“Everything is autobiographical” Lucian Freud said, “everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.” Freud himself was instrumental in bringing together the pieces in the show at London’s National Portrait Gallery, working closely with the curators in selecting work from his entire career – a process that would go on to include his final ever portrait, unfinished at the time of his death in July 2011. Such is the scope of this exhibition that it will genuinely crumble any expectations you have of his work, replacing it instead will be a psychologically raw and infinitely more intimate respect for the power of portraiture.
Freud’s work was/will always be dependent on his relationships with the sitter. Near the beginning of the show are a number of the works depicting his first wife Kitty Garman, painted in the late forties, early fifties, and are described as almost psychological in the detail.
As, in general, his later, visceral almost sculptural works are what we have come to recognise him for, the indelible softness and extraordinary detailing of these particular portraits of Kitty, especially Girl With Roses, is a startling contrast.
As the exhibition continues, the dynamic gestures of Freud’s paintings increase as the show moves you chronologically and, nearly a decade after painting Kitty, you see that he completed Hotel Bedroom featuring his second wife Caroline Blackwood. This was the last painting he ever completed sitting down.
Of this transitional moment, one that encouraged the artist to use coarser brushes and, from his powerful physical position, gave him a confidence to portray more and more of the naked form, he simply said: “When I stood up I never sat down again.”
We were told that Freud considered nudity to be the “most complete portrait” and it is hard not to try and imagine the lives of his sitters as the are intimately depicted in front of you. Also you question the nature of their relationship to the painter – such is the social spectrum of his sitters, from criminals to royalty.
Recognisably there are portraits of family, well-known friends and other artists; David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. The other people, anonymous acquaintances who demanded Freud’s attention hold their unknown status in an effective and intense illusion while positioned candidly on canvas. Lucian Freud Portraits we are told, “is a life represented in paint rather than a biographical retrospective.”