[Girl with Beret 1951-52, Manchester City Art Galleries]
I went to the Lucian Freud exhibition this week, although I wasn't sure what I'd think about the paintings. I find I get tired of reading about the media's favourite artists (Freud, Emin, Hirst) and then think I'm tired of their work, too, even though I haven't actually seen much of it for real; overexposure in the press leads to underexposure to the actual art. (The only way I came to appreciate Hockney, who never shies away from the media, was through seeing his work years ago at Salt's Mill, and again at the wonderful NPG exhibition in 2006. )
[The Painter's Mother Resting 1975-6, private collection]
Well, I am flabbergasted by Freud, and very pleased I went. The NPG has a monumental body of work on show, and some monumental bodies too. The paintings are raw, revealing, and pitiless. As Freud matures, the canvases get bigger, the sitters get older, the gaze becomes ever more penetrating. From pale, young, smooth skin in the early head-only portraits, he moves to huge, full-body paintings seen from all sorts of viewpoints and angles, some ordinary, some ungainly and awkward, and all challenging to the viewer. Freud becomes more forensic and more unforgiving; he paints the 'landscape' of the body and reveals all the undualtions, contours, crevices, but there is nothing picturesque about them. Instead, flesh begins to look like meat: veined, fatty, lean,and in places bluishly old, greenishly mouldy, pinkishly fresh. There is undoubtedly an aura of death in life, the suggestion of organic matter than will not last and will eventually rot. Looking round the rooms, you are totally drawn by 'attraction of repulsion' (Dickens' phrase), and immersed in the balance and fight between the warmth of life and the coolness of death.
Like it or not, this is the way we all go, and this exhibition is the place to come when you are fed up with the airbrushed, waxy, taut, stretched, death-defying skin that we are being told we should aim to achieve as we age. But for Freud the older, less classically beautiful faces and bodies are so much more interesting, and I couldn't agree more.
[Walking around, I saw a bloke who looked just like Brad Pitt. Then I realised it was Brad Pitt, with Angelina Jolie not far behind. Nice to see people who are horribly overexposed in the press doing something in a completely fuss-free, private way. And no-one bothered them at all.]