The Solitude of Man
It is a far too often used phrase to convey the urgency with which I wish to suggest the reader attend this exhibition, but truly, the National Portrait Gallery’s Lucian Freud: Portraits is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course, the art itself more than merits this accolade; however, the reason I am so adamant that all who truly love art must visit this exhibition is that it will never conceivable be reassembled. Comprising works from all stages in the artist’s long and multifarious career, approximately half of the pieces have been sourced from private owners. Indeed, the outpouring of affection towards Freud after his death in July 2011, has allowed the NPG to source works from a plethora of private collections.
More than any recent exhibition in London, perhaps besides the Tate Modern’s recent retrospective on Miró, the NPG placed its focus on the historical progression of the artist. Whilst it is no doubt typical to group pieces by date rather than theme for such events, in this case, the foregrounding of Freud’s development is key. If a watershed is useful in pinpointing the moment of transformation in the aesthetic of the artist, then we must place Woman Smiling in this position. From his earliest paintings in 1941, though to 1958, the image of the human form presented to us by Freud is both smooth and pale. Indeed, there is no sense of the progressive layering of oil upon oil that is so symptomatic of his later style; instead, we are presented with the flattened features of man devoid of movement or vitality. This is nowhere better exemplified than in his series depicting his first wife, Kathleen Epstein, where her skin is pale to the point of anemia with a wide-eyed expression of both sorrow and loneliness. Indeed, as we move through the exhibition, we realise that the view is continually denied the eye-contact that allows for an emotional connection to be created. Freud’s models are seemingly ashamed of their participation, and we are not observers but voyeurs at their vulnerability.
It is in one of such paintings of Epstein, Girl in a Dark Jacket, that we can first see Freud’s association with Cubism. It is only slight, he does not descend into abstraction of the features as Picasso did, but the face is certainly formed of angular shapes rather than flowing contours and we can see how his eye has broken the features down into shapes, viewing the parts that form the whole. This connection of Cubism is something that I would like to emphasis throughout his work, though it is a maturation of Picasso’s earlier application, I use the term then to describe Freud’s vision rather than his creations. Even as Freud developed his style post-Woman Smiling, there is still a sense that the face is a composite of shapes, not an integral and unified structure. When he talks about mapping the ‘landscapes of the face’ we understand how the British artist would have viewed such a project; the patchwork quilt of British farmland, with its rich earthy colouring, is the very landscape that Freud captures in the features of his models. Indeed, it is hard to believe that works such as Sleeping Nude, painted in 1950, could have been from the same artists who re-imagined the human form in all its ugliness in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, painted forty-five years later. The smooth textures of the early work have been completely transformed into an earthy, contoured body that revels in its unconventional choice of subject. There is no idealized beauty after 1958, but there is something true that we cannot ignore.
One could dwell for hours with any of these paintings, and the only disappointment with so large a collection is that we cannot; however, if one had to choose only a handful of pieces to exemplify Freud’s later style then perhaps these would feature. One of Freud’s favourite models, and the one that provides the most interesting poses, was Leigh Bowery. Bald and overweight, the depictions of Bowery are a confrontational assault on the viewer sensibilities, with Leigh Bowery (Seated) being amongst the most provocative.
A similar effect occurs with ‘Big Sue’, Freud’s ‘Benefit Supervisor’ whose presence forces us to re-examine our own perceptions of the human form. However, where Bowery exudes confidence, dominating the centre of the canvas, the painting Freddy Standing highlights the vulnerability of man. Ushered into the corner of the room, the figure appears thin and gaunt, a victim not an entertainer. It is when Freud captures this fragility in his work that we feel the most moved; both man and woman are stripped back to an essential being and both are found desensualised and alone.
Indeed, man’s inability to connect with his fellow man is ever present, in the solo depictions of individuals and even more so when the models fail to interact within group compositions. If Freud speaks to us through these works, then it is to remind us of our inalienable solitude.
W. J. Humphries