7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 4: Saw Lucien Freud at the NPG)

4. Saw Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery
This “Two Irishmen” is exactly what I imagine Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom to look like.

Maybe having this exhibition in a list with others is completely unfair, and by no merit of the venue itself. The National Portrait Gallery has allotted several unbelievably narrow halls for some of the largest and most impressive paintings any English artist has made. They have provided little to no information, and the curation follows a largely chronological path. None of these elements are necessarily terrible things – they just show little effort to embellish or interpret what’s hanging on the walls.

But, to be honest, Lucian Freud’s body of work doesn’t need anything but a wall to hang on…  from his earliest paintings right through his unfinished masterpieces, his stuff is uncannily good, and the kind of art that only discloses its real beauty in-person. His reduction of subjects to “Man” and “Woman” in the titles clashes so deeply with the uniqueness and emotion of each portrait, it’s almost impossible to avoid deeply existential readings. Is deep and perturbing emotion simply human? Or is the emotion not the point: rather, the vessel that contains emotion, in all its fleshiness, is what should take centre stage… after all it determines presence, subject, existence. But then you see the way Freud’s rendered a young girl’s acne – with unflinching honesty – and you wonder if, really, he was just looking at bodies and what they do, and loving their changing, porous nature.

The exhibition was packed, with a line out the door over an hour before the NPG opened. The densely crammed small rooms and narrow hallways didn’t always allow for one to truly step back and contemplate the immense and vertiginous power of Freud’s warped detail, but the occasional opening made itself available, and you could occasionally get lost in the gorgeous, rotten bodies in his art. Perhaps most disturbing and unique of all were his unfinished works, which became bubbled up and mis-shapen because he never had a chance to smooth out the paint and sculpt it back into the canvas. What at first looked like just a normal painting became a grotesque pointillist artwork, where the dots were warts of color. Freud’s art never needed improvement, but maybe these last weird fragments are the perfect final frontier.

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