The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
– Bob Dylan
It was to be his last painting. As always, in his inimitable style, after a cursory charcoal sketch he went straight to paint, working from the centre of the canvas outwards. It was a double portrait, another of the many that he had painted of his assistant David Dawson and his whippet Eli. By the early summer he had finished the man and was working on the dog. He continued to work on the dog until he was too frail to carry on. When he died in July the canvas was still on his easel, unfinished.
The encounter with ‘Portrait of the Hound’, the last painting in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the major retrospective of the artist’s life’s work as a portraitist, is an emotional moment. To see those final brushstrokes giving form to the dog before they fade out to white was, for me, an intensely moving experience.
Before he died at the age of 88 last summer, Lucian Freud was working closely with the National Portrait Gallery planning the shape of this exhibition that comprises 130 paintings, drawings and etchings, and was not intended to be a memorial. Still, that is what it has become. It’s beautifully presented in pristine, spacious rooms with no caption clutter (everyone receives a little handbook with all the info – other galleries please note).
Two days before seeing the exhibition we had watched Randall Wright’s superb documentary Lucian Freud: Painted Life on BBC 2 that included the only video ever made of Freud painting – which just happened to be that final day at work on ‘Portrait of the Hound’. The sequence provided an extraordinary insight into the physicality of his technique: the intense concentration, the muttering and the scraping of paint hardening on the palette, flinging away gobs of the stuff to splatter on the wall that looked as if Pollock had passed by.
The film went on to explore Freud’s remarkable life and work through frank recollections by friends and family members of a man who lived by his own rule and kept his private life as mysterious as possible, and who was totally uninterested in what others might feel about his behaviour or remarks.
All my patience has gone into my work, leaving none for my life.
There was ‘a disturbing intensity’ in the man and his work – and it was present right from the start. Arriving in England with his parents, refugees from Berlin fleeing Nazi persecution, Lucian and his brothers were sent to Dartington Hall, the liberal boarding school in Devon, where he found nothing to interest him in the classroom. Instead he single-mindedly pursued his intense love of art and of animals, especially horses, spending his whole time painting, looking after horses, and sleeping with them in the stables. Later moved to the more disciplined Bryanston, he made little academic progress, and was eventually expelled.
Lucian loved the horses – as was evinced by a startling anecdote recounted in the film by the man who became Freud’s dealer from the 1980s, William Acquavella. After agreeing that Acquavella would represent his interests worldwide, Freud asked just one thing of the dealer: ‘I have a gambling debt: would you take care of it for me?’ Acquavella says ‘sure, no problem’. So he met with the bookie and said he’d like tp pay off the debt’. The bookie says, ‘that’s wonderful, Bill; it’s £2.7 million’.
Randall Wright’s film profiled a complex man who dedicated his life to his art and who always sought to transmute paint into a vibrant living representation of humanity. As Laura Cummings expresses it in her review of the exhibition, ‘the naked animal, unidealised and depicted with extreme concentration on physical essence: that long ago came to look like Freud’s grand contribution to 20th-century painting’. Or, as Freud himself pithily put it:
I am inclined to think of ‘humans’…if they’re dressed, as animals dressed up.
The paintings here demonstrate the unrelenting observational intensity of his work. The exhibition spans seven decades
and is arranged broadly chronologically, beginning with his early explorations of the portrait. Freud was almost totally preoccupied with the human face and figure. Family, friends and lovers were his subjects, but sitters were also drawn from all walks of life – from the aristocracy to the criminal underworld – though he rarely took on commissions. He also produced, as the decades passed, a succession of self-portraits that rival those of Rembrandt for the intensity and honesty of their gaze.
‘Man With A Feather’ is the earliest self-portrait in the exhibition. In this surreal painting, Freud depicts himself
holding a feather. On the ground behind him there are several mysterious shapes, and in the background we see shadowy figures of a beaked bird and a man wearing a hat. Freud did not reveal what they represented.
In contrast, ‘Self-Portrait, Reflection’, the most recent self portrait in the exhibition, is a quiet, reflective painting of the artist as an old man. Freud wears a jacket, but no shirt. He clutches at his scarf as though it is a noose around his neck. What is remarkable is the way he has depicted his head using impasto, building up the layers of pigment until he seems to disappear into the paint-encrusted wall behind him.
In ‘Girl with a White Dog’,1950-1, Kitty sits on a bare mattress, pressed up against the wall with a grey blanket for a backdrop. Her exposed breast is echoed in the form of the English bull terrier’s muzzle in her lap. The couple separated not long after the painting was completed.
In the next room are two portraits of Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, which offer a profound study in psychological contrast. ‘Girl in Bed’ was painted after they eloped to Paris and were living at the Hôtel la Louisiane. Loving and gentle, it conveys Blackwood’s wide-eyed innocence, in stark contrast with the haunting, oppressive composition of his double portrait ‘Hotel Bedroom’, painted just two years later. The artist and his wife are in the same room but they appear to be entirely separate from each other.
