Who are we? – Lucian Freud Portraits

Many thoughts occurred as I viewed the about-to-open exhibition Lucian Freud Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday. Musings on the radical change in painting styles from dry, fine brushwork to thickly-wielded impasto.  The dalliance with surrealism. The distinction between painting texture and painting with texture.


But my final question was, “Are these portraits?”


A wall text refers to the artist’s ‘lifelong fascination with the portrait.’ The curator from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where the exhibition goes after London, recalled Freud saying that he liked to paint nudes, as ‘naked’ was ‘the most complete portrait’.


Well, the emphasis on ‘portrait’ is obviously in the London gallery’s job description. But to my mind, a portrait is about a person’s character and psychology and, yes, the weight and place that person might take up in the world around them, as the NPG’s own collection testifies. As human beings, we look to a person’s eyes, mainly, to weigh them up. How they choose to present themselves to the world – their choice of clothes or ‘costume’ – is also significant, and their life experience might be etched on the way they hold themselves, the lines on their face.


Looking around this wealth of Lucian Freud paintings, I realised that beyond the early style, almost none of the sitters meet our gaze. They have their eyes closed, or turned away, or frankly hidden by an arm. Even in the early paintings, where the distended eyes eerily meet our gaze, there is a kind of dissimulation. Curator Sarah Howgate described how Freud would, at that time, sit knee-to-knee with his subject in an intensity of study to capture in fine detail their surface appearance. In such circumstances all of us would shroud our gaze, withdrawing our inner self for safe-keeping.


Indeed, the only portraits here where the life of the subject is met in the eyes are the self-portraits – only Freud can meet his own gaze authentically.


Freud is described in the exhibition notes as interested in bodies and in skin. The more skin the better. “When I paint clothes I am really painting naked people who are covered by clothes.” “I’m inclined to think of ‘humans’, … if they’re dressed, as animals dressed up.”


Rather than a lifelong fascination with portraiture I saw a lifelong study of the body. An array of truly amazing paintings of bodies.


It will be a success – the press view was heaving with reporters from a dozen countries and for once I’m looking forward to my ticket slot for a more civilised viewing. Because semantics aside, this is a great and comprehensive show, alive in a different way to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition next door. Do go – and prepare your tactics for getting a long, considered look despite the undoubted crowds.


(PS. To follow the Times’ lead in agreeing to support the arts by acknowledging the role of sponsors bringing such events to us, three cheers for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Herbert Smith and the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival.)


February 2015 update: If you’re reading this and want to learn lots more about Lucian Freud and many other artists, head over to Artsy, to act as a global recourse for art education and collection – for anyone with an internet connection. It’s a big site, so skip to their Freud page here.