By Nancy Durrant
It’s the perfect show for an egomaniac: a survey of Lucian Freud’s painting through his self-portraits. The man who required his models to sit for hours, over months, often in excruciating positions (one model had to see an osteopath), frequently naked and under a piercingly frank gaze, considered it only fair that he subject himself to the same, although he did not paint himself nude until he was 70.
The Royal Academy exhibition is broadly chronological, starting with some of Freud’s teenage drawings, which exhibit that classic mistake of the budding artist: putting the eyes too close together. By 1943 he was on his way to that early, highly defined style in Man with a Feather. The feather was from his first serious lover, Lorna Wishart, and is an early indication of his career-defining resolve to depict people and places meaningful to him instead of chasing commissions.
Freud returns to his own image repeatedly. It’s partly for practical reasons (in the Fifties he uses himself for book covers and illustrations), but perhaps he was also drawn to the challenge of seeing himself objectively as his obsession with precise observation grew. “I don’t accept the information that I get when I look at myself and that’s where the trouble starts,” he said. He often used mirrors, dotting them around his studio to capture odd angles, perhaps hoping to surprise himself into “seeing” himself. In Reflection with Two Children Freud peers down at us where we seem to lie, with the mirror, on the floor.
The shift to looser, more painterly work comes across as pretty sudden, screeching from Hotel Bedroom, from 1954, which depicts Freud and Caroline Blackwood, his wife at the time, to the 1963 head studies that betray the influence of his friends Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. It’s at about this point that you start to pine for those fantastic portraits of other people, of squashy flesh sprawled on a dodgy sofa, of skinny men looking cold in corners. The curators pull this off, finding Freud reflected in a window pane in Freddy Standing (2000-2001) or in two tiny sketches propped against the wall in Two Irishmen in WII (1984-85).
This is going to be a busy show, but sharpen your elbows and get up close, especially to the works in the final room, thick with scumbled paint that, with a step back, forms a miraculous whole. An elderly man, capturing his true likeness in all its frail glory.