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Lucian Freud: a portrait of the artist as a young (and an old) man

Molly Leeming takes a look into the intimate exploration of the life of an artist.

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Image Credit: Reflection with Two Children (Self Portrait), 1965, Lucian Freud, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive, Bridgeman Images

Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait is a documentary by Exhibition On Screen which essentially takes the viewer on a guided tour through the Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition (running from 27 October 2019 to 26 January 2020). This London based exhibition, the first of its kind, is as you might expect from the title, entirely made up of Freud’s self-portraits, which were prolific and spanned almost his entire adult life. As such, this exhibition-documentary has a strong biographic slant to it. Much to my relief, however, it manages to almost entirely steer clear from the grovelling, hagiographic ‘great-man behind the great-art’ tone so often taken in art documentaries.

The last Exhibition On Screen which I saw was Leonardo: The Works, and so I came to Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait with certain expectations as to how it would work as a documentary/exhibition. I swiftly found that this was quite a different documentary. With a figure as culturally ubiquitous, yet historically distant as Leonardo da Vinci, who was working in the 15th and early 16th centuries, a somewhat more analytical approach was appropriate. Therefore it was mostly a series of close-readings of paintings which were propped up by historical context and the relatively scant biographic information which is available on him. In contrast, the oldest portrait covered in Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait is from 1939, and the newest is from 2004, so clearly a different take was necessary.

Furthermore, while everybody has the image of the Mona Lisa branded onto their mind’s eye, the most I knew about Freud before seeing this documentary was that he was the person who painted that fat naked lady (the actual title of which I soon discovered to be Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, from 1995). The relative unfamiliarity of Freud’s art for the majority of people (I confess, I am using myself as a yardstick of the average cinemagoer’s art knowledge here) allows for an arguably more down to earth approach. Instead of purporting to uncover the lofty secrets of grand art, this documentary instead chooses to take an in-depth look at specific subsection of the artist’s body of work.

As a result Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait is, as its name suggests, an altogether more intimate affair. While Leonardo: The Works traversed the globe to bring its audience up close and personal with paintings in, to name but a few locations, Paris, Florence, and St Petersburg, Freud’s onscreen exhibition is limited to the aforementioned real-life exhibition in London. Furthermore, rather than the talking heads sections being dominated by art historians sitting in their Oxbridge offices or curators in the Louvre, this is a diverse lot, including artists who have been influenced by Freud themselves; critics; and even people who sat for his portraits. While this inevitably means that some of the sense of globetrotting grandeur of the da Vinci documentary is lost, I think that this more personal, in-depth focus works brilliantly in getting across Freud’s overwhelmingly personal, human work.

The distinctly biographic angle possibly made Lucian Freud seem like more of a conventional documentary than Leonardo, with the first close look at a painting not coming until twenty minutes into the film, and with many anecdotes about his rebellious school years, his tumultuous love life, and his childhood relationship with his grandfather, who much to my surprise, turned out to be none other than the most famous Freud: Sigmund. There were moments when this focus on the figure and personality of the artist himself approached the sycophantic mythologizing so common in documentaries about any significant cultural figure. At one point one of the commentators tried to pass off Freud’s habit of hitting people whenever he felt the slightest annoyance as a sign of his mercurial artistic temperament, rather than the arrogant, bullying behaviour of an extremely entitled man. Thankfully, however, these moments were few and far between, with the biographical details about the artist himself largely serving to inform and shed a fascinating light on the exploration of his self-portraits.

Where I think Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait shines most though, and possibly where it most qualifies as an on screen exhibition as opposed to a standard art documentary, is in how it tracks in minute detail the astonishing stylistic and technical changes in Freud’s work over a 64 year period. Freud’s early work is entrancingly precise and delicate, treading a careful but often ambiguous line between hyperrealism and subtle surrealism. In striking contrast, his later