Benefits Supervisor (“Big Sue”) Resting

“There are facts,” the painter Lucian Freud once said, “and there is the truth.” The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London follows less than a year after Freud’s death at 88. The show is a stark reminder that while Freud dealt with the facts of our all-too-human flesh, his primary concern is the truth that his artistic vision uncovers, probes and delineates.

In many ways the show is overwhelming. The work displayed spans most of his career, and I was reminded how rare it is to see an artist who has spent a lifetime plumbing one particular métier. Seeing those early portraits in context helped me better understand the trajectory of his evolution as a portrait visionary. And while portraiture has never been a form I have been drawn to, this show left its mark on me. Flesh, whether rendered by Freud or by Jenny Saville, is deliciously seductive to the painter’s eye. And both have painted it in profusion.

In a recent review of a Renaissance portrait exhibit (at the Bode in Berlin before coming to the Metropolitan Museum) in the New York Review of Books, Andrew Butterfield‘s exploration into the history of portraiture tracks its evolution in Western art traditions. That show’s curators state that the goal of portraiture was to “‘confer a distinct identity on a subject—as a husband or wife, merchant or intellectual, military commander, civic office holder or prince.’ Portraiture was a matter of both description and aspiration; it sought to capture the likeness of a particular man or woman and simultaneously to suggest how that person exemplified a type or ideal.” Over the course of the several hundred years, portraits moved from appearance and aspiration to reveal a “range of emotion and depth of feelings never before shown in European portraiture.”

From Andrew Graham-Dixon‘s review in the Telegraph:

Stylistically, Freud might be said to have begun at one end of the spectrum of Western painting and moved towards the other – from Van Eyck towards the later, more painterly likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Gradually he became more interested in flesh and less in the gaze alone. There is an element of conscious contrivance about many of the later portraits, which focus so closely on the mute, mortal bodies of those who submitted to his many months of sitting…Men and women, huge and emaciated, are arranged in splayed or pole-axed poses, like ancient Christian martyrs. Yet the milieu is always the same mundane painter’s studio: a place which, with its small quota of never-changing props (the iron-framed bed, bulging sofa, pile of painter’s rags), brings to mind the pared-down set of Waiting for Godot.

Life, these pictures imply, is a waiting-room for death. Sometimes the light plays tricks but the truth will always out. In the final room, one bearded model, vulnerable and naked as a Man of Sorrows, resembles a modern Christ. Of course he is no such thing, just a man posing on some bare West London floorboards.

The border between enchantment and disenchantment is always breached. There are traces here of the magical, the mysterious, the uncanny, but there are no actual miracles – save, perhaps, the miracle of each individual’s inimitable, human presence.

That last line is a good encapsulation of my response to the show. There ARE traces of the magical here, but there are no miracles.

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