Lucian Freud Private View - Sunday 5th Feb 2012
I'm lucky to have just returned this afternoon from the first private view of the new Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London which opens to the public this Thursday. This is an amazing and beautifully displayed exhibition, I found myself getting more excited about it the more I walked round. It was great to see it without the gallery being too overcrowded with people and it was particularly exciting to see David Hockney who was also there viewing his late friend's work.
It seems contemporary portraiture is sometimes looked down on in the art world as not being real art. After seeing this show I don't see how anybody can argue this.The paintings have a great power and psychological charge.The lingering memory I have now from having just seen it is how human they are.
I'm very familiar with many of these works having seen them reproduced in books etc. A number of things struck me whilst having the opportunity of seeing them in the flesh.
The late works were far broader in the paint handling than I imagined and some of the faces were far more simplified than I imagined. A couple of thick broad marks signify an eye.This is by the same artist who used the tiniest of brushes to draw the tiniest of eyelashes in his early work.
From his early to late work there is great continuity and the exhibition shows clearly the development and maturing of his work by grouping works of similar periods next to each other. The continuity is also easy to see as his subjects and placements of subjects don't really vary all that much.
As an artist myself who works in oil paint every day I was totally drawn in by the splatters and marks in the paint.There is strange kind of clotting mark and mattness to the paint in his latter work which is fascinating to look at. Perhaps these marks are fascinating because they make you very aware of the surface of the picture whilst at the same time looking at the representation of his subject.The paintings come alive because of the strong rhythms he creates in the brushwork.There is a sense of urgency to these twisting marks. It's a strange way to paint -twisting, jabbing, curving the brush all the time, but to me the rhythms he creates (which carry over the whole surface of the pictures) are central to his picture making. They excuse what one might call 'distortion' (e.g.a foot that's too big that one might normally say was out of proportion) because the 'distortions' work as they are carried by the rhythms that unite the whole image.
I think these are the kind of things you don't get from looking at his work in a book.
Another surprising thing I noticed from seeing the actual paintings is that I think his use of colour got far more subtle as he got older.For example when he uses black in the late 60's early 70's it looks to me like it was used to shade in a tonal way things like shadows; in other words if something needed to be a bit darker he'd add a bit of black.This is a very normal procedure in painting .But the shadows in the 90's to 00's are more luminous and carry colour and reflected light and are not just shaded by mixing a bit of black into a colour.
The colouring in his later shadows are warmer and cooler, browner, yellower and sometimes a bit blue-greyer. They really vary.This to me is indicative of him thinking about his painting as a construct in colour to create form as opposed to him using tone to create form.You can see he really studies the colours in his later work.
The little shadows, for example, in his picture 'Standing in the Rags' are extremely varied in colour.You don't become over aware of the colour but you can see he has carefully thought about each patch colour of his paint before application; they are not just grey.The shadows in the late work have a great variety of colour to them, but this is done subtly.The overall effect for me is that the later paintings feel more real, luminous and harmonious.
I also felt from the exhibition a great sense of his discovery of what painting was about for him, as he moves from his tight early work to a late painterly style. I think in the end for him painting was about paint itself. This is why one has to go to see the exhibition.