Lucian Freud, Irish Museum of Modern Art

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, I went to Art College. One of my colleagues was Annabel (Bella) Freud, one of Lucian Freud’s daughters. She wasn’t a bad painter herself and stepped in once or twice when one of our life models didn’t show up.

At the time (at least in the beginning), I didn’t fully understand the painter’s significance. Okay, end of segue!

The exhibition, for me, was a series of contradictions. Big old master influences and lots of family and pets, ex jockeys and models…. The paintings were small and big. Some were beautiful and tender and some were shocking, in your face, brutal stuff. He’s painted general space and he’s painted great detail. The unifying essence is meant to be getting to the truth of things and I’d concur with that.

The older paintings and drawings are largely very illustrative and in some ways, this thread has continued through his work. ‘Man Wheeling Picture’ from 1942 shows the painter coming to grips with his craft, but is also amazingly realised and could have been painted by David Hockney 20 years later. ‘Dead Cock’s Head’ is small and almost hallucinogenic in its extreme detail. ‘Head of a Boy’ from 1956 is beautifully painted, with a closely observed delicacy.

‘Leigh under the Sky Light’, from 1994 is a huge male nude thickly painted with fairly local colour and with an amazing sense of presence. ‘Woman with Eyes Closed’ shows you a lot about Freud’s process; how he paints. There’s a real dignity in the painting. This is a painter who has really understood how to reconcile draughtsmanship with painting, and when it works, it’s beautiful.

It’s a tough call and comes with the territory, but many of Freud’s nudes (both male and female) seem to be so sexually defined that I wonder about their nobility as people.  This isn’t an issue with ‘Portrait on a White Cover’ from 2002-3. It’s a beautiful female nude and there is a real sense of her weight and presence.

‘Bella and Esther’ from 1988 is an unflinching look at his two daughters. One of the things that I really like about Freud’s painting is his sense of time and place, and in this painting the viewer is almost standing above the big old battered leather couch that the two sisters are lying on; a really interesting perspective. They are fully clothed and there is a glow and sparkle that I think is due to his use of artificial light (he seems to use artificial light a lot, particularly in his paintings of heads).

This painting also demonstrates the two problems that I have with Freud. First, occasionally some of the marks he makes on the figures don’t seem to really define them and sometimes they seem to take robust honesty to an extreme. It’s as if he’s said “that’s enough concentration for now”, or “I want this face to look disfigured”.  In itself, this shouldn’t be a problem, but it is if it creates inconsistency.  The painter has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want us to be comfortable with his work. What better way of ensuring that we aren’t? Another point is that there doesn’t always seem to be a relationship of continuity going on in the painting.  In other words, it doesn’t seem that he has painted the floor and the back wall in relationship with the figures.

Of course, the second point may have a lot to do with priority and process, as many of the unfinished paintings on display show that he paints the canvas gradually, moving from area to area in turn, as opposed to working over the whole surface continuously.

There are two ‘Head of a Girl’ paintings in the show. The one  from 1962 is just stunning. It’s huge and could almost be seen as pop art. The painting is simply and confidently defined. The 1975-76 version is also warm without being sentimental.

The small painting of baby ‘Fred’ from 1985 really uses the paint to establish the baby’s presence. As in so many of his paintings, there is a very pleasing use of  brush strokes  to create different surfaces slotting into each other (such as flesh and fabric) There are  also some wonderful etchings which give a real insight into his way of working, among them ‘Esther’ from 1991 which is full of gutsy, robust hatching. You feel that she may have a twitch any minute.

‘The Painter’s Garden’ from 2005-6 is wonderful. Huge and with amazing detail, spontaneity and a great sense of light. Similarly, ‘Two Plants’ is a huge painting of a small detail from his garden. Painted in very great detail, it’s really an astounding still life. I could go on and on. Suffice to say, it wasn’t boring!

Signal Arts Newsletter of October – December 2007

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