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'Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits' Review - The Royal Academy

27th October 2019 — 26th January 2020

Standard Ticket - £18.00

Concessions - £14.00

Lucian Freud's work is an example of style being inextricably connected to name; hearing it brings to mind nude figures composed of fluid, loose brushstrokes, exemplifying a distinct vulnerability. He is very much a figure that is still deeply set in the cultural, collective unconsciousness of Britain, as one of its foremost painters of the 20th century. Moreover, Freud is clearly a figure that is surrounded by a sense of urgency to exhibit; he was heavily featured in Tate Britain's 2018 exhibition All Too Human, a collection of work which spanned over a century of life paintings. Freud, born in Berlin in 1922, moved to Britain in 1933 with his family in order to escape the rise of Nazism. Thereafter, he attended Goldsmiths in the early 1940’s where he would set the foundation for his artistic career.

It is here where we approach Freud, with the first series of delicate self-portraits. Many of these are made of ink on paper, shade composed of interlocking lines, and gorgeous as they may be, it’s the only painting that stands out in this first room: Man with a Feather (1943). It holds a kind of super-realism, contrasting shading with block colours: there is a kind of unsettling boldness to Freud’s earlier works. The style is defined, in some way, by a distinct emphasis on the eyes: the absence of light in them frequently provokes a disquieting feeling.

Lucian Freud, Man with a Feather, 1943. Oil on canvas. 76.2 x 50.8 cm. Private collection. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy of the RA's website.

We are then led into the second room, Drawing, which brings about not only the the use of pencil but the introduction of surrealist ideas to Freud's work. Startled Man: Self Portrait (1948) and Self-Portrait as Actaeon (1949) particularly exemplify this. Moreover, in this second room there is a real sense of Freud existing in the fringes—in several of his works we see only a sliver of his face, the corner of the eye and a slip of the nose peering out from behind a corner. In this way, Freud becomes an alienated, but observing, figure.

Effortlessly, we are directed towards the next room, Transitions, and immediately, from the first piece in this room the tone of his work has changed. The room circles around a series of splayed out sketchbooks. The style of Self-portrait (1949) is almost unrecognisable from his earlier works and is also the first step into the style Freud has become associated with. He has rendered himself with a kind of watery translucency, where the wetness of his eyes is almost tangible. Then, we jump to 1963, where his style has developed yet again. Loose, liberated brush strokes define the triptych of Man’s Head. An experimentation with scale also appears in this room: one self-portrait, made in 1952, is no bigger than an A5 page.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait), 1965. Oil on canvas. 91.5 x 91.5 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy of the RA's website.

In the next room, Mirrors, every piece in the room bar one is from a private collection, and many of them are absolutely marvellous. One that particularly stood out was Reflection with Two Children (1965). It is an absurd painting; Freud stands looming over a pair of joyful children, his face viewed from such an angle that it seems contorted and disapproving. The whole painting also exists in several tones of grey, giving a washed out impression. It is displayed side by side with a fragment of a different attempt of the same painting, showing the bones of his process.

Then, having journeyed through Freud's experiments and development, we get to Reflections in the Studio as well as the style Freud is known for: expressive brush strokes, and tones shifting across human skin. Freddy Standing (2000-01) is huge piece of work, and among many I hold in high esteem, it is potentially one of my favourites. He is positioned in the corner of a room completely nude, his shadow seeming to lean out from behind him. Freddy is depicted in such a way that his body language indicates vulnerability and frailty. Freud has a distinct talent with shade—negative space accentuates the lighter sections of his pieces with a soft ease.

Self-portrait, Reflection, 2002. Oil on canvas. 66 x 50.8 cm. Private collection. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy of the RA's website.

Everything closes with elegance in the last room: Painting at Work. There is a focus to the work—layers—so thick that standing too close completely obscures it. Scale also comes back into play; some of his later works go back to using much smaller canvas. The closing piece we are presented with, entitled Painter Working, Reflection (1993), is a completely nude self-portrait. It depicts Freud stood in a hesitant stance, seemingly in the middle of action, holding a palette. It’s the epitome of vulnerability, indicating that he is not only able to depict frailty in others, but is also able to see and address his own. This gives us a concluding impression that Freud was a thoughtful, attentive artist who was willing to face the powerlessness of humanity.

Yet again, the Royal Academy have put on, not only a world first, but also an unquestionably phenomenal exhibition. Lucian Freud has been done full justice as the RA have adoringly put together a show that leaves its viewer with a clear understanding of Freud’s artistic career, while being provoked to think about mortality, change and the wonders of experimentation. It really cannot be missed.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor