It’s a cold, wet day in London. November temperatures have dipped lower than expected and one has had to fortify oneself with several layers against the strong winds. Inside the high vaulted halls of the National Gallery, however, there are images of naked bodies on display—and how can there not be? After all, the gallery is celebrating Lucian Freud’s birth centenary.
The exhibition New Perspectives brings together 63 paintings, created over seven decades, that include works such as the familiar portrait (2000-01) of the late Queen Elizabeth II. It’s surprisingly small, unflattering, with a slightly squinty eye and a 5 o’clock shadow on her chin and upper lip, yet it’s intense. He made someone sit in for the queen, borrowing her tiara so he could paint it, and he made it sparkle with the radiance of real diamonds. There’s also the eerie Girl With A Kitten (1947), featuring his first wife Kitty Garman, and Hotel Bedroom (1954)—a portrait of his marriage with Guinness heiress Caroline Blackwood, Reflection With Two Children (1965), a self-portrait, and Girl With Roses (1947-48), featuring Garman with enlarged eyes.
Thematically, though, it is his larger-than-life nudes that dominate. Freud was most interested in the language and imperfections of the flesh, which he conveyed masterfully through his work. There are naked canvases of fat bodies, lean bodies, innocent to their own sexuality bodies, and even devoid of life-force bodies.
Freud, who died in 2011, was one of 20th century’s most renowned and controversial figurative painters. He was born in Berlin as the grandson of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. But his family fled Nazi Germany for London when he was just 10 and he eventually became a naturalised British citizen. His early career as a painter was influenced by surrealism, with hints of German expressionism—he denied this because he wanted little to do with the country’s Nazi past but his early 1950s work veered towards realism.
Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and writer, described art as the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the real. Every single portrait by Freud is exactly that—naked, raw, real, an emotion frozen in time. Through his career, the artist made frequent trips to the National Gallery to study historic paintings and those visits informed his evolving style.
His early paintings, which fill up the first room, are mostly small—they have echoes of Marc Chagall’s work. There are several self-portraits of his then-boyish self, along with works like The Refugees And Girl On The Quay. In these works, you see little of the artist he came to be.
Towards the end of the 1940s, however, his style went through a transformation, moving from the linear to a freer approach that relied more on texture and colour. He switched to impasto, in which thick layers of paint are used and individual brush strokes are often visible.
Freud was known for asking for long, punishing hours of sitting from models—they would be scrutinised mercilessly by his unflinching gaze, which seemed to access their psychological makeup while registering the minutest detail of their physical being.
He painted from life, making portraits of his friends, daughters, lovers—both men and women—celebrities and gay icons, rats and dogs and kittens, and men of power, depicting them in a frank and somewhat disturbing light. He’s supposed to have fathered as many as 14 children.
Among the works on display is Naked Children Laughing (1963), nudes of his then pubescent daughters that were deemed inappropriate and reprehensible by many at the time mainly because they did not consider the question of consent. These paintings are stark and explicit, yet the subjects appear tender and modest, purposely devoid of the erotic charge of Freud’s other nudes. He referred to such works as “naked portraits” because of the honesty with which they captured the reality of flesh along with the complexity of emotional relationships.
You can identify that complexity in Two Men (1988)—his portrait of gay lovers slumbering on a stark bed, one of them dressed, the other completely naked. In this massive work, the artist, while painting the anatomy of the naked person with the precision of a surgeon’s eye, manages to convey the tender relationship between the two by the mere gesture of a hand resting on a partner’s naked calf. Their heads are turned in opposite directions but there’s a reassuring trust and intimacy between them.
In the disquieting Hotel Bedroom, the unravelling relationship between Freud and his then wife, Caroline Blackwood, is disturbingly apparent. Freud was living in Paris at the time and his work features a woman lying on a bed with white sheets pulled up to her shoulders. Her left hand rests on her cheek, as if in a reflective mood, and her gaze is fixed on a faraway place. A man in a dark mood (Freud himself) is standing behind her by the window, on the other side of the bed, and staring at her coldly. Windows in the building across the street are visible in the background. There’s too much truth-telling here and you imbibe some of the anxiety of its subjects.
“I sometimes looked so hard at a subject that they would undergo an involuntary magnification,” Freud told Michael Auping, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s chief curator. That probably explains Garman’s enlarged eyes in Girl With Roses. About his portraits, he told Auping: “I’m not trying to make a copy of the person. I’m trying to relay something of who they are as a physical and emotional presence.”
Then there are the charcoal drawings of his mother’s death, titled The Painter’s Mother Dead (1989). The description on the wall against this deeply moving sketch states that Freud had to take permission from the hospital to make the final likeness of his mother on her deathbed. “After years of avoidance there came a time that I could be with her, and I thought that I should do so. Doing her portrait allowed me to be with her,” Freud has said about this work.
“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce and convince,” Freud has been quoted as saying in The Lives Of Lucian Freud by William Fever. And his works achieve exactly that effect. Art has the power to stir you in inexplicable ways and some of Freud’s visceral works overwhelm. New Perspectives steers clear of the artist’s fame and infamy, putting the spotlight on his work instead.
Still, it’s hard not to think of his louche lifestyle as you walk from room to room, gazing at his work. Freud had his famous grandfather’s inheritance but a great propensity to spend it as well. He loved to gamble, was obsessed with sex with both men and women and often unconventional in approach to it. He loved caviar and champagne and spent his time in the company of aristocrats, artists and socialites. Among the portraits of his artist friends at the exhibition is an agitated one of the artist David Hockney and a deliberately unfinished one of the painter Francis Bacon, who was among his closest friends until their bitter fallout years later. During the three decades of their friendship, the two are said not only to have painted each other but also greatly influenced each other’s work.
The painting Freud counted among his most successful works, however, was And The Bridegroom—a monumental double portrait of the queer performing artist and friend, Leigh Bowery, and Nicola Bateman, Bowery’s long-time female companion, and, later, his wife. Freud juxtaposes the large and strong body of a sleeping Bowery, and the small body of Bateman, who appears physically fragile lying curled up at the edge of the bed.
“All portraits are difficult for me. But a nude presents different challenges. When someone is naked, there is in effect nothing to be hidden. You are stripped of your costume, as it were. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves. That means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent their honesty,” he’s quoted as telling Auping.
He was equally unsparing with his self-portraits; there are over 50 of them. You could argue that he had the advantage of Byronic looks, for Lucian Freud with his well-defined features, perfect jaw and dark hair had little that needed sparing, but in each portrait he brings his usual cold objectivity to the canvas.
Freud never wanted to retire and at 88, until two weeks before his death, he was in his studio, standing and painting. To give yourself to a passion like that entirely, you have to have been a maverick—and a maverick he was. As you walk out of the National Gallery, you are uncertain whether the artist or his work dominates, for the artist is forever present in each of the works on display.
New Perspectives is on at the National Gallery, London, till 22 January.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. Her latest book is Love In The Time Of Influenza.