By Alastair Smart
In 1978, after getting into a heated row with a London cabbie, Lucian Freud went home and painted a small picture of himself. His face fills the canvas, its standout feature a swelling around the left eye that is the colour and shape of a plum.
Self-Portrait with a Black Eye is one of 60 works brought together for an exhibition of Freud’s self-portraiture at the Royal Academy. In a career lasting seven decades, the artist became synonymous with pitiless portraits of subjects from across the social spectrum, from burglars to brigadiers. As this new show makes clear, though, he frequently used himself as a model, too. “After putting so many other people through the treatment,” he said, “I thought I ought to subject myself to the same.”
Early works are marked by playful curiosity. Freud would leave mirrors lying around his studio with the aim of finding unexpected angles and perspectives. In one drawing, we practically look up the artist’s nostrils.
Other pictures, such as 1947’s Still-life with Green Lemon, reveal Freud’s short-lived dabble with Surrealism. The artist’s face can be glimpsed in the background, though the painting’s focus is on a humongous leaf growing out of a lemon on a table in the foreground.
Why Freud produced self-portraits precisely when he did is hard to say. They came in fits and starts, though surely there was no coincidence in the timing of a trio of works painted to mark his 40th birthday. Freud marked the milestone with a burst of self-scrutiny in 1963.
He had recently made the big breakthrough of his career: under Francis Bacon’s influence, he had replaced his finely pointed sable brush with a coarse hog-hair one. His strokes became bigger, bolder and more expressive – and in the three birthday works, they render Freud’s face semi-abstract. Even so, his piercing eyes look directly out at us, with a mix of confidence and confrontation.
Over the years, Freud’s art has gone in and out of style. His portraiture was deeply unfashionable through the Sixties and Seventies, for example, as movements such as Pop art dominated. But fast-forward to 2008 and his picture of the Jobcentre clerk Sue Tilley, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, fetched £17.2 million, making it the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction.
One wonders if his reputation isn’t set for another dip soon. Freud was a serial seducer, prone to treat his lovers cruelly. One of them, Celia Paul, spoke of sittings for him as an “excruciating experience” in which she “cried most of the time.” Can Freud’s name survive the MeToo era unsullied?
Given their focus on self-portraiture, this isn’t an issue the RA’s curators have to address – though what’s clear is that Freud subjected himself to scrutiny every bit as mercilessly as he did other people and particularly in his late work.
Painter Working, Reflection is a supreme example. It captures the 70-year-old Freud naked but for a pair of boots. He holds a palette in one hand, a palette knife in the other. His hair is now grey, his face lined, his flesh saggy. He wears a look of resignation and vulnerability, widely interpreted as an acknowledgment of his own mortality.
In certain passages, the paint is applied so thickly it’s sculptural. Did Freud see the sheer act of painting here as one of rebellion? A rage if not against the dying of the light, then certainly against its dimming.
He continued to make self-portraits well into his eighties, works unflinching in their take on old age. Can these really be by the same gawky figure with whom this exhibition started? Freud liked to take a long, hard. Look at himself – and more often than not, the results are stunning.