A Refreshing Look At Freud's Flesh: The National Gallery Celebrates 100 Years of Lucian Freud

by Christina Donoghue on 28 September 2022

Flesh, fat and beauty are on full display in The National Gallery's latest retrospective celebrating Lucian Freud's centenary.

Flesh, fat and beauty are on full display in The National Gallery's latest retrospective celebrating Lucian Freud's centenary.

'Freud analogy: life is paint, flesh is paint, paint is flesh' - Daniel F. Herrmann

Whether it be alive or dead, skeletal or voluptuous, if there was one thing the artist Lucian Freud knew how to do well, it was flesh, and impressively so; all of which are spotlighted in the National Gallery's latest exhibition The Credit Suisse Exhibition Lucian Freud: New Perspectives, falling front and centre stage. Opening to the public on 1 October, the retrospective marks the much-talked about Freud centenary, celebrating 100 years since the artist was born in Berlin in 1922. Not alone in their quest to lure Freud from the shadows, the exhibition joins the Freud Museum and the Gagosian gallery this year in revealing Freud as their stimulus for the coming months. It is up for debate whether the artist's work ever really retreated to the shadows; the ten years since Freud’s death at the age of 88 have paid witness to almost a dozen shows of his work in London alone, including the Royal Academy of Arts' stellar tribute to the portraitist back in 2019. So, what's different this time? The National Gallery's title may give it away but on the flip side, it also begs the question of how many new perspectives you can find in Freud's work, especially when curators have rehashed the subject over and over. However, this is where the National Gallery have crucially succeeded, tapping into a glaringly obvious but often overlooked attribute of Lucian Freud; his paintings. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

Sleeping By the Lion Carpet, 1996 (also known as Sue Tilley), Lucian Freud

Sure, the art world would be in total denial if they refused to acknowledge this aforementioned Freud bombardment, but none of it, really, focuses on the actual work or the paintings themselves. The Freud museum depicts the artist in the context of his family in their current exhibit, while Gagosian looks at the artist's friends and associates to understand him better. Curator of The National Gallery's latest Freud show Daniel F. Herrmann told me after his curator's tour on the day of the gallery's private opening that he feels 'many exhibitions show ways of thinking about Freud that has been done before, it's always about Freud and his family, Freud and his friends, or Freud and his lovers', implying, despite the countless Freud exhibitions, none of them are about his one true love - the medium he dedicated 70 years of his life to - painting. Of course, artists' personal lives can enthral at times (helped by Freud's infamous reclusiveness and not to mention the scandals uncovered in many of his biographies), but what about the work that made him so famous in the first place?

This is what lies naked in the walls of the First Floor galleries of the institution, a spectacular array of painting after painting, beaming, bathing and commanding you to look, then look again, then look some more. Herrmann also noted this, attributing it to Freud's near choking obsession with the craft, 'because of how committed Freud is to the practice of painting, the work requires and rewards radical looking.' Once you're done looking, his wonderfully sinister ways of depicting the reality of flesh become tantalisingly torturous, feeding back into the notion that you really can't stop looking; there's nowhere to hide from the arresting colour palette. Prominent in itself, Freud paints paint almost as much as he paints flesh, demonstrating his love for it in included examples Painter and Model (1986-87) and the artist's self-portrait Reflection (2002), with these paintings offering context to what Herrmann refers to as the 'Freud analogy: life is paint, flesh is paint, paint is flesh.'

Painter and Model (1986-87), Lucian Freud

Speaking of paint, it's no coincidence the major retrospective is held in the capital's grand National Gallery; it's a place Freud notoriously frequented when he was alive to observe and study the medium, 'often in the dead of night because he had a special visitor's pass', Herrmann informed me.  Coming to look at artists he revered like Titian, Rembrandt or Hans Holbein the Younger, the motifs these artists possessed in their work - whether it be their own depiction of flesh or in classic Holbein style, a rose - become clearer than ever when you see Freud being cleverly placed in the context of these great masters, it's as natural as you can get, despite what the Evening Standard thinks.

Fleshy, sensual and bloody brilliant, the depiction of those who also run in SHOWstudio's circles could easily be viewed as the show's standouts (we're not biased, we promise). One of Freud's more legendary sitters and muses, Sue Tilley, is on display in the exhibition's final room, with Freud's life-sized depiction of the model permanently sitting in your mind long after you've left the show. The painter's own daughter Bella Freud is also depicted next to her sister Esther in Bella and Esther, 1988, which sees the pair sitting on the same red leather frayed couch as Tilley in her portrait. Unfortunately missing from the curation is Kate Moss' pregnancy portrait, an unforgettable experience that went on to forge an unlikely friendship, as the model once told Nick Knight in an interview for SHOWstudio. Alas, let's rejoice in the masterful inclusion of Leigh Bowery at least, depicted sleeping next to his wife Nicola Bateman; a portrait, unlike Moss', Freud reportedly was thrilled with upon completion.

Leigh Bowery and Nicole Bateman, studio of Lucian Freud, London, 1993

Painting itself as a medium has fallen in and out of fashion throughout the 20th century yet, despite Freud solely dedicating himself to figurative works, he remained gloriously popular throughout his career, with the public's interest never waning in his work. His continuing study of humanity baring all is what makes him the master of figurative painting; a style that's coming back with a force amongst the young according to Herrmann. 'The popularity speaks to the quality of his work. There is a real resurgence in figuration and how it conveys messages. All of these questions intersect with Freud and younger artists are interested in his work right now'. By focusing on paint and paint alone, The National Gallery successfully strips Freud of all the nonsense thrills threaded in rumours about him - he just becomes another human with a hobby, one he so happened to be exceptionally good at. If you're still unsure about this unwavering dedication, all you need to know is that Freud was the first to add his signature to a petition (also signed by Tracey Emin, Maggi Hambling, Damien Hirst, Bridget Riley and others) to keep Titian's Diana and Actaeon painting in Britain. Once you know this, the mystery starts to unravel, helped by The National Gallery's untimely love letter to him all thanks to curator Daniel F. Herrmann. Long live Freud!



Essay: The Legacy of Leigh Bowery

04 October 2004
Guiser: Artist and Bowery contemporary Donald Urquhart on the posthumous commemoration of Leigh Bowery.

Interview: Kate Moss on Lucian Freud

25 June 2014
Kate Moss discusses being immortalised, over a period of nine months, in a painting by the celebrated artist Lucian Freud.

Video Portrait: Bella Freud

17 December 2009
Fashion Designer Bella Freud; one of 200 cultural icons captured by Nick Knight for the 30th anniversary issue of i-D magazine.
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