Lucian Freud: Portraits
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Through October 28, 2012
“The painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work.” Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud: Portraits, now on display through October 28, 2012, at the Modern Museum of Fort Worth, is well worth a little of your own obsessive viewing. The Modern’s exhibit, a real coup for the museum and its chief curator, Michael Auping, houses a vast collection of about 90 portraits dating from 1943 through Freud’s death in 2011. On loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London, this luscious flesh parade of oils on canvas not only reflects Freud’s unique and celebrated obsession with the human form, but also his ability to capture the emotional undercurrent that flows between painter, subject and viewer.
Freud’s subjects included his wives, lovers, friends, professional peers, some of his fourteen reported children, pets and their owners and also various celebrities. He required these individuals to sit for hours at a time instead of painting from photographs, and he often worked on a painting for months or even years before declaring it complete. This approach to his art required constant, real-time interaction with his subjects. It is notable that as the grandson of the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Lucian’s approach to portraiture was imbued with the emotional histories he had with the people he painted, and his work reflects a kind of psychoanalysis of the human form.
The Modern’s exhibit begins with Freud’s early works. Small scale, artistically precise images display a careful attention to detail through intense brushwork and disproportionate, one-dimensional renderings of the human form. The portrait of his first wife, Kitty Garmin, in Girl with Roses, 1947 -48, and of his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, in Hotel Bedroom, 1954, communicate emotions to the viewer through environmental context, detailed facial expressions and oversized eyes. During this time Freud was part of “The School of London”, which included other figurative artists such as Francis Bacon. Freud and Bacon became close friends and Bacon encouraged Freud to be less meticulous and more spontaneous in his technique. Choosing to stand instead of sit while painting, and to replace his fine, sable-hair brushes with large, hogs-hair brushes lent to a freer, more organic style in his work.
As you move through the exhibit you greet the larger-scale, fleshier subjects of Freud’s new artistic approach. Figurative pose and broad brushstroke dominate each piece. Facial features and eyes are much less defined. Muted colors and broad, sweeping paths of pigment blend to create the bodies of his subjects. Skin is dimensional and contoured; shadows and highlights bring the figures to life when viewed from a distance.
Emotional undercurrents between painter and subject continue to flow in these portraits. Naked Girl, 1966, reflects a woman who is physically exposed to, yet ill at ease with her portraitist. Though she lays nude on her back, she holds her legs together stiffly and bends her arms up awkwardly by her shoulders. What is the story between this woman and Freud? Why is she so clearly uncomfortable? Is she simply self-conscious? Maybe she is an ex-lover, or perhaps a mother to one of Freud’s numerous children by various women. The viewer can only guess.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Sleeping By The Lion Carpet, 1996 (also known as “Big Sue”). The woman in this portrait is obviously comfortable with her own exposed body and with Freud, comfortable enough to even fall asleep during her sittings. Freud’s rendering of “Big Sue” is a renaissance of female nude portraiture. Sue may be Rubenesque in physical form, but her pose and her level of interaction with her portraitist and the viewer are definitely modern.
“I want paint to work as flesh” – And Freud’s later works provide plenty. Portraits of male and female nudes in various explicit poses dominate his later works. The physical rawness of the images in the remaining portraits of the collection, such as Naked Man With Rat, 1977-78, and Sunny Morning-Eight Legs, 1977, may make you blush a bit. These subjects are mostly relaxed in pose and facial expression, comfortable with Freud and the potential viewer. But exactly why does the naked man lay on that couch holding that… rat? In Sunny Morning – Eight Legs, Freud’s assistant lounges on a bed with Freud’s dog while a mysterious set of bent knees peeks out from under the bed. This is a bit of an unexpected cheekiness. Who is that under the bed? Is it supposed to be Freud? (I still want to know…)
Freud’s self-portraits hint ever so slightly of Cubism in their facial deconstructions, and also to his own self-analysis through expression. Self-Portrait, 1985, reflects an intense, melancholy individual. He doesn’t look out at his viewer but casts his eyes slightly downward. He is introspective and unaware of his surroundings. Reflection With Two Children, 1965, lends to a greater psychoanalytical interpretation by the artist. In this work, a giant Lucian looms behind two of his small children. He stands reflected in a painting of a mirror behind them, observing himself in an emotionally detached manner, while the children stand in a lower corner of the portrait. As the children gaze out at the viewer, they seem oblivious to Freud’s presence. Freud is untouchable. The children are minor details in the life of Freud the Artist. This self-portrait tells the viewer that Lucian Freud the Father is aware of his absence from the lives of his many offspring.
Lucian Freud: Portraits is a thought-provoking, historical and explicit presentation of the human form. Each portrait invites you to interpret the emotional dynamic between painter and subject. Even if you don’t care for his artistic style, I recommend that you experience the talent, passion and unique approach that Freud brought to 20th Century Figurative painting. Lucian Freud was an artist clearly absorbed by his obsession with the human form, the people he chose to paint and the psychological relationships he shared with each subject.