This winter the Royal Academy of Arts has exhibited Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits. The collection of portraits ranges from his early career in 1940, to his most recent work in 2001. This masterfully curated exhibition focuses on the self and demonstrates how Freud’s painting style has changed and matured over time. The exhibition progresses from his early surrealist painting, to his later brutally realist work, exposing the frailty of his aged body. The style of his portraits is striking and contradictory as Freud resists being exposed and “known”: he hides in his paintings, yet also maintains intrigue as the subject of the portrait.
Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott argued, ‘Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’. As I walked through the exhibition, I was taken by Freud’s ability to be present, and yet also elusive in his self-portraits. The exhibition runs in chronological order and begins with his early surrealist work. In his painting ‘Man with a Feather’ (1943), the stretched-out eyes and blank expression appear eerie and dreamlike. Freud’s image is distanced from reality, hidden by the abstract surrealism of the painting, perhaps suggesting the influence of the unconscious on his work as our attention is drawn to what is unknown and obscure. To consider Freud’s biography I find it difficult to ignore the relevance of the fact that he was the grandson of psychoanalysis founder, Sigmund Freud. This seems particularly pertinent to his interest in Surrealism, an art movement that emerged from his grandfather’s concept of the unconscious mind. However, as an artist himself he disliked Freudian interpretations of his work and intentionally prevented over-analysis of his images by being so evasive in his portraiture. His oil painting ‘Hotel Bedroom’ (1954), depicts Freud and his second wife. In this painting Freud is hidden in the background, his gaze is pertinent as he looks not at his wife, but out of the canvas, at you, the spectator. His figure is a shadow, painted in darker colours, like a lingering spectre. The attention is drawn to the agonised and strange expression of his wife which is illuminated in the foreground and Freud is reduced to an observer. The emotional response this painting provokes is truly astounding.
I was most taken by his painting, ‘Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening’ (1967-68), particularly notable because Freud resists becoming the subject of his own self-portrait by hiding behind a houseplant. The focus on the delicately painted, photorealist quality of the plant detracts from his face peering through the leaves; he seems to be straining to listen in to a conversation he is not part of. It was fascinating to discover that multiple paintings in the exhibition were left unfinished. Hence, the focus is drawn to the face, as the rest of the figure was hidden and obscured behind a blank canvas. From observing these paintings, I questioned to what extent Freud wished to hide or to be seen? He paints himself into the portraits of others, whether it be a shadow or a reflection in a mirror, he is always present. Freud admitted he was a shy person and found that a way to overcome this was by being an exhibitionist. This is clearly demonstrated in his ‘Painter Working, Reflection’ (1993), and much of his later work. These paintings are more truthful and brutal, depicting his aged body with disturbing realism, exposing his increased fragility and vulnerability.
This exhibition succeeds in presenting Freud’s prolific and challenging self-portraiture. The scale and magnitude of work in the exhibition shows Freud’s obsessive and relentless painting, suggesting his overwhelming desire to know himself and understand the unknown. Freud once said ‘My work is purely autobiographical. It’s about myself and my surroundings … I work from the people that interest me and that I care about’. This gives insight into Freud’s self-perception as his work seems propelled by the contradiction between a desire to be seen and to hide, as observed by Winnicott. Walking through the exhibition conjures a sense of time passing and invites you to consider the transience of your own appearance. Freud’s reluctance to fully reveal himself in his paintings alludes to a scepticism towards self-knowledge. These paintings wistfully reflect the ageing process and Freud’s ever-changing, dynamic, self-perception.
Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits are available to be seen at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26 January 2020.
– Camilla Delhanty