Lucian Freud exhibition

Submitted by on 4 March, 2003 - 12:00

Has Freud lost it?

Melissa White reviews the Lucian Freud exhibition at Tate Britain

The Lucian Freud exhibition, running at the Tate Britain until 22 September [2002], is beautifully curated. It trumps the dreadful 'thematic grouping' that has emerged everywhere in galleries throughout the world (very noticeably at the Tate Modern, which, it must be said, apart from this giant boo-boo, is the most stupendous gallery space on the planet).

Ideological judgement in aesthetic matters should emerge diachronically: over time. Ready-made synchronic comparisons - comparisons between practising artists - are too easily dismissed as a result of the vicissitudes of 'taste' or fashion, neither of which allow for a considered ideological comparison. Why cut away our grounds for making a judgement?

That said, the strict chronological ordering of the work is not allowed to smother what's genuinely interesting in this exhibition.

The remarkable developments in Freud's work between the 1940's and 1950's reveal an entirely different painter to us, two Freuds, stylistically unrecognisable as the same Freud. Freud - grandson of the more well-known Freud, Sigmund, the pioneering German psychoanalyst - is almost exclusively a portraitist. The early portraits depict deadly and statuesque individuals, with monolithic slabs of white flesh and staring, frozen eyes. People who might terrify you if you met them.

The late portraits are utterly different: the individuals here have flesh (lots of it bare, since Freud frequently paints the nude) with its usual worldly defects - weird green veins, wrinkles, splotches - all of the brandings that turn up of their own accord on a human body whenever they want. Consider "Naked Portrait Standing", 1999-2000.
Look at Freud's depiction of his own neck and chest. He's like a gnarly old tree. My feeling was that if you met the people in these later portraits, you would become aware of their fragilities (and illusions about themselves) very quickly. These later portraits give us good psychological access to the people depicted.

Freud apparently has a reputation for brutality in his realism. It can be a bit stupid to listen to or pass on such rumours, but if it's true, then I don't think the reputation is very justified. The portraits are really neither sympathetic nor harsh. For someone who often painted his friends and family (notice the many portraits of his aged mother from the 1970s) instead of professional models, this is certainly a talented detachment. The painter is not in the business of passing commentary on or putting character 'additives' into his various models. Freud is very good at painting anything
static, better than he is at painting ideas he has about the way someone should or could be.

I went to this exhibition with low expectations, partly as a result of a general prejudice against British realism. The prejudice still persists, but I'm making an exception for Freud. With one qualification. What on earth is going on in "After Cezanne", from 2000? This late work of Freud's has an urgency in it to pay homage to the moderns. But the execution of it hasn't come off well. People stumbling around furniture just doesn't capture the movement in Cezanne I think Freud is trying to get at, maybe even reproduce for himself. I think he may have lost it.
Score: 7/10
Reviewer: Melissa White

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