Lucian Freud: New Perspectives; Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals – review

Lucian Freud: New Perspectives; Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals – review

Lucian Freud stripped bare: that is the premise of the National Gallery’s riveting exhibition. No emphasis on the biography, behaviour or love life; no abasement before genius, just the revelation of the paintings as works of art to celebrate the centenary of Freud’s birth.

This is tonic; a liberation from the grand master hush. It is also surprisingly unusual. Without the usual wall texts, occasionally no more than elevated gossip, and without the exalted claims for his vision of humanity, Freud’s portraits can speak for themselves. The curator, Daniel Herrmann, even includes paintings so mediocre they are actively instructive, allowing the eye to perceive what defines the great works.

Freud, who died aged 88 in 2011, painted from the life, but his portraits are clearly not moments in the lives of his subjects – models, office workers, plutocrats, whippets, his numberless lovers, his numerous daughters – so much as portraits of their physical presence in the cold light of his west London studio. From the very start, there is always the question of what occasioned their presence, their appearance in both painting and studio.

Take Naked Portrait II (1979-80). Why did he choose to paint this nameless woman, apparently asleep on the battered couch, one knee lolling to reveal her open vulva? A poor, bare forked animal with swollen breasts and the faint seam of a recent – or forthcoming – birth upon her stomach, she appears fully exposed to Freud’s all-seeing eyes. Who she is, what she feels, whether she is or has been pregnant: nothing is vouchsafed in the painting or its bald title. Nakedness is the central fact of her to Freud.

She has exactly this much (or little) in common with all the other naked figures here. Freud paints their faces – waiting, sleeping, drained to nothing after interminable posing – with as much interest as the soles of their feet. His brush travels over these human forms, registering the oddity of hair – growing yet not quite alive – the delta of veins in the inner elbow, a stretchmark’s metallic sheen, as if it were all of equal importance; the body as landscape, or less generously, corpse.

You can see it coming in the 1956-57 portrait A Woman Painter, which conflates Flemish painting with Stanley Spencer. The facial muscles are all individually depicted and held in equal tension with the draughtsmanship of eyebrow, lash and contour. You can see the entire development of each brushstroke, its arrival and eventual stasis fully declared. You are made to feel that the painting, in all its hard-won deliberation, is at least as contemplative as the sitter.

But the balance shifts. Oil paint gradually takes over as the life force of the portrait. It appears in loose, calorific swathes, or like blood emitting from a wound. It is soft and feathery as the fur in a Titian, thick as scar tissue or slick as swatches of expensive foundation. There are passages so astoundingly decoupled from description you stare into the canvas just to witness their journey, or watch blue turn to green to dying yellow like a bruise.

This is not how it started, with those amazingly tensile portraits of his early relationships. Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman, throttles a kitten. Lorna Wishart is lank-haired and lost. In Hotel Bedroom, Freud is a wary black ghost behind the bed in which Caroline Blackwood lies swollen-eyed and up to her chin in sheets. He looks at us, she stares at the ceiling. The same misery, one infers, is repeated in the window opposite.

But these narratives came to a halt, replaced with the inexplicable, tangential or mysterious. Sweep your eyes round the enormous second gallery here and the bodies seem to have fallen like meteorites to earth. Figures lie splayed, toppled, dropped, almost always tilted or horizontal. In Evening in the Studio, a vast woman has been tipped naked to the ground for no obvious reason while a clothed model sits primly sewing behind. Narrative is implied, then sidestepped.

What interests Freud comes to be the abiding question. It definitely isn’t the overscale New Yorker – getting more bang for his buck – that is no more than an array of empty and distracted marks. I am not sure about Andrew Parker Bowles either, red-faced and blowsy in his brigadier’s stripes. There are passages of upholstery – the seams of a duvet, a Chesterfield’s disgorged stuffing – that hold Freud’s attention almost more than the bodies thrown down among them.

Some of the heads, stubborn, intractable, are worked and reworked like botched welding. I imagine these parts of the canvas as weighing vastly more than the rest; heavy heads, yet still with no declared interest in individual personality. In the late works, the paint gets increasingly granular and encrusted, sometimes so aggressively nubbled you wonder why Freud wanted his precious substance to appear so revolting.

Perhaps the coarseness came to equate with candour. That seems the case with the final self-portraits in this show. Almost the smallest of these is nonetheless the most monumental. Painter Working, Reflection, made when Freud was 71, casts a cold eye upon his own body, reflected in the studio mirror, naked except for the famous laceless boots flapping like devil’s hooves. The artist brandishes the palette knife with which he has worked up the pelleted surface of this very picture; a conductor with a baton, or perhaps a late Prospero with his wand. This time the portrait meets the man head on: unique and full force.

It would be hard to image a less liberating gallery experience than Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals at Modern Art Oxford. The pioneer performance artist is not present to exert her fierce control over the proceedings for once. But surrogates trained in the “Abramović method” are so silently smiling it seems harder to refuse their directions. Anyone docile enough to obey, however, is bound for deadly disappointment.

Lead by the hand (or the nose), visitors are urged around successive spaces in noise-cancelling headphones. Here you must stand in a sentry-box frame, eyes shut, until released. Now you must face the wall, and ditto. Down a ramp, blindfolded and seated, you expect something to happen, but in fact you are simply being made to wait there for nothing at all.

The climax, such as it is, involves yoga mats, naughty steps and a giant arch fitted with icy lights like Santa’s grotto; the numinous as utterly cheap. You will have revolted by now, unless of course you haven’t had enough of the subjection, instruction and time-wasting delays imposed by modern society.

Abramović, ever wily, has pre-empted all criticism with wall texts warning that visitors might become impatient and even angry. She may have no idea of the degree. I hated every minute of the time lost, and have never felt more pressurised and mutinous in a gallery.

Star ratings (out of five)
Lucian Freud: New Perspectives
★★★★
Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals

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