‘Hotel Bedroom’ was the last painting Freud made sitting down at the easel. In the mid-1950s his style began to change: he began to move towards a more vigorous approach, influenced by his decision to begin painting standing up and to use coarse, hog’s hair brushes.
When I stood up I never sat down again’ ‘When I stood up I never sat down again.
One portrait representative of the shift in Freud’s style – as well as Freud’s ability to probe beneath the skin to reveal the interior being – is the portrait of George Dyer, Francis Bacon’s lover, made in 1965. Dyer looks down, a troubled expression on his face. While Bacon’s paintings depicted him as a turbulent character, Freud shows him to be a more vulnerable man. He paints his harelip and his broken nose. The redness of his exposed chest is made more intense by the blueness of his shirt. Dyer committed suicide in 1971.
I was struck, too, by ‘A Man and his Daughter’, a painting of a man with livid scars on his face, but also a tender depiction of the close relationship between a father and daughter. They are painted as though they are one body, the girl with a long golden plait tied with a pure white bow, and her unblemished skin contrasting with that of her father. The man lived in a flat beneath Freud in the run-down part of Paddington where he had lived since the 1940s.
A little further on is a self-portrait that it also a wonderful portrait of a plant (Freud did those, occasionally, too, sometimes as a feature of the room in which a human portrait was painted, sometimes glimpsed through a window). A spider plant dominates the foreground in ‘Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-portrait)’. Behind it, a mirror reflects the painter, his hand cupping his ear. Naked, he appears to be an extension of the leaf.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Freud continued to explore complex compositions like this, at the same time drawing back from the head to reveal the whole body, sometimes, as in the 1970 portrait of Harry Diamond, placed in the context of the artist’s studio and living space. Seen from a high viewpoint, light falls over the sitter making him look uncomfortable, as though he is unwillingly exposed to our scrutiny. He seems out of place, seated and fully dressed, with a bath and basin behind him, evidence that Freud was living and working in the same space. Freud had been a friend of Harry Diamond, a photographer and Soho habitué, since the 1950s. This is one of three portraits he made of him. Diamond found the experience of sitting for Freud diminishing, saying: ‘If someone is interested in getting your essence down on canvas, they are also drawing your essence out of you …’. Although Freud said, of his portraits in general:
I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.
It’s in this period that Freud’s brushstrokes become increasingly forceful, and the volume of paint on the canvas increases, so that it seems to almost shape the contours of skin or hair . In the portrait of the artist Frank Auerbach, his powerful forehead dominates the canvas. The two men had been friends since the mid-1950s, were great admirers of each other’s work and saw each other frequently. It was at the time he made this portrait that Freud began to use Cremnitz white, a dry lead-based pigment with a stiff consistency that goes some way to replicating the texture of flesh (later, as the EU was about to impose a ban, Freud bought up nearly all the UK’s stock). Auerbach once said of Freud’s work, ‘the subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art …’, which sums it up pretty well.
The TV documentary explored Freud’s relationship with his mother, one that was fraught with tension and difficulties. Yet the portraits that Freud painted of his mother, Lucie, in the 1970s are among his most tender. They form a series that are in the long tradition of artists’ portraits of their mothers from Rembrandt to Van Gogh and on to Hockney. They are intensely moving paintings and a sensitive study of old age.
Following the death of her husband Ernst in 1970, Lucie’s grief brought on a deep depression and her previously overpowering interest in Lucian diminished. Freud now found it was possible for her to sit for him. Over a period of seven years, by painting her, Freud was able, as Hockney put in the TV film, to be with his mother without actually saying anything.
The only time he did not paint her alone was in ‘Large Interior, W9’, a double portrait in which two women appear oblivious to each other’s presence (they were painted separately and never met during sittings). They are opposites: youth and age; clothed and naked. The nude – Freud’s lover Jacquetta Eliot – is strangely enlarged in relation to the small bed and to the shrunken, oblivious figure of his mother, painted with affection and dignity. With the pestle and mortar underneath her chair, this is a strange and unsettling painting.
In 1977, Freud moved to a more spacious studio in west London, where he installed a skylight to provide stronger light. Enjoying the freedom to paint on a larger scale, he made three ambitious works, opening out the composition to reveal the surroundings in which the subjects sit and the cityscape beyond the room. ‘Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)’ was the most complex composition Freud had attempted. He gathered together people who were close to him to create a
group portrait based on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s, ‘Pierrot Contente’ (1712).
