cremnitz White in the 1970s - which I gather is a lot stiffer. See my blog post Cremnitz White and Freud

Sharon Lynn Williams Fine Art said...

Hi again -I was wondering if any of the impasto paint was showing evidence of cracking. Seems that is an issue for oil when used that thickly, and especially when zinc white is used. not sure if that applies when zinc is added to titanium as in mixed white. Realize you aren't an oil painter primarily, but was wondering if it was something you noticed.
Interesting comment on the insurance issue!! never thought of that :)

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

Great review Katherine! I went again on Thursday afternoon (using my NPG membership card) and once again saw things I hadn't noticed before. I was also pleased to discover that while it was busy it wasn't overcrowded, no elbowing your way to any painting or feeling squashed.

Making A Mark said...

Sharon - well the simple answer to that is that he doesn't seem to use zinc white. He uses Cremnitz White and Flake White. The latter includes some zinc oxide which is why he uses the Cremnitz White.

If you read the post I linked to you'll see that Cremnitz White is like the old Lead White. One of its characteristics is that it does not include Zinc Oxide which is the white used to speed up drying times.

I'm thinking here that the rationale must be that if Cremnitz White is used anywhere where there is going to be impasto he won't get cracking.

The other thing to bear in mind is that Freud worked incredibly slowly. Nine months for a painting using a paid model was not unusual. My understanding is that cracking occurs when you get layers which dry at different times. I think that's very unlikely to happen given the way he worked.

I understand he also used Michael Harding Oil Paints who makes three Cremnitz Whites.

EmilyPW said...

Hi Katherine, I really enjoyed reading your commentary on the exhibition. I found it similarly inspiring as a collection of Freud's huge body of work, however, I found the curation a little awkward and would have appreciated more emphasis on Freud's link with London. I thought you might be interested to read my review available here:

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