It is at this point in my role as an art critic that I question the maximum 5 star rule. All the numbers above 5 seem suddenly so frustratingly tantalising, as I attempt to discuss the nature of the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. To attempt introducing it I would say that, if you were to see only one exhibition this year in some sort of perverted art-abstention, make it this one. The collection of 130 pieces of Freud’s best works, co-organised by himself before his death last year, is not a memorial but a celebration of the artist’s life’s work; his passion, his obsession, and his artistic family of friends and models with whom he shared his inexplicable talent. As I wandered from room to room of the gallery’s characteristic white-wash interior, I forgot to take notes. To do this review, I didn’t want to be a reviewer: I wanted to appreciate the work of one of the greatest British artists of the last fifty years, without the distraction of pen or paper.
The exhibition separates Freud’s careers into particular eras characterised by his changing styles and sitters. We begin in his early work, with smooth symmetrical faces and large staring eyes penetrating the onlooker, as he begins to use and hint at the nudity which will later typify his work. Adaptation, and fame, both came with time for Freud. As one moves into a new room, and a new age of the artist’s progression, the skin tones begin to break open with their own wrinkles as Freud adds layer after layer of textual shades, turning expressions into patchwork collages of oil.
The large canvasses greet the eye with rolls of multi-tonal flesh, contorted limbs and fully exposed genitalia, protruding from bodies sprawling on coaches, beds and piles of rags. The sitters lie bare in front of us, unashamed and mesmerising, despite making us a little uncomfortable at just how naked they are. Our conservative, jumper-loving, fat-hating minds reel at the idea of the fully exposed human body – where are the Grecian goddesses? Pieces like “Naked Standing Portrait”, “Standing by the Rags” and “Naked Solicitor”, make the viewer as intimate with his sitter as Freud himself was. Even when his sitters are clothed, like “Woman in a Butterfly Jersey” and “Man in a Silver Suit”, their faces are so contoured with the details of his paint that the titles and jumpers don’t matter: Freud is painting people, not fancy patterns.
The final room is partitioned into two sections, leading first to the enormous canvases displaying the Benefits Supervisor series. “Benefits Supervisor Resting”, in all its expensive glory and obesity, looms gigantically on the wall next to its equally gluttonous siblings, famous for being sold in 2008 for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. It has recently been overtaken by pieces by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and yet “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” will be returned to the auction room in May and is expected to fetch around $30 million.
Past the partition there are the final pieces of Freud’s lifetime, completing the career as much as the exhibition with the same naked intimacies. David Dawson, Freud’s studio assistant and close friend, peers out of the wall in several pieces, affirming the words of the artist printed on the wall in a different room: “I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.” A little further on up the wall is the final piece of the gallery, of Dawson, and of the artist’s career: the unfinished “Portrait of the hound.”
I left the exhibition knowing that I would return, wanting to come at a time when the crowds of Freud-fans were not conspiring against me in swarming around paintings with audio-tapes and tall statures. His talent demands more of my time and attention, and an intimacy best experienced away from the jostle of the excitable crowd.