Lucian Freud Portraits

The unflinching, fleshy landscapes of Lucian Freud's intensely powerful works are a feast for the senses, argues Alex Danchev

February 9, 2012

Credit: Girl With a White Dog, 1950-51/copyright Tate London 2012

Lucian Freud Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London

Until May

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas 1 July to 28 October

Lucian Freud Portraits

By Sarah Howgate

With Michael Auping and John Richardson

National Portrait Gallery 256pp, £30.00 and £25.00

ISBN 9781855144415 and 4422

Published 9 February 2012

When it comes to painters, slowness is greatness. Greatness is slowness. The modern master takes his time. Cézanne is the paradigm case. According to the sitter, he needed 115 sittings for his majestic portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899) - which was then abandoned, the artist conceding only that he was "not unhappy with the front of the shirt". The number of sittings became part of the legend. When Picasso painted his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, a few years later, Stein claimed that it took some 80 or 90 sittings, an incredible number for the quick-draw Picasso, the fastest gun in the West.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) prided himself on his slowness. A portrait head might take perhaps 130 hours of sittings: David Hockney's estimate, from his own experience of sitting every day from 8.30 in the morning until noon. Larger paintings would take proportionately longer. And that was only the day shift. Freud painted day portraits and night portraits. As like as not he would have several on the go at the same time. Strict privacy obtained. ("Private" was one of Freud's favourite words.) Arrivals and departures were carefully choreographed. The sitters rarely met; they might not even know of each other's existence. Hockney had the rare privilege of meeting his counterpart, Kate Moss, but only in the outside world, with Freud, at a restaurant.

The process could not be rushed. A sitter once had the temerity to ask if Freud could speed up. Freud replied: "I can only work in my own time." No concessions were made to status or privilege; rather the reverse. Of his portrait of the Queen (2001), Freud remarked tellingly, "She was very generous. She cleared her calendar for a proper amount of time." He added: "The portrait was done at St James's Palace, where we could be left alone. While we were working, men would come and mow the lawn and trim bushes near us. Then they would come the next day and do the same thing again. I finally realised that it was her security. For someone to be alone with the Queen for that amount of time is not normal." The portrait is an ebullient miniature, complete with Freudian jaw and five o'clock shadow, donated to the Royal Collection.

Sitting was not the only activity involved. There was also eating and talking and communing. All his life, Freud was a fascinator - a late self-portrait spoofs The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005), the naked admirer clinging to his leg - a compelling presence, a brilliant conversationalist and a munificent host. Often it was dinner at the Wolseley; occasionally he might cook a brace of grouse. The art historian John Richardson was struck by his phenomenal memory for verse, from Lord Rochester to W.H. Auden. Delving in the prehensile memory also speaks to serious self-awareness. To the critic Robert Hughes he quoted T.S. Eliot's advice to himself on how to get in the right mood for creating art:

And I must borrow every changing shape

To find expression - dance, dance,

Like a dancing bear,

Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.

The allusion was apt. In the mid-1950s Freud changed his way of working. When he began making portraits he would sit close to the subject, eyeball to eyeball. Increasingly he found this too restrictive. He started painting standing up, moving about, unrestrained.

In formal interviews Freud was elusive, but in free-ranging conversation with a sympathetic interlocutor there was no disguising the penetrating intelligence. The catalogue of the show contains a series of conversations with Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, the NPG's partner in this enterprise. Freud musters a variety of intriguing responses to Auping's interventions. Asked if he ever uses photographs to help him with the details, he replies: "No. I find photography too abstract. I always have the model in front of me, even when I'm painting the background." When Auping observes that the skin of his figures is palpable, he remarks, "I like skin. It's so unpredictable."

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a series of portraits of his mother, made over a 10-year period, roughly 1972-82. Auping hazards: "You have also done a number of portraits of your mother, which seems like it might be even harder than painting yourself." Freud responds with a remarkable disclosure: "There came a time when I could be with her, and I thought that I should do so. Doing her portrait allowed me to be with her. I suppose I felt that I needed her to forgive me. I tried to be unavailable to her when I was young. She was very intelligent and highly observant. I felt oppressed by her because she was very instinctive and I've always been very secretive. It was hard to keep things from her. The idea of her knowing what I was doing or thinking bothered me a great deal. So it was a strained relationship. When my father died (in 1970) she tried to kill herself. She had given up. So to answer your question, 'Was it difficult?', I would say no. I actually felt I could finally be with her because she lost interest in me."

With Freud, it seems, the process of portrait-painting was at once normal and not normal. It is not normal to spend so much time closeted with a comparative stranger, or even a friend, especially when that person is naked, as was often the case. Many of his sitters were strangers, but they were also his wives or girlfriends or daughters - his own flesh and blood. Perhaps the most striking (or poignant) aspect of their testimony on the experience is the common reflection that it was a way to be with him, as it was for him a way to be with his mother. "The strangeness of Freud's paintings comes in large part from the circumstances of their making," observed Hughes: "they bypass decorum while fiercely preserving respect."

All his sitters are struck by what his esteemed friend and colleague Frank Auerbach calls his manner. "When I think of the work of Lucian Freud," Auerbach has said, "I think of Lucian's attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter he would come off the tightrope; he has no safety net of manner...I am never aware of the aesthetic paraphernalia. The subject is raw not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on the plate as a 'composition'." Freud is truly the painter's painter. "The paintings live because the painter has been passionately attentive to their theme," he concluded, "and his attention has left something for us to look at. It seems a sort of miracle."

The ferocious attentiveness captured many a sitter. "His intensity was fantastic," recalled an adult daughter, estranged and ultimately reunited. "His look drowned every inch of you."

According to Freud, his sitters had to satisfy only two requirements: they had to be punctual and they had to have "an inner life that's ticking on" - sufficient inner resources to endure, through the self-exposure, and perhaps to sustain the interest. It is tempting to think that there were other requirements, unacknowledged or unspoken: not merely punctual, it appears, but often nocturnal; in some fashion congenial; possibly animal, possibly familial. The exhibition allows us to draw up a taxonomy of his strengths as a portraitist - or the focus of his attention. Freud was a great painter of the penis, the forehead, the breast. Dogs, beds, rats and rags were meat and drink to him. The brushwork sings of corpulence, contentment and creaturely detail. Naked Man with Rat (1977-78) features the rat's tail, draped luxuriantly over the naked thigh, something for us to look at, raw, not cooked.

The NPG's superlative exhibition surely demonstrates beyond peradventure that he was the most powerful portraitist of the age. There are Cézannian overtones. "If a head interests me," said Cézanne, "I make it too big." Freud said much the same. After seeing a Cézanne exhibition at the Tate in 1996, Freud said that what he found most affecting was his "being able to do things which I thought were undoable. It's heartening." Three years later, he bought himself a small Cézanne, a brothel picture, Afternoon in Naples (1875), and set about painting a version of his own, After Cézanne (2000). Cézanne had famously vowed to die painting. After Cézanne, Freud declared his wish to paint himself to death. In 2011, he succeeded. An exhibition that was planned as a celebration is now a memorial.

Freud had originally offered to sit for Hockney if Hockney would sit for him. Hockney agreed, although he knew Freud would not give him much time and would expect a lot in return. Freud eventually sat for three hours and fell asleep. Hockney did not mind. He was delighted with his portrait: "All the hours I sat were layered into it; he always added, rarely taking anything away." Slowness wins in the end.

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