Two self-portraits by British painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011) are the first works one sees when entering the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s “Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits” exhibition.
The most recent of the two shows Freud at close to 80 years old, while the other dates towards the end of the Second World War. The self-portrait of the older Freud is a delicious blend of pink and greys that faintly mellows his face. In the one in which he is young, his image is amateur, flat and everything is just ever so slightly out of proportion. His left hand is far larger than the right. His eyes are not level to one another and his mask-like facade is reminiscent of the skulls engraved on colonial tombstones.
The exhibit consists of 40-odd self-portraits, ranging from his time in various art academies to shortly before his death nine years ago, at the age of 88. The collection is filled with sketches from notebooks, full-scale oil paintings, two book covers for the English writer Nigel Dennis and a number of unfinished works. There is a room playing a video where Freud himself comments — both poignantly and in non-sequiturs — on his work. The room is tucked away towards the end of the exhibit. For the most part, the works are arranged to run chronologically.
It is hard not to psychologize Freud, due in part to the looming shadow of his grandfather, Sigmund, and the unflinching commitment he himself had to probe the depths of the models he worked with. (Freud was notorious for his grueling sessions, which left at least one model, the subject of “Flora with Blue Toenails,” in need of medical attention due to the awkward, prolonged pose she was forced to hold.) In many of his paintings, the artist pops up in the form of a shadow; at times his face is cunningly hidden in seemingly unimportant objects around the subject.
What is clear when walking through the exhibition is Freud’s apparent discomfort with his own image. He blurs and abstracts his features. In the younger sketches, he composes portraits from obscure angles or metamorphoses into mythic drag. He hides or patches himself in relation to different objects. Throughout, many of the works are taken from mirrored images at unconventional perspectives. A number of these are simply titled “Reflection.”
We see Freud grapple not with his aging, but with his pedagogy of craft: as his skill at rendering becomes more proficient, so does his ability to disguise. His career of self-portraiture is one of obfuscation.
Though all the works here are moving, confronting and probing, it is the collection of sketches and paintings from Freud’s early adulthood that catch one’s attention. This is in part due to the loose, beginners luck feel they posses, paired with the pleasure of seeing the growing-pains that even a great artist like Freud was, of course, subject to.
But there is also the anomaly that Freud possessed, a trait denied to most artists, especially among his contemporaries in the “School of London.” Freud had an impeccable, albeit strange, attractiveness. As a young man, he had unruly amber hair, a sharp nose and piercing eyes that crop up over and over, in both self-portraits and not. Photographs of the young Freud relay slick shots of the proto sexy bohemian art student. His aloof cool is palpable. (Back then he held a striking resemblance to his contemporary, John Berger, the radical art critic and novelist.)
Freud’s approach to his younger self is an attempt to nullify this look. Many of the works of young Freud seem to try and knead something completely new from his features. He pulls the perspective to jarring angles and he ever so slightly works his face, like clay, into images just different enough to appear to be someone else. (Is this really Freud, or another pupil at the academy?)
“Man with a Thistle,” composed when Freud was 24, is one of the more polished exercises in this format. The oil painting is hard and geometric. The predominate color is a cool pearl-blue which is set against the pale fire of Freud’s amber hair; before him is a stalk of thistle painted an empty cream and yellow. The artist’s face is in half-profile and he seems to be beyond a windowsill. “Thistle” is one of the more adventurous self-portraits in the show, in part because of its unique style, but also in the straightforward way he renders himself. It is a bridge to the later works, as Freud substitutes his youthful, playful point of view with style.
As one wonders on, one passes half finished sketch of lovers erotically embraced and lovers at the end of their romance. Each one has Freud (a lifelong collector of love affairs) gazing, passive and imprudent. A work from this time, the mid-1950s, clearly depicts this transition of amateur art student to experimenting adult. The self-portrait is barely worked on; only the center — Freud’s eyes, nose, forehead; the tips of his fingers touching his face and a few tendrils of hair — is painted. Only the most basic shape of his face and shoulders are gently sketched in with pencil. But what is painted, or rather, how it is painted, the style, denotes the shift. Gone are the ridged lines and single-toned colors. Instead, there is the hazy and muddy mix of colors one comes to recognize in the painter’s later acclaimed works.
Sitting relatively center in the exhibition is “Interior With Plant, Reflection Listening, Self-Portrait,” which is by far and away the most gripping piece in the show. We see Freud only from the chest up placed between two leaves of a houseplant. He has his hand raised to his ear and his chest is bare. The subject, though, is the spider-plant that takes up the majority of the painting; the tips of its long, waxy leaves are browned from lack of water. It is reminiscent of the book covers earlier on where Freud’s camouflages himself in the mundane. The richness between the green of the plant and the varied neutrals of Freud body stands alone in the exhibition up to this point.
Walking through, one is slightly put off by the gallery chosen by the MFA for these works. The large rooms drown the relatively small self-portraits. The majority of the early pieces are on pages of sketch paper or keepsake sized canvases, and even towards the end, as the works grown larger and larger, they still seem to be dwarfed by the arena they’re hung in.
Do we ever see the true Freud in these self-portraits, or do we decide to go along with the pantomime that he states in the film being show in the room out back: that every mirror shows an image, an optical trick of how one looks; that an artist must use the mirror and its image to create a self-portrait; that, therefore, every self-portrait is a trick; a lie?
The final work on show is an etching from 1996. Freud’s face is a shadowy, almost liquid, flow of black ink. The aloof cool from his art school days is gone. The passivity of his mid-career has vanished alone with it. Instead, he appears forlorn — looking like an elder Leonard Cohen without the fedora and cigarette — and the muscles of his face and neck seem made of stone.
Perhaps “knowing” Freud through these paintings is unimportant. Perhaps the obfuscation he deploys is, in its own way, as revealing as a photograph. One thing is for sure: the exquisiteness of the exhibition and the pleasure of seeing the evolution of an artist through the decades is worth the questions drudged up. Sitting beyond the hide-and-seek nature of “Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits” is a reminder that the eye of an artist—so ready to catalogue and observe everything in the world—is most reticent to record what they see in the mirror each morning.
(“Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits” was scheduled to run from March 1 through May 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the museum is temporarily closed and has cancelled its summer programming. For the latest information, visit mfa.org.)