On 'Freud Portraits' at the NPG

February 14 2012

Image of On 'Freud Portraits' at the NPG

Picture: National Portrait Gallery/Private Collection/Christie's

Last night, at the new 'Lucian Freud Portraits' exhibition at the NPG, I found myself repeating the mantra, ‘Freud was a great painter, Freud was a great painter...' I needed this reassurance because, after seeing about 30 of the show's 130 works, I began to think dangerously heretical thoughts. Such as, ‘I don’t like this portrait’. 

Now you may, like me, be used to seeing Freud’s portraits in small groups, perhaps in commercial galleries or auctions. And, like me, you may long have been an admirer of his undoubted genius, his skill with the brush, and his unerringly dispassionate eye. In a Sotheby’s Contemporary and Modern sale, for example, his pictures destroy the competition. But I must warn you that en masse it can all become a bit too much. All that brown, all those empty, soulless faces, and all that realistic but lifeless, cadaverous flesh. It’s like being in a morgue.

Of course, Freud really was a great painter. And yet, this show is billed as an exhibition of portraits, so it is as a portraitist that we are asked to judge him. And as a portraitist, as a purveyor of both human likeness and spirit, he comes close at times to failing. His subjects’ repeatedly blank look can become overwhelming, even depressing. If you subscribe to the widely held admiration of Freud’s 'brutal honesty', then you’ll like what you see. But if you think portraits should show a greater range of human emotion than from bored to vaguely terrified, you won't. This, I know, is a subjective view, and a minority one. 

So where does that leave Freud the portraitist? Most will enjoy the feasts of flesh and paint that are Freud's late nudes (the sort of pictures Rubens would have painted, had he dared), but it’s hard to tell whether the flesh is a means to the paint, or, as I suspect, vice-versa. In that sense the pictures are all, as Freud himself said, autobiographical. Now some say that all portraitists end up painting portraits of themselves, that it is impossible to meet a patron over only a series of sittings, and know them well enough to distill their character as well as portray a likeness. But the point with Freud is that he never seems even to try.

Perhaps the problem is our need to project Freud as a portraitist in the first place, rather than simply as an artist. We do this because we have few really good contemporary portraitists with which to compare him. Nobody paints people like Freud anymore, not least because, generally, we don't value painting people. We like our portraits, as the increasingly one-dimensional BP Portrait Award shows, to look like photographs. In other words, we applaud Freud the portraitist in the same way Samuel Johnson applauded a dog walking on its hind legs, because we are surprised to see it done at all.

Which is why I began to wonder last night if, by classing Freud as a portraitist, we're in danger of tarnishing the Freud brand, even of overdoing, if it is possible, the Freudian hype. For, if as a result of this exhibition we continue to project Freud as a portraitist, then in the greater narrative of art history it is unlikely he will be seen as a great one. In a hundred years’ time the allure of his celebrity will have vanished, and few will care that Kate Moss sat to him, or that his pictures broke records at the auction rooms. Instead, people will see his portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth (hung, as they inevitably will be, alongside previous Dukes and Duchesses by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Lawrence) and wonder why he made them look so miserable, and drained of any soul.

I hope, therefore, that we remember Freud as a painter, pure and simple. A painter of people, yes, but primarily a painter of things. For it is in beholding the simple application of Freud’s paint onto canvas that one derives the most pleasure, the most how-the-hell-does-he-do-that. So if you go to this excellent exhibition, which you must, don’t view the pictures as portraits of this or that person you might vaguely recognise. Instead do this – look closely, sniff the paint, and breathe in Freud’s brilliance.

Exhibition closes 27th May.

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