Lucien Freud at the Royal Academy

Jim Crawley reviews a compelling, claustrophobic journey through seven decades of Lucien Freud’s self-portraits

This week is the last chance to see Lucien Freud: The Self-portraits. And I’d say go if you can because rarely has there been an exhibition in which you feel so completely in the presence of the artist. You get to travel through seven decades of Freud’s life compressed into 56 self-portraits and a very claustrophobic journey it is in the company of an odd old cove who you might end up disliking but who is never less than compelling.

Actually, there are several journeys packed into this perfectly curated show. There’s Freud’s artistic journey. During his first two decades, Freud drew and flirted with different styles – European surrealism, Germanic New Objectivity, English lyricism. A willful teenager, Freud attended several art schools, none of them for very long. But at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, he learned to observe features closely and frame them in eye-catching ways, like Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948). Freud stares out at us open mouthed. Less than perfect with over-large ears and askew eyes, his face fills the page and we are left wondering at the cause of his expression. Surprise? Orgasm? Self-absorption? This is a nice taster of what’s to come.

Lucien Freud (1922-2011) Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948); Private collection © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

Then in the following decades, the show tracks the changes, big and small, Freud made to his artistic practice. He swapped his fine sable brushes for others made from thick hog’s hair. He stood up too, switching from working on canvasses balanced on his lap to painting at an easel. His canvasses increased in size, and he had a detour into watercolour before settling on the impasto technique for which Freud is now best known. As a result, the fine detail of his early works gives way to bigger, bolder brush strokes that build the paint up almost structurally. Gradually his works take on a physical presence that betoken the artist himself. But there’s now also a sense of labour to them, of Freud working and reworking these paintings during the marathon sittings he’s famous for. Nothing seems to have come easily to Freud.

Certainly, relationships didn’t. And this show takes us on another journey as Freud examines himself as a husband and father, giving us in turn the chance to weigh him up. In Hotel Bedroom (1954), he is scrutinizing his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Cold and huddled in bed, his wife faces away from him while Freud depicts himself as a shadowy presence backlit against a narrow Parisian street. He’s predatory and smouldering with something. Malice? Resentment? Sexual frustration? You’re never quite sure with Freud except that it’s clearly not a good feeling. Freud painted ‘the anguish of his sitters’ as Caroline Blackwood put it herself, but perhaps he not only painted it, perhaps he caused it too. In any case, this is the depiction of a marriage in freefall. They divorced the following year.

Lucien Freud (1922-2011) Hotel Bedroom (1954); The Beaverbrook Foundation, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

Freud the father hardly fares much better. In Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) (1965), he’s painted himself formally dressed and colossal looming over his diminutive son and daughter who seem to have been inserted almost as an afterthought. The children’s innocence contrasts sharply with Freud’s sinister disapproving scowl. Speculating on an artist’s motives is cod psychoanalysis and a fool’s errand but what I wonder would Sigmund Freud, Lucien’s grandfather, have made of these paintings? Maybe he would have thought them to be about power: the power of a husband and father mutated into the power of an artist to control his sitters, perhaps even to inflict suffering, through watching. Maybe too this need to control was borne out of Freud’s enforced relocation from Germany to England to escape Nazism, compounded by a sense of distance and alienation from his parents.   

Lucien Freud (1922-2011) Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) (1965); Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

But perhaps Freud also recognized these impulses in himself, even indulged and celebrated them, painting himself in poses that both conceal him and put him at an advantage over others and over us as viewers. He peers out from behind a pot plant like a voyeur in one self-portrait, while in other paintings, we glimpse his face or feet in mirrors as we might a stalker. Even when the paintings are not of him, Freud still inserts his presence. He’s a blur in the dark window behind his son in Freddy Standing (2000-01), while in Flora with Blue Toenails (2000-01), a young woman Freud met at a restaurant lies awkward and vulnerable seemingly recoiling from Freud whose shadow darkens the mattress. There’s no escape in Freud’s world: he’s the prison guard in Bentham’s panopticon, not always seen but forever in control and ready to punish. And this is the final journey we take in this exhibition – a journey into Freud’s complex psyche with the chance to decide whether we like him or not.

But then at the end of these journeys and the show is the truly imposing Painter Working: Reflection (1993). Here aged 71, Freud turns his uncompromising gaze on himself. Everything is stripped back. The studio is empty except for a day bed, the floorboards are bare and Freud himself poses naked except for a pair of unlaced boots. Hawkish and slightly stooped, he shows himself heroically following his calling. His right arm raises a palette knife aloft like a sword, and for his shield, his left hand supports the palette itself. But there’s also a vulnerability to his lumpy ageing nakedness, a robust acknowledgement of his own mortality. We might not forgive him for what has gone before but at least we can acknowledge that in his search for ‘a kind of truth-telling’, Freud could also scrutinize himself as he scrutinized others. ‘I want to paint myself to death’ he once said and in this painting, we can sense the truth of these words.

Lucien Freud (1922-2011) Painter Working: Reflection (1993) Personal photograph

This is a phenomenal show. It is just the right size, keeps its focus razor sharp and draws us into Freud’s strange world not only through the completed self-portraits, many of which are rarely seen in public, but with well-chosen drawings, notebooks and unfinished works. And what a strange world it is! Freud lurks and looms and threatens. There are no smiles, no bright colours, no stories, no human connections. The world outside his studio barely exists, while inside, it is airless, claustrophobic and alienating. This is complicated, fascinating stuff. You might not like Lucian Freud by the end of the show but believe me, you’ll have lots to think about.

Lucien Freud: The Self-portraits is at The Royal Academy until Sunday 26 January. For more information visit the website here.

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