When Lucian Freud (1922–2011) was hailed as the Greatest Living Painter towards the end of his career, it was almost as a mark of respect for having survived so long and kept stubbornly painting in the way he wanted, without any quarter given to fads and fashions, in pursuit of truth to appearances, whatever that term may actually mean. This lifetime achievement award, though understandable (the English love a Grand Old Man), was misplaced, for Freud was not a great painter. He was often a striking image-maker, but from the overwhelming evidence of the knotted, gnarled and pelleted textures of his later paintings, the turgid accumulations of dry pigment, he disliked the medium of oil paint intensely. Almost as much as he seems to have disliked the people he painted, though not, revealingly enough, the animals. These he clearly did like, and the difference in the way he painted a dog or a horse from his manner of depicting a human makes this inference unavoidable. If we must find a suitable candidate for Greatest Living Painter, let’s at least choose someone who loves paint and uses it beautifully — such as the staggeringly underrated American, Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920).
I remember being pleasurably shocked when the eminent critic David Sylvester announced towards the end of his life that Freud had never really been an artist, and should have turned away from painting, for he was at heart a poet. That reading makes quite a lot of sense when confronted with the vast acreages of flesh on view at the National Portrait Gallery (supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch). And why, may I ask, in a show of portraits are there more than 30 nudes? If the organisers were following Freud’s own definition that ‘everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair’, then logically we should have examples of the other kinds of picture he did as well — the landscapes and animals, the versions of Old Masters. And when we are shown portraits, why are the sitters in many cases not identified? Figure or portrait? It seems to me that the parameters of this exhibition are rather muddled.
At 130 works it’s far too big, with too many dramatic images competing for attention. (Which is more repellent or beautiful — Leigh Bowery or Big Sue? You pays your money — all £14 of it — and you takes your choice.) The early work still looks to me the best, when Freud painted with exquisite Northern Renaissance intricacy, using small brushes and leaving no visible brushmarks. As you enter the exhibition turn right for the early pictures, including such masterpieces as the conté drawing of Christian Bérard and the oil of ‘Girl with a White Dog’. There are many good things here, such as the moving portrait of the doomed John Minton, the plug-ugly John Deakin, Harry Diamond trapped uneasily in a chair and ‘Frank Auerbach’ (1975–6). But by that point the style has changed to a more brush-stroke-driven mode, with thicker and more expressive paint. Freud had evidently found himself in a dead end of small-scale, immaculate images, and wanted to break out. Was he competing with his friends Francis Bacon or Frank Auerbach? Perhaps. Certainly from the mid-1980s, the paint started to build up and become drier and less attractive, and a distinctive form of lumpy impasto began to be increasingly in evidence.
Freud said he could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t there in front of him, but that didn’t stop him distorting what he did see if he felt it suited the picture. And one of his chief pleasures seems to have been to cramp or deform his sitters into positions of consummate awkwardness. There’s an interesting comparison to be made here with the work of another devoted life painter, Euan Uglow. He, too, urged his models to hold difficult poses, but in his case the desired end was a beautiful form; in Freud’s, this justification can rarely be applied. The ‘pelleted’ style works well for some portraits, such as that of Francis Wyndham, but it can be seen at its most unappetisingly extreme (and unresolved) in the last painting of the exhibition, which Freud was working on when he died. I think it was a mistake to include it here — it only points to the deficiencies of his manner, not its achievements.
Some of the most interesting paintings in the exhibition are self-portraits, such as the example from 1963, which begins to look almost Futurist (think Boccioni) in its faceted movement. Particularly remarkable is the series of his mother, while a small painting from 1986 of his daughter Bella is uncharacteristically gentle. The lavishly illustrated catalogue (£25 in paperback) includes a delightful memoir of Freud by the great art historian John Richardson, who knew the painter for nearly 70 years. He records how increasingly British he thought Freud became on successive meetings over the decades. Strangely, Freud’s portrait of Richardson is not a good likeness, being too monolithic and corporeal, making the writer look like a worldly Renaissance cardinal.
Unusually, the charcoal drawing of Richardson, on view at Blain/Southern, is equally unsatisfactory, but on the whole I found the drawing show infinitely preferable to the NPG’s fleshly overkill. Here is a commercial gallery doing a museum’s job (this is entirely a loan show, with nothing for sale apart from the handsome hardback catalogue, at £40), and making a very good fist of it. Another 130 exhibits show the full range of Freud’s drawing career, though because they are smaller and less demanding, they don’t fight for air as much as the paintings. It’s often asserted that Freud gave up drawing when his style changed, but this exhibition demonstrates that it remained at the heart of his endeavour. It did, however, become a preliminary activity to painting, taking place on the canvas as preparation for a painted portrait (see the unfinished charcoal and oil head of Harold Pinter), rather than practised as an end in itself. Drawing as drawing tended in Freud’s later years to be reserved for his etchings.
The exhibition is agreeably laid out over two floors, and among the treasures on the ground floor is a slightly caricatural ink drawing of John Craxton (1922–2009). I hope that when Freud’s biography is finally written, Craxton is restored to his rightful place as a key friend and important early influence. Freud in later years tended to want to airbrush his life and career, and one of the casualties was Craxton. They met in 1941 and became very close associates. It was Craxton who inspired Freud to use conté crayon (in which he drew Bérard, mentioned above), and whose own wiry and lyrical linearity was a potent example for the young Freud. Craxton was disparaging of Freud’s later drawing style, which he likened to a ‘railway junction — so many lines, so laboured, so claustrophobic’.
But there are enough of the brilliant early works to make this exhibition unmissable: the hypnotic ‘Man and Town’, two portraits of David Gascoyne, ‘Palm Tree’, ‘Scotch Thistle’, a stuffed owl on a chair, and such unfamiliar things as ‘Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit’ (1943), and a group of watercolours including a portrait of the artist’s father on his deathbed.
Although this show is free, anticipating its inevitable popularity the gallery has instituted a ticketing policy: simply log on to www.blainsouthern.com for your entry pass.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 18, 2012