Exhibition Review: Lucian Freud Portraits

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130 Portraits by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London
My copies of catalogs from the London National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Photos © 2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Exhibition Dates:
• Openined at the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK, from 9 February to 27 May 2012.
• Travelled to Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in Dallas/Fort Worth, USA, from 1 July to 28 October 2012.

This exhibition of portraits by the famous painter Lucian Freud features 130 works from public and private collections. It includes paintings across his career, showing how his style developed. It includes some that have not been on public display before and, poignantly, the painting he was still working on when he died in 2011.

As a fan of Freud's paintings, I was predisposed to enjoy this exhibition and I was not disappointed, to say the least. It was beyond what I'd hoped for, with most of the ground floor of the NPG given over to the exhibition. If you're familiar with the National Portrait Gallery, then visualize where the information desk is, and where the exhibition space starts around the corner to the left. From there, through all the rooms, to the very back where the annual BP Portrait Awards show is held. All that is Freud. Plus a wall of etchings before you go in, which is open to any visitor to the gallery.

The exhibition is huge, there are so many paintings to take in, across the whole of Freud's career. The paintings are spaced so you can generally get a good look, and I didn't have to peek over shoulders too much of the time to see during the gallery members' preview or the first day of opening. (The press preview was, by contrast, packed and noisy!) With so many paintings, and so many rooms, it felt as if there was always at least one someone wasn't looking at. Make it easier for yourself too by resisting the urge to follow the paintings in a rigidly sequential order as each room or area is from a particular period.

Freud's early style was extremely detailed, with precision brushstrokes laid down with a fine brush and without texture in the paint. In the mid-1950s he swapped from using soft sable brushes to coarse, hog-hair brushes and standing at an easel rather than sitting down. The change in his artwork is drastic and it became more vigorous, showing rapidly in the brushwork and, more slowly, increased texture in the paint. You can track this development through the various rooms of the exhibition and, even if you didn't know the reason why, it's evident that there's a dramatic change in his approach.

Next page: Sizes of the Paintings...

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Size Does Count

Lucian Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London
Freud's early paintings (top, from the 1940s) are considerably smaller than his later ones (bottom, from 1992), though he continued to paint small portraits throughout. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

One of the many things you get from seeing paintings in real life rather than reproduction is the scale of them. How big or small a painting is, and its sized compared to other works. Yes, the information is given in exhibition catalogs, but you have to work much harder at visualizing it actual size. In an exhibition, it's right there, and has an instant impact.

Some of Freud's paintings are surprisingly small, no more than a handspan. Others are huge, with figures painted life-size. The size of his canvasses got considerably bigger later in his career, when he started working with the models Leigh Bowry and Sue Tilley and had moved into a larger studio in Holland Park. But he continued to paint on small canvasses too, such as his portrait of art critic Martin Gayle (author of Man with a Blue Scarf) and fellow artist David Hockney (which is only 406x311mm or 16x12 inches).

Standing in front of a painting of a life-size figure is to have it fill your vision and senses, to clearly see the brushmarks and details, something a reproduction can't do. In "Flora with Blue Toenails" for instance, the blue is a tiny part of the image, something you might not even notice at first because your eye is intrigued by the shadow that's falling on the sheet, where you almost feel as if you can make out the hair and ears of the artist. Looking at the photo in the catalog, you can barely see her toenails, and loose the impact of the color.

Next page: Seeing the Details...

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Seeing the Details

Lucian Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London
"Man's Head (Self Portrait I)" by Lucian Freud, 1963. Oil on canvas. 533x508mm (21x20 inches). Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

At an exhibition you can get up close and see the details. The brushstrokes, the color mixes, texture in the paint or the lack thereof. In this self-portrait, done in 1963, you can clearly see the widths of the brushes he's using, the directions he's moved the brush as he's applied the paint. How thin or thick, opaque or transparent the paint is. Setting becomes increasingly important, with backgrounds changing from being loose color filling in the space, to Freud giving the whole body the same importance as the face, the floorboards the same attention as the hair.

Next page: Following Freud's Artistic Development...

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Following an Artist's Development

Lucian Freud exhibition
Details from paintings. TOP LEFT: Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait), 1943. TOP RIGHT: Sleeping Nude, 1950. BOTTOM LEFT: Red-Haired Man on a Chair, 1962-3. BOTTOM RIGHT: Portrait of the Hound, 2011. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Freud's early painting style is strikingly different to his later. He started his career painting with soft sable brushes, building up incredibly meticulous detail with small brush strokes. The stylistic change came in the 1950s when he swapped to coarse, hoghair brushes and painted standing up. Brushstrokes became visible in the paint, colors were built up with layers of glaze. Gradually the paint got more opaque and thicker, more impasto.

Next page: Freud's Last, Unfinished Painting...

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Lucian Freud's Last, Unfinished Painting

Lucian Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London
"Portrait of the Hound" by Lucian Freud, 2011. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

That Lucian Freud was still painting until shortly before his death on 20 July 2011, is an inspiration to every artist. His last painting, Portrait of the Hound is a large double portrait featuring Freud's studio assistant David Dawson and his dog Eli. Like all Freud's paintings, it was created slowly; he had been working on it for four years.

Dawson said Freud "would come into the studio every day up until about the last two weeks, and try to paint, even just for half an hour, before he got too tired. ... Though it is not finished, it's quite resolved, I think. It's in there because it's a very good painting, not because it's the last one."1

In the NPG's exhibition, the painting is in the far corner of the last room, alongside two other paintings of Dawson and a self-portrait. It's a big painting measuring 1,58 x 1,38 meters (just over 5 x 4,5 feet). By the unfinished areas clearly shows how Freud worked from the center of a composition outwards, completing a section at a time rather than painting on the entire composition and working up the painting as a whole.

Next page: Exhibition catalog...

References:
1. David Dawson: 'Lucian chose people who were punctual' by Tim Adams, The Observor 12 February 2012, accessed 13 February 2012.

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Exhibition Catalogs

Book Review Lucian Freud exhibition catalogs
The Lucian Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was one of the countdown event for the London 2012 Olympics. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

The exhibition catalog has different covers depending on whether you've the edition published by the London National Portrait Gallery or Yale University Press. The title you're looking for is Lucian Freud Portraits by curator Sarah Howgate with an essay by Michael Auping (Buy Direct). This is the serious book for devoted fans.

There's also a smaller book, Lucian Freud Painting People also by Sarah Howgate that has essays by David Hockney and Martin Gayford (Buy Direct). This has an accessible time-line style history of Freud's career, a few photos of him at work, and a selection of his work across the decades.

Obviously both contain paintings of nude figures, so don't buy a copy for an artistic relative or friend if you know they prefer their figures clothed!