If you live in London and haven’t seen the amazing Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, go now.
I’d bought tickets as part of my husband’s Christmas present – a nifty idea on both counts as it was a treat to look forward to and I sneakily got to go along too. Actually, I wasn’t sure he’d make it as he arrived back at Heathrow on Saturday from Kuala Lumpur – bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight and no sleep. But he insisted he wasn’t going to miss out on Freud, so after a bracing coffee (or ten) to revive him we pitched up at the gallery.
The exhibition is, quite simply, stunning. It spans seven decades and gives a real sense of Freud’s world – his family, friends and lovers, many of whom sat for him. The paintings themselves (more than 100 of them) are a tour de force, scrupulously detailed, often very personal and not necessarily flattering. I’m no art critic but stand-out paintings for me included Girl in a Dark Jacket, a wide-eyed portrait of his first wife Kitty Garman (above left), and a series of life-sized portraits of the late performance artist Leigh Bowery (famed for his amazing costumes and body piercings, he posed naked for Freud).
And then, of course, there are the incredible pictures of Big Sue, 20-stone benefits supervisor Sue Tilley, who sat frequently for Freud in the 1990s. Tilley once described to The Guardian how the sessions would start with Freud cooking breakfast. She’d then sit for him and said: “It taught me that it is real work: each painting took nine months, and he was seeking perfection right up to the minute he finished.”
The exhibition is expertly curated and many of the details I learned as we went round have stayed in my head. It was fascinating to learn, for instance, how in the mid-1950s Freud decided to paint standing up and to use coarse hog’s hair brushes, how he used hotel linen to clean his brushes and palette knives (the rumpled white linen often appears in his work) and how paintings often took more than a year to complete. A 2002 portrait of David Hockney took 130 hours – though when Hockney asked his friend to sit for him in return, Freud sat for precisely two and a half hours.
Freud died last year (2011) at the age of 88 and the most poignant portrait in the exhibition is the last one of all. Portrait of the Hound depicts his assistant, the artist David Dawson, sitting naked with his whippet Eli. Unfinished (it hadn’t been seen by anyone outside Freud’s immediate circle till the exhibition), it’s remarkable and very touching.
Lucian Freud Portraits can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London till May 27 2012.