Lucian Freud Portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery was always going to be a blockbuster and a revelation, in its close focus, about how this obsessive yet protean artist evolved decade by decade. But Freud’s death last summer makes it something more: crystallising his achievement as among the greatest and most singular in art, the exhibition also fixes him historically. Watching an epoch that we know and remember chronicled through his unrelenting gaze both exhilarates and discomforts.
In “Hotel Bedroom” (1954), Freud’s second wife Caroline Blackwood, angular, detached, nervously sucking a finger, lies in bed while, standing in the shadows, the painter coldly surveys the end of a relationship; across the road on a grey Paris morning, an unshuttered window shows a bleak interior lit, à la Francis Bacon, by a single bulb. In “A Man and His Daughter” (1963), a Paddington neighbour, “a very clever bank robber”, blotchy face slashed by a razor, holds a plump child who shares his heavy features, her sad, too-adult expression offset by a fat, golden, innocent plait. A male nude clutching a rodent whose tail curves across his thigh, sinisterly rhyming with his genitals, stars in “Man with a Rat” (1977).
Young and old, ill and well, aristocratic and criminal, Freud’s bizarre cast enlarges as he himself becomes recognised. Baron von Thyssen-Bornemisza, disconsolate against splendid red velvet, twisting sweaty hands enlarged to a point of ridicule, is the “Man in a Chair” (1983). Outsize performer Leigh Bowery, one limb raised awkwardly on a mattress, an elbow resting on a pile of dirty painter’s rags as craggily layered as his discoloured flesh – he would soon die of Aids – is “Nude with Leg Up” (1992).
Charged with the tension of a personal encounter, each depiction suggests at once a relationship between scientist and specimen, interrogator and victim. Many still shock for their cruel, intimate realism: “Large Interior, Paddington” (1968-69), where Freud’s seven-year-old daughter Isobel Boyt, half naked, buttocks angled towards us, curls up asleep beneath an unruly plant, her father’s jacket looming over her; a series recording the depressive decline of Freud’s widowed mother Lucie; ruthless old-age self-portraits of sagging flesh and protruding veins. But displayed together in this beautifully installed show, all take their place within an overarching project: to give, as Freud’s friend Bruce Bernard wrote of his work, a “deepened sense – far beyond the scope of a photograph or any other medium – of how certain human beings looked and felt in the second half of the 20th century”.
Throughout his life Freud refuted the implications behind that statement: that his portrayal of individuality, and the autobiographical nature of his endeavour, marked the culmination of an emphasis on interiority and the inner life that was a defining feature of modernism and linked its greatest art and literature – Picasso, Proust – to the psychoanalysis pioneered by his grandfather Sigmund.
For, although resolutely contemporary – how perfectly, for instance, the spectacle and performance of his 1990s portraits of Bowery and flamboyantly obese Big Sue, wobbling before battered, exquisitely rendered textiles in “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995) and “Sleeping by the Lion Carpet” (1996), chime with Young British Art’s sensationalism – Freud was also a belated artist. He chose to work at the end of a tradition: post-cubist figural representation. The choice liberated him, as it has always freed deliberate followers of late styles (Cy Twombly, Richard Strauss, WB Yeats), to risk a tightrope act of baroque excess, intensity and idiosyncrasy.
Freud balanced this by cool, crystalline detail: an almost perverse mix. His early tight linearity announced debts to the Neue Sachlichkeit dominating the Berlin of his 1920s childhood, though he traced the German lineage further, to Dürer reproductions in the family home, and from the start laced it with surrealist irreverence. In “Girl with a Kitten” (1947), his first wife Kitty Garman, each strand of hair, eyebrows, lashes, delineated with filigree precision, squeezes the animal’s neck so tightly that she is surely strangling it. In “Large Interior, W9” (1973), the nude – Freud’s lover Jacquetta Eliot – is grotesquely enlarged in relation to a too-small bed and to the shrunken, oblivious figure of the artist’s mother. “Sunny Morning – Eight Legs” (1997), a composition concentrated on a nude man, what may be his reflection emerging from beneath falling sheets, and Freud’s whippet Pluto, tilts towards the romantic absurd.
“I’m really interested in people as animals” and “I want paint to work for me just as flesh does” were Freud’s twin mantras. “Portrait of the Hound” (2011), unfinished at his death, depicts the same model, Freud’s assistant David Dawson, whom he said he “knew better than anyone else”, with his whippet Eli, in the vigorous, freely worked strokes of his mature manner. But the rhythm between the two figures evokes a harsher piece that is 60 years older: “Girl with a White Dog” (1950-51), where porcelain-skinned, forlorn Kitty, one breast bared to display a livid mole, stares terrified at the artist while her bull terrier, contrastingly placid on her lap, seems to melt into the fibres of her lime gown.
Freud admitted such portraits were “visually aggressive”, and indeed sex and power – the mirrors through which Sigmund Freud taught the 20th century to see itself – are the real themes, visible everywhere. The painter’s predatory eye is inescapable in the female nudes, many modelled by Freud’s grown-up daughters. In “Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait)” (1965), he depicts himself as a monster, overhanging the picture space and towering over tiny Ali and Rose Boyt like a grand inquisitor. And by placing the great “Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-83) at the entrance, the NPG ensures that its power games, elusive eroticism and competition with art history – Watteau’s pastoral idyll replaced by a studio of rough plasterwork, exposed pipes, urban outlook – shape our response to the entire show.
A catalogue interview explains that Watteau’s “Pierrot Content” (1712) made Freud “think about doing a family portrait. It was ambitious, because it is large, and because I had to gather family.” These were his lover Celia Paul, daughter Bella, ex-lover Suzy Boyt, with her son Kai – the one of her five children who is not Freud’s – cast as the outlandish modern Pierrot: “He’s the subject, not Suzy, not Bella, certainly not Celia. I’m the connection. The link is me.” The artist/impresario poses his dowdily dressed figures with Watteau-like pathos, but they transcend the staginess: the painting comes alive as their natural awkwardness – emotional and physical – simultaneously complies with and challenges his authority. “What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince,” Freud once said. This unmissable exhibition does all those things.
‘Lucian Freud Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, London, to May 28,npg.org.uk
See an FT video of the show with NPG director Sandy Nairne