We all know our faces. We see them everyday, out there at large in the mirror or the photo. But we don’t scrutinise our bodies to the same degree unless we are professional models, whom I don’t use, or extreme narcissists, whom I can’t use.
Following his death six months ago, the much-anticipated Lucian Freud exhibition kicks off tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery. It has been long in the planning, five years in fact, much of which was in collaboration with the artist himself.
I went to the last major Freud biopic at Tate in 2002 as a 17 year old, in my first year of studying art history. I remember feeling particularly awkward in the presence of his paintings. The nakedness, the honesty and possibly something to do with the fact that his male subjects seemed to have such massive, dangly cocks; I left the exhibition feeling exposed, like Freud had seen all my insecurities. It was the first time I felt truly affected by art; the first time I realised what art could do.
In their nudity, his subjects are at their most open. Unlike most portraiture and as his quotation above suggests, his paintings aren’t about the face. Freud would famously make his sitters sit, or lie for hours, often beyond states of boredom, whilst his brushstrokes seemed to explore the fleshiest parts of their body, building layer upon layer of what he discovered.
Although I enjoyed his giving the Queen 5pm shadow in his royal commission in 2001, his facial portraits just aren’t his best works. They don’t even tell half the story of his thick, impasted bodies.
It’s quite un-British, this apparent lack of concern for the dignity of his subjects. Talk of the truth laid bare, it creates that awkwardness with the viewer because we don’t particularly like the truth and, being British, we certainly don’t know what to do with nudity.
“There is a distinction between fact and truth”, he said, “Truth has an element of revelation about it”.
It’s perhaps our fear of the truth and this revelation that draws so many people to Freud – possibly why his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (above) sold in Christie’s New York for $33.6m in 2008, the record sum for a painting by any living artist at the time.
Nearly ten years on from my first live experience of his work, I want to know if I’ll still get that same uncomfortable feeling followed by an inexorable attraction when confronted by his painting. I’m particularly excited and nervous about what feels like going back.
The exhibition pits together many of the figures from Freud’s life. With over 100 of his works on display, his candid visual accounts will present past lovers, friends and family. It will be a memorial to one of the most important portraitists of our time.
Lucian Freud: Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 9th February – 27th May
By Edward Lines