I was a little wary when asked to go and see the Lucien Freud self portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy. I am off privileged white middle-class males at the moment, and Freud is nothing if not a highly polished exemplar of the species.
But I needn’t have been resistant. Although in many ways the show confirmed my view that Freud was much more deeply in love with his own reflection than with any of the women he messed up, it was still fascinating. The miasma of his tangled love life hangs over these canvases, particularly since they are not just straight self portraits. Often, he will insert himself into a study of a lover. His shadow might loom menacingly over a woman’s naked, prone flesh, or his shoes might be just be glimpsed within the canvas. It’s odd and unsettling. In one painting, he lurks behind an enormous potted plant.
Freud is described as an intensely private man, though he can’t have been that private with his privates as he is estimated to have had up to forty children. The official figure is fourteen, which is better (or worse?) than another overprivileged white male, our current prime minister, who refuses to be drawn on the exact number of his own offspring.
Back to the art, and the thing I found most fascinating about the show (when I could tear myself away from the temptation to draw all sorts of Freudian conclusions from what the man was painting and why) was the progression in his style. His early drawings, with every single hair individually clear, led, with the weight of years, to the dramatic impasto of his later works. I kept thinking irresistibly of Rembrandt and his final canvases, a rheumy-eyed man with a crumbly nose.
Freud never peeks out of the frame like a lost soul, he remains mysterious and impassive to the end. A cold gaze, from a cold man? Yet, little though I like the breed, I couldn’t help but be touched by the mock-heroic picture where he holds a brush like a sword, only to be belittled by his own shoes.
An amazing painter, probably a horrible man. Does it matter? It probably depends how close you were to him. A breathtaking exhibition, do go and see it.