NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY - LUCIEN FREUD PORTRAITS, to 27 May 2012
Went last Thursday pm and was unpleasantly surprised at the huge crush of people and, once again, nowhere to sit except right at the far end of the several rooms/galleries. You need at least an hour and a half to look at the works, preferably more.
I know Freud's work quite well but the exhibition confirmed my feeling that his early work has brilliance and colour, while the older work is gloomy, grey and depressing.
I liked the drawing of Christian Berard, in black and white conte crayon, charming and a pleasure to study.
Conte pastel of Christian Berard
Also I liked the Auerbach head and the famous John Minton head of 1952. Apparently Minton commissioned Freud to paint this portrait.
I wonder if Freud had a problem with the widespread interest and publicity surrounding Pop Art in the 1950s and 1960s, in America and the UK? I am thinking of Roy Lichtenstein's work, for instance. He must have found such a movement quite difficult to ignore but I do not know of any of his work that shows an acknowledgement of Pop Art. Instead the earlier, lightly toned portraits of the 1940s and early 1950s changed to those which are much bleaker and even more sombre in colour and tone.
I noticed a head, of John Deakin, dated 1963-4 which, to me, suggested it was painted with affection, maybe? Deaken was a photographer, for more about him see this information
Walker Museum exhibition on John Deakin
and look at Wikipedia too (could not get a link to work, sorry)
Deakin died in 1972, and the photo on the Wikipedia page of him shows remarkable similarity to Freud's portrait. Otherwise the heads and figures seem lacking in warmth, as if Freud really distanced himself from these people, some of them friends and family, and regarded them as so many objects. However, there is one painting, of a red-haired man sitting in a chair and this stands out because the man is almost smiling (1962-63). The only smile. Although another painting is called Woman Smiling, 1958-9, I could not see a smile here.
I mused on the idea that as we are so used to looking at famous faces that is why we love to check out the famous faces in this show? Perhaps that is why Freud is so popular, and of course we all know what Freud looked like, from his many self-portraits and photographs, and we think that if we can place all the other faces and bodies, we are one of the 'in' crowd. The 'in' crowd can comprehend and appreciate the works that sell for so much, and even if we really believe the images are ugly, depressing, degrading and voyeuristic, we are somehow hanging on to the celebrity status, clinging on anxiously, one of the Freud fan club.
The people attending the exhibition were entranced by these portraits, studying them carefully, on the whole. Maybe the reason they are so popular is because we live in an age of the celebrity, even more so than in past decades? Maybe we walk round exhibitions such as this one trying to put a name to a face, to put a story to a life lived in public eye, such as Martin Gayford in his blue scarf?
The colours Freud used seemed to tend towards grey/blue. There is a large painting of the head and bosom of a Pregnant Girl, 1960-61, with lots of blue shadowy shapes on her nude body and also there is blue round the mouths of many heads, notable head of A Woman Painter, 1957and Head of a Child, 1954. This blue can be seen very obviously in the portrait of HM The Queen, which has a distinct blue round the top and bottom lips, although you cannot check my observation as this painting is not in the exhibition.
Yes, I made a note there, "How dreary can you get?" when looking at the Painter and Model picture, where the woman on the left stands on oil paint tubes. It seems like everybody is really pissed off at having to sit for him (for interminable hours) and the results are really immobile and inanimate, even the plants and animals are static.
Freud was lucky in that he was a success in his life time - unlike Watteau whose painting he used as a source. The flesh he captures is the grey, cool flesh of the Brit, it seems as if it would be clammy and cold to the touch, no warm olive or brown skins here.
CHILDREN AND DOGS
Not much joy in this National Portrait Gallery show, then. The children and pet dogs painted seemed similarly cowed into submission; did he ever try and get an animated expression, such as did Hogarth, for instance? I wonder if his fame had a deadening effect on the sitter?
My opinion after thinking about is for a few days, is that Freud got into a pleasant rut and liked the cash when it started rolling in. The more grotesque the model, the more money he could make. Where was the joy in painting, the fun? I saw no evidence of the delight that an artist feels when the struggle works. Even the studios seem sorry for themselves. It seems like he hated the studio, the dingy walls, the crappy old chairs and sofas, the messy floor. On the other hand, the rooftops and walls of the out-of-the-window view works well.
There was no impression that Frued loved the work he dedicated himself to, so maybe it was just a very lucrative 'hobby' ? Obviously he couldn't fund his gambling addiction in an easier way. And the adulation must have been addictive too. And the girls.
Some of the last works, right at the end, have strange accumulations of pigment, almost three-dimensional, so thick, especially on the faces, as if to see how much oddity he could get away with and still sell.
There is a lot of anxiety in this exhibition, the anxiety of the model, fearing that maybe the artist will reject him or her, or portray them in a crude, cruel new slant which will keep the public buying but will keep them for every in the public eye as an ugly icon.
ETCHINGS BY FREUD