LONDON — My goodness, anniversaries do make things happen, publicity-wise! Lucian Freud was born 100 years ago (the actual date is December 8, 1922), and the galleries of London can’t seem to get enough of him this autumn and winter. Seven — lucky seven! — exhibitions are on exhibit. The largest of these is at the National Gallery, which is serving up a show that idles through many rooms, called New Perspectives. These are the very spaces that have in the recent past been occupied by some of the greatest Italian painters in the canon: Raphael, Veronese, Titian. Showing off 70 works by Freud invites comparison, inevitably. Is he up to it? Is he one of the great figurative painters not only of our day, but of any day?
Freud is being puffed by publishers, too. A lavish, illustrated edition of his letters (Love Lucian, the Letters of Lucian Freud, 1939–1954, published by Thames and Hudson in the UK) contains lots of reproductions of the letters exactly as he wrote them, in all their wildly misspelt rough-and-tumble. The newly released volume comes complete, for example, with a photomontage of a pair of kissy lips. Freud was an unstoppable prankster, joker, gambler, a man who lived on the edge of respectability, a man who “banged women” (as Hemingway described the painters of louche Paris in A Moveable Feast) between the carefully applied brushstrokes. The praise of this book in the London Spectator review could not be more gushing if it tried. Such flirtatiousness! Such teasings! Such wild amours! In suggesting that genius in the making must always get its libidinous way, the book feels curiously out of touch with the world of the present day.
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The show is an interweaving of the chronological and thematic. It calls itself New Perspectives, but a more accurate title would surely be Old Perspectives. (A few additional paintings and drawings that are less well known are on view; one small space deftly carved out from the rest is devoted to drawings of his dead or dying mother.) Freud does not really command these rooms in the way that Titian and Raphael commanded them. One of the difficulties is their size. Many of his paintings look a little too small in these spaces. They feel a little shrunken, if not diminished.
But it’s more than that. Perhaps it is something to do with Freud’s character. Old words spring up that might help define the problem of what exactly it is that makes Freud seem a lesser talent than he is often cracked up to be. Would it be ridiculous to suggest that he lacks nobility or generosity, or even that his pessimism reduces him? He is never expansive or celebratory. He lacks warmth. He never embraces. His eye is always preying upon others, and especially so upon women. These subjects shrink back, somewhat fearful. The worst painting in the show is a tiny, monstrous portrait of the late queen, which I am shouted at for photographing on my phone because it is FORBIDDEN to do so. Goodness knows what the poor woman thought of this portrait. Her face looks puffed up and out, as if it is constructed from slithery, mishandled slabs of bread dough. Her hair loops up to the left and right like the twin handles of a monstrous baroque jug. She is said to have said — goodness knows whether this is true — that she rather admired the way he mixed his colors. Did he smile at her at all? Did she, through gritted teeth, when she saw it?
Lucian Freud: New Perspectives continues at the National Gallery (London) through January 22. It travels to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid from February 14 through June 18, 2023. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and curated by Paloma Alarcó, Chief Curator of Modern Painting at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.