Lucien Freud: The Self Portraits at the Royal Academy

Lucien Freud: The Self Portraits at the Royal Academy


Could this be the Year of the Selfy? Gauguin at the National, Rembrandt at Dulwich and van Gogh at Tate Britain. In the RA show there are over 50 examples of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, many of which have never been on show before, and certainly not seen together. What constitutes a self-portrait? A pair of feet reflected in a mirror, with a plumpish woman lying on a dilapidated sofa, as in Naked Portrait with Reflection? A murky glimpse of the artist partly reflected in a window in Freddy Standing, a full-length nude of his son? Two tiny sketches of the artist leaning against the skirting board behind Two Irishmen in W11? Or the mere presence of his shadow, albeit slightly intimidating, looming over Flora with Blue Toenails? Would one call Les Meninas by Velázquez a self-portrait, simply because the artist is present in the composition, painting an enormous canvas? 

After Francis Bacon died in 1992, Freud was handed the hollow crown and acclaimed as Britain’s greatest living painter, more of a millstone than an accolade. A year later, having been made a member of the Order of Merit, he painted Painter Working, Reflection, a full-length self-portrait, bollock-naked, save for a pair of unlaced boots, with a palette-knife in one hand and an impastoed palette in the other. It appears that a great deal of re-painting work has been done around his neck, genitals, thumb and his palette. Freud was patently influenced by Bacon in terms of the application of paint, and using larger, hogs’ hair, brushes, which he could charge with more paint. In 2003, he completed another self-portrait, this time with more than a nod to his old mucker, Frank Auerbach, who laid paint on like a confectioner with Tourettes icing a cake. Frank Auerbach could easily have used more oil paint in one work than Rembrandt used in his entire life. The older he got, the looser Freud’s style became, and that included his use of watercolour, which liberated him from the precision of pen and pencil. His early works were anal in the extreme, using pen and ink to an obsessive degree, which prompted the art critic Herbert Read to describe him as ‘the Ingres of Existentialism.’ The last painting he did sitting down was the double portrait of himself and his second wife Lady Caroline Blackwood, who is lying in a hotel bed in a state of disengagement, with him in a shadow behind her in isolation. Since then, in 1954, he has painted standing up, with a looseness and freedom that became his trademark and signature. 

In 2002, Freud and Kate Moss took a shine to each other and she agreed to pose for him, naked, and pregnant with her daughter Lila Grace. The sittings were all late-night and lasted for up to seven hours, stretching out for nine months. So, one of the world’s most famous models sitting for Britain’s greatest living figurative painter. Ker-ching. The painting was sold for £3.5m through his New York dealer. Other than the mole of her right breast, there are not many distinguishing features that would say that it was, in fact, Kate Moss. Her over-elongated body and small head, with someone else’s face on it, and, what looks like, a broken shoulder, render it an embarrassment. His powers were on the wain, exemplified by the unflattering portraits of HM The Queen, with a blue five o’clock shadow, and a paunchy Brigadier Parker-Bowles, then in charge of the Household Cavalry, from whom Freud used to borrow horses both to draw and ride, slumped, ruddy-faced, in an armchair. Prince Charles, who had snaffled his wife Camilla, wrote to Freud earlier, saying that, being an artist himself, perhaps they could exchange paintings. Freud was outraged. ‘It was such a cheek. It was almost like theft.’ Another embarrassment, thankfully not on show, is from 2004-5 and is entitled The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer, depicting a young-ish girl sitting on the floor of his studio, clutching his thigh and preventing him from approaching his easel, on which is the very same composition, except as a mirror image. Her pose is faithful to the photograph taken by his friend and former studio assistant, David Dawson, but his stance is stiff and out of proportion. One wonders what became of the studio wall in Kensington Church Street covered in paint smears and brushstrokes, like a giant palette?

This exhibition is of interest on two levels: firstly, how his styles have changed and adapted over the years, from meticulous to messy, from stiff to loose, from fine sable to big, hog’s hair brushes, big enough to shave with; secondly, how he changed facially, from callow youth with large blue eyes and a shock of curly hair, to the serious and uncompromising visage with receding hairline, staring, even at himself, in an intimidating manner. One can only imagine what it must have been like to pose for him, stripping off layer and layer of identity, dignity and self-assurance, particularly if one were female. Kate Moss, surely a confident cat, if ever there was one, went back to the notorious cocksmith’s house after dinner, and he started the nude painting that night. ‘Couldn’t say no to Lucian. Very persuasive,’ she admitted, as did literally hundreds of other ladies. Apparently, he was relentless and animalistic as a lover and fathered countless children, some of whom he painted nude, although the pair in Reflection with Two Children, Rose and Ali Boyt, were clothed.

Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits

Royal Academy of Arts, Sackler Galleries

Until 26 January 2020

Admission £18


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