Freud said that this painting was ambitious, ‘because it is large, and because I had to gather family’. The family here consists of his daughter Bella, his lover Celia Paul, his ex-lover Suzy Boyt, and her son Kai – the only one of her five children who was not Freud’s – cast as the modern Pierrot. ‘He’s the subject, not Suzy, not Bella, certainly not Celia’, said Freud. ‘I’m the connection. The link is me’.
‘Two Irishmen in W11’ combines a portrait of a father and son with two small, unfinished self-portraits against the studio wall, and a portrait of west London seen through the window.
Celia Paul, who was Lucian Freud’s pupil, mistress, and model during the 1980s, appears in several paintings in the exhibition. In ‘Painter and Model’ from 1986-7, she is the artist – as in real life, but without a canvas and easel. It’s an allegory of painting with the traditional roles reversed. In the act of painting a male nude, the female artist’s naked foot suggestively squeezes a tube of paint.
In 1990, Freud met the Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery and invited him to sit. Bowery chose to sit for Freud naked, without the trappings of the outrageous costumes and body piercings for which he was known. Freud said of Bowery, ‘he was a remarkable model because he was so intelligent, instinctive and inventive, also amazingly perverse and abandoned’. Despite his size, Leigh Bowery was delicate and supple. Freud had always shunned working with professional models, but as a performer, Bowery was able to invent and sustain demanding poses.
‘And the Bridegroom’ (the title taken from the poem ‘Epithalamium’ by A.E. Housman) is a relaxed and moving portrait of Bowery with his wife, Nicola. For four years Bowery was Freud’s most consistent model and the two men developed a close relationship. Unknown to the artist, Bowery was gravely ill with AIDS.
It was Leigh Bowery who introduced Freud to Sue Tilley, a clubbing friend known as ‘Big Sue’. Painting her was a continuation of Freud’s fascination with ﬂesh, although he talked about not wanting to over indulge his ‘predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions’. ‘Benefits supervisor’ came to be one of Freud’s best known paintings (and, at $33.6 million the most expensive). As the exhibition guide puts it:
Sue Tilley lies languidly on the sofa in a bohemian artist’s studio, far removed from her day job as a civil servant working for the Department of Social Security. Freud was initially fascinated by her size, however as time passed her proportions became more ordinary to him. Freud’s portraits of Tilley are a celebration of flesh and as feminine as Manet’s Olympia or the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, although far less idealised.
Freud used hotel linen as rags to clean his brushes and palette knives, and thepiles of rags appear in several paintings. They came to suggest the landscape of the studio, and provided a compositional device. In ‘Standing by the Rags’ we can almost feel the weight of the woman’s body against the tangled pile of rags. Her over-sized feet root her to the ground. Beneath the mounds of soft linen, a makeshift structure supports the pose.
The last rooms of the exhibition review the last twenty years of Freud’s life and include paintings of his assistant, David Dawson, members of his family and a series of intensely observed heads and figure paintings, some seen here for the
first time. Freud in his eighties was as energetic as ever and painted every day, making rigorous demands on his sitters. David Hockney calculated that this portrait took 130 hours to complete. Early each morning he would walk from his house in Kensington to Freud’s studio in Holland Park, where he would sit until about midday. While Freud paused to mix paints the two men would talk: their subjects ranged from painting to gossip about mutual friends and acquaintances. When Hockney asked his friend to return the favour, and pose for a portrait, Freud sat for two and a half hours.
In many of his human portraits, Freud included a dog, often one of his beloved whippets, painted in the same style as his paints his human models, and afforded the same importance in the composition. My favourite example is Double Portrait of 1985 (not in this exhibition). I love way that human and animal limbs entwine and echo each other.
Freud’s constant model and companion in his final years was the painter, David Dawson, his assistant since 1990. Freud’s recurrent theme of the complicity between the human and the animal is evident in the paintings of Dawson with the whippets, Pluto and Eli (see Lucian Freud: Dogged Portraitist). If any painting reveals the playfulness in Freud’s work, it is ‘Sunny Morning – Eight Legs’, a portrait of David Dawson and Freud’s whippet Pluto. Dawson lies with his arm wrapped affectionately round the dog. Human and animal are intertwined. It was as he was working on the painting that Freud realised there was something missing from the composition. He decided to incorporate a mirror image of Dawson’s
legs coming out from underneath the bed.
Dawson is an excellent photographer, too, and there is a small display of some of his images of the artist at work.
For the last four years of his life Freud worked on ‘Portrait of the Hound’, an affectionate double portrait of Dawson and Eli that forms the moving conclusion to this exhibition. Dog and man are painted as equals; their bodies share the same rhythms. Unfinished at the artist’s death, the last brush strokes he made created Eli’s ear, alert and listening.
- Review: Guardian
- Review: The Observer
- Review: Telegraph
- Specimens of Humanity: FT.com review
- Great Works: The Painter’s Mother II, 1972 (Independent)
- Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist