Charlie Dixon

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits

Throughout art history, the self-portrait has remained a point of captivation. From Velasquez to Van Gogh, the artist’s rendering of selfhood provides a fascinating insight into the psyche of a figure often shrouded in mystery, revealing to the viewer traits which even the photograph fails to capture.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits, a new retrospective at the Royal Academy, presents a large body of work, spanning seventy years of the artist’s career. From the uncertainty of adolescence, through amorphous, distorted reflections, towards a drift into old age as the figure begins to fade. The presented works are unsettling, and at times violent introspections into Freud’s mind, as they attempt to merge the physicality of the human form, with the artist’s response to being. Freud’s relationship with his work was wavering, as he destroyed more self-portraits than he kept. As he claimed: “I don’t accept the information that I get when I look at myself and that’s where the trouble starts.”

Man with a Feather by Lucian Freud, 1943

The first section of the show comprises both drawing and painting, demonstrating the beginnings of the artist’s practice when he was just eighteen. Self-Portrait (1940) conveys a sketchy uncertainty that presupposes the development of an artistic style. By 1943, with his work Man with Feather, Freud began to demonstrate his own outlook. A far cry from the painterly technique that would later become the signature of the artist, this portrait is almost graphic in its use of clear lines and flat pools of colour. A series of peculiar forms frame Freud’s own image, as he stares blankly beyond the frame. Despite its simplicity, the work renders something inherently contemplative.

Freud employs complex symbolism in many of the presented pieces. In paintings such as Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening, he subverts one’s expectations of the portrait form by shifting himself into the background, positioning the seemingly banal office-plant into the centre of the image. In doing so, he appears to be questioning the role of the portrait in glorifying the figure it depicts; he is merely part of a scene, a wider system. The work Interior with Hand Mirror plays upon illusory depth – the mirror creates an interplay between Freud and the viewer, as they stand in the position of the artist himself.

The penultimate room in the show presents a series of works that do not appear, at first to include the artist’s image. The piece Flora with Blue Toenails, illustrates the figure of the artist as a shadow, hanging ominously over the principle subject. Throughout the works, Freud remains an inherently elusive figure. His use of distortion, illusion, and reflection suggests that his true self always avoids capture. The constant shifts in his self portrayals are dramatic, and at times unnerving, as the audience is left wondering if he is ever really there.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Reflection (Self- portrait), 1985

The final paintings in the show appear as a move away from the illusory nature of the earlier pieces. Painter Working, Reflection, painted in 1993, presents Freud’s nude figure, reworked, layered with thick paint in an attempt to capture the effects of age on his own body – the surface is textured, uncertain, muddy. There is inherent brutality to the image; perhaps most important though, is its honesty. Here is a move away from the hiding, the smoke and mirrors of artistic license. At last, the artist; square to the picture plane, without decoration or symbol. This painting appears as a culmination of a fluctuating identity, a pause for reflection amidst the nostalgia that arrives with age.

Review by Charlie Dixon 

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits is on view from October 27, 2019 – January 26, 2020, at the Royal Academy of Arts. For more information, visit the Royal Academy of Arts website here. 

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