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Real Lives showcases the paintings and etchings of Lucian Freud, one of the masters of modern portraiture, for the first time in the North West in 30 years. Freud said of his portraits: “I want paint to work as flesh […] I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having to look at the sitter, being them. As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” It is hard to think of another artist who captures the individuality of their subjects as Freud does. His sitters have ranged from members of England’s ancestral families to local bank robbers, Kate Moss and the Queen, but his most evocative works are those of his inner circle – his close friends, his family and the artist himself. Real Lives is a study of the enigmatic artist through these people.
In Freud’s own words: “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” Freud’s realism is not necessarily in the faithfulness with which he relays the subject onto the canvas, but instead in the portrait’s uncanny ability to allow the viewer to see the subject through Freud’s own perception. In his earlier work, Freud’s realism is often so real that it paradoxically becomes unreal. Boy Smoking, Girl with a Kitten and Man with a Thistle best highlight this strange phenomenon. The features of the sitters are distorted. Kitty Garman’s eyes are disproportionately large, Charlie Lumley’s mouth is wide and full as he holds a cigarette between his lips. Yet the distortion within Freud’s portraiture is not unnatural like the extreme figuration of Picasso or Francis Bacon. It is more like the Caputo effect – the uncanny warping that occurs when staring into a mirror for a long period of time. The face becomes unrecognisable, features morph and shift, contract and expand, even sometimes being replaced entirely with another face. But the reflection retains its realism in that it is the true reality of what the viewer perceives.
We are not seeing Kitty Garman as she looked at the time of her sitting, nor are we seeing an idealised version that the artist wishes us to see. Instead, we see how the artist perceives her – the minutiae of her person like flyaway strands of hair, folds in her lower lip, the whiteness of her knuckles, that Freud perceived most keenly as he painted her. The stark precision of his earlier work was the result of his examinational painting style. He would sit uncomfortably close to the subject and stare at each feature of their face, seeking accuracy through what he dubbed “visual aggression”. Celia Paul said that Freud “stood very close to me and peered down at me. I was very conscious of my flesh, and I felt myself to be undesirable”.
Yet this consciousness of flesh, particularly later in the nude portraits, is what gives Freud’s work its uncanny corporeality – the paint becoming the person. They have the stark intimacy of a clinical examination, looking at the body with no other preconceptions than what it is and what is there, observing each line, fold and part without the inclination to mask or alter, but to translate flesh to paint posteriori. The thick impasto in works such as Naked Portrait and David and Eli builds three-dimensional layers of skin that constructs a body on the canvas. In Standing by the Rags, the woman stands in an almost Classical pose, with her gaze turned away and soft open arms, but her body is given a weighty physicality as though she stands before the viewer. Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilly’s imposing forms are intimate and vulnerable while dominating the space.
The exhibition details Freud’s artistic development throughout his career. The pale clean lines from his earlier use of sable brushes transform into mottled blues, pinks and beiges stippled using thick hog-hair brushes that better capture the complexities of human skin. He no longer sits but stands, often painting on large canvases so that the sitter can view their forms taking shape on the canvas in Dorian Gray-style introspection.
Freud exacted a punishing amount of time from his sitters, expecting them to sit for weeks, months, even years at a time. They could come and go as they pleased and, while the artist would flit between works, the subjects were always kept apart. The sitting process thus became a prolonged observation of the person by the artist. They had to have “an inner life… ticking away” to sustain themselves through the arduous process. It is this inner life that Freud captures.
The inner life is thus integral to Freud’s body of work, and Real Lives is curated as a narration of the artist’s biographical developments – his wives, his children, his mother, new figures in his life who he committed to the canvas, his fascination with Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley. Faces age as the viewer walks, they swap and change from view, new faces come and go in a flurry as though the viewer is watching a life play out in hyper-speed.
Freud’s self-portraits change from the almost surrealist, smooth blank stare of youth to a face filled with expression, character and the outward display of an inner life. Real Lives presents Freud’s work through the quality the artist valued most – the individuality of the sitter. The portraits are a symbiosis of objectivity and subjectivity. They are at once abstract studies of the human form and intimate insights into a private relationship between an artist and their subject. Each line etched, each flush of the skin painted on canvas, is part of the sitter’s life – personal details known only by the two: where a wrinkle forms in the skin from a frown or a smile, a tattoo, a mark, or blemish, the shape of a stomach, a nose, or a breast.
Within the exhibition, there is a photograph of Freud in his studio. Freud is in the foreground, with two oversized portraits of Leigh Bowery behind him. The portraits dwarf the unassuming artist, their nudity a loud protest next to his neat button-up shirt. Bowery is exposed entirely; Freud’s face is blurred. It is a poetic metaphor for an artist who lived a life of observation. The artist, he said, should appear in his work “no more than God in nature. The man is nothing; the work is everything”.