Lucian Freud’s historic exhibition in Vienna
The Vienna exhibition is remarkable for more than one reason. First, this is Lucian Freud’s first major retrospective in the city – one that was conceived in collaboration with the artist shortly before his death in July of 2011. Then there are the finely tuned curatorial decisions that pair some of Freud’s most celebrated works with reticent intimate portraits. And then there is the location itself. Jewel of European museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum is home to an astounding collection of art spanning some 4 millennia. Much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but more intimate and approachable. Freud spent quite a bit of time at the museum and was well familiar with its collection often studying compositional decisions of the old masters (Tizian, Parmigianino, etc.) and then applying them to his own work.
Portraits – Controversial and Intimate
Portraits are his strongest, most powerful works, even if often discomforting. They are raw, graphic, unsettling nude portraits painted in generous impasto brush strokes. Rich, buttery paints still glistening along the grooves left by the coarse brush. His models stand apart for their unconventional features, expressions and proportions. These were no canons of beauty but they possessed a unique charisma – that ability to hold your attention with just a gaze, that made his portraits richer, fuller and more engaging than any airbrushed Chanel model.
Freud’s most famous such work and perhaps the most controversial, is Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. Many found it to be highly disturbing for the unconventional choice of a model. The exhibition features three paintings by the same title where the obese nude model is shown from a high angle, asleep in various poses. This is the most famous painting from the triptych.
His other portraits and nudes are no less unsettling, yet here we use the word not for its common negative connotations but for its ability to shift one’s perspective. Freud, like many before him, often turned the focus on himself, recording various stages of aging, motion and emotion as they made their imprint on his own body. (Image #3 in the slideshow)
Yet his most precious works are perhaps his unfinished portraits. Here is one of his friend and colleague Francis Bacon painted in 1956-1957. The two painters often used each other as models preferring to depict each other’s psychological states rather than physical. Bacon famously painted two full-length triptychs of Freud, one of which is about to be sold at Christie’s in New York on November 12th.
Then there is the unfinished self-portrait from around 1956. (Image #4 in the slideshow) These paintings should be looked at as precious gifts that offer an unprecedented access to Freud’s very personal process. Notice how his loose pencil marks, more like broad guidelines for the final portrait gain volume and become imbued with emotion at the hand of the master. You can see that Freud started each portrait with the most expressive feature of the human face – the eyes, and moved radially outwards from there.
Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) (Image #5 in the slideshow) refocuses your attention because of the unusually low angle of the composition. It’s a painting within a painting. Freud towers above the viewer and the two giggling children on the lower left. His somber expression offset by a halo-like round light fixture. The two children are Freud’s daughter and son, Rose and Ali Boyt. Freud said he used a palette knife to describe the space around him, smearing it on and smoothing its surface so that it seems like a strange, grey, voluminous void…
Lucian Freud’s portraits of sleeping men and women are always most successful in capturing people at their most natural. Stripped of pretension, ego, narrow narratives, they appear vulnerable yet not weak. There is a clear sense of presence in all of Freud’s models. They are who they are. The artist merely captures their essence. (Image #7 in the slideshow)
In addition to the paintings the exhibition includes several videos, one in particular featuring the artist at work on July 3, 2011 – his last day of painting. Freud walks through his house to his studio in silence. His whippet sleeps on the rag by the easel. Shot at an extreme low angle (the model’s view of the painter) the camera essentially mimics the approach taken by the artist in Reflection with Two Children above. Freud is shown working on Portrait of the Hound – pictured on the right, making multiple approaches blending, working and re-working each brush stroke.
The exhibition is on view at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna through January 6, 2014.
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Featured Image: Reflection with Two Children (Self Portrait), 1965 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 91×91 cm; Private Collection; (add.info.: Rose and Ali (Alexander) Boyt, children of the artist.); © The Lucian Freud Archive; English, in copyright.
John Deakin, 1963-64 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 30.2×24.8 cm; Private Collection; (add.info.: John Deakin (1912-72) English photographer.); © The Lucian Freud Archive; English, in copyright.
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 151.3×219 cm; Private Collection; (add.info.: Sue Tilley, Job centre supervisor and biographer of Leigh Bowery. Sold for 3,641,000 to Roman Abramovich in 2008, the most expensive work sold by a living artist at auction until 2012.); © The Lucian Freud Archive.
Painter Working, Reflection, 1993 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 101.2×81.7 cm; Private Collection.
Portrait of Francis Bacon, (oil on canvas) by Lucian Freud.
Self Portrait; 1956 (oil on canvas) by Lucian Freud (1922-2011); 61 x 61 cm; © The Lucian Freud Archive / The Bridgeman Art Library.
Standing by the Rags, 1988–1989 (oil on canvas) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); Private Collection; © The Lucian Freud Archive.
Portrait of the Hound, 2010–2011 (oil on canvas) 150 x 150 cm by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); Private Collection; Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries © The Lucian Freud Archive.