Lucian Freud’s Self Portraits: But What do They Mean?

LONDON — In 1993, the British painter Lucian Freud, who had simply turned 70, took on one of many boldest tasks of his profession: producing a full-length portrait of himself in his birthday swimsuit. He stood bare and painted within the top-floor London studio the place he had spent so lots of his waking hours.

“Painter Working, Reflection,” is now thought of by critics and artwork historians to be his biggest self-portrait. It reveals him standing in unlaced boots, going through the viewer and brandishing his palette knife the way in which an ageing warrior would a dagger.

“I felt very uneasy doing it,” he advised an interviewer simply earlier than the portray was unveiled. “Seldom got so fed up with a model. But I thought, after putting so many other people through it, I ought to subject myself to the same treatment.”

The portrait was a spotlight of the Freud exhibition that opened on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in December of that 12 months. And it’s certain to be a spotlight of “Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits,” which might be at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (Oct. 27 via Jan. 26), earlier than opening on the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on March 1.

The exhibition brings collectively greater than 50 Freud self-portraits — work, drawings and etchings — from private and non-private collections, a few of which haven’t been seen in public for years. It is loosely chronological and arranged in six sections.

The present was first proposed to the Royal Academy by Mr. Freud’s longtime studio assistant (and frequent portrait topic) David Dawson, who had mentioned the thought of such an exhibition with Freud on a number of events. The artist died in July 2011 with out seeing the consequence, and no such exhibition had been tried till now.

The self-portraits “have never been brought together and evaluated as a stand-alone element of his practice,” mentioned the Royal Academy’s Andrea Tarsia, who has curated the present with Mr. Dawson and Jasper Sharp, an adjunct curator for contemporary and modern artwork on the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Throughout historical past, artists — and maybe most famously, Rembrandt — have regarded self-portraits as a visible street map to their psyche. They are an event for excessive introspection, an opportunity to replicate on the that means of life, the passage of time and the method of demise.

Yet Freud — regardless of being the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis — had a unique perspective towards the style, in response to those that knew him. Self-portraits have been mainly a method for him to experiment with the medium of portray.

“Lucian was extremely interested in other people,” mentioned Martin Gayford, an artwork critic who knew the artist nicely and spent 18 months posing for a Freud portrait, later describing the expertise in a e book (“Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud”).

“He wasn’t tremendously wrapped up in his own psychology,” Mr. Gayford added. “He’d say, ‘I’m not very introspective.’”

What motivated him, fairly, was the fixed have to “change and evolve and not repeat himself,” Mr. Gayford mentioned. The self-portraits, then, are “not psychological analyses of himself, they’re about the odd process of observing oneself.” And they’re, in Mr. Gayford’s evaluation, an necessary “subcategory” of his artwork.

Mr. Tarsia agreed that the artist was “quite reticent in talking about himself. He didn’t talk about his influences and didn’t really discuss his private life very much.”

Nonetheless, Freud spent most of his life producing likenesses of himself, beginning in his late teenagers. He painted a self-portrait for each significant milestone in his life (equivalent to large birthdays).

Given his character, “this kind of recurring element of self-portraiture might seem a little bit surprising,” Mr. Tarsia mentioned. His self-portraits, consequently, had a sure “elusiveness” about them and sometimes concerned “a kind of game of hide and seek,” he added.

The first self-portrait was painted in 1943, when Freud had simply entered his 20s. “Man With a Feather” (additionally within the present) is nothing just like the thick, impastoed canvases of his late years. It’s a thinly painted, neatly drawn determine of a younger man in a darkish jacket who holds a feather as if it have been a quill, and who avoids gazing straight on the viewer; there’s something surreal and barely eerie in regards to the composition.

What is attribute of Freud’s self-portraits is that they have been painted utilizing mirrors, not images. Hence the usage of the phrase “Reflection” in lots of his titles, Mr. Tarsia mentioned.

Mirrors allowed him to be playful and “sneak into portraits of others,” in addition to “juxtapose different spatial configurations,” Mr. Tarsia added.

There are loads of examples of this playfulness within the present. In the 1965 “Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait),” the towering determine of the artist, wearing a grey swimsuit, friends down on the viewer. It was painted by placing the mirror on the ground. The tiny heads of two kids seem, seemingly out of nowhere, on the canvas.

In the 1967-68 “Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait)” the small mirror picture of Freud’s face and torso peeks out from among the many cascading leaves of a plant.

The exhibition ends with two self-portraits that have been accomplished between 2002 and 2003, lower than a decade earlier than the artist’s demise at 88. In these, Freud is definitely analyzing the passage of time and its impact on his bodily look — however with out lapsing into sentimentality.

“Lucian was quite interested in the process of aging and he certainly dwelled on signs of aging himself,” Mr. Gayford mentioned. But basically, “he welcomed them for their visual possibilities.”

In the tip, it’s portray that mattered most. “I don’t want to retire,” he as soon as mentioned. “I want to paint myself to death.” And that’s roughly what he did: It wasn’t till two weeks earlier than his demise that he lastly laid his brush to relaxation.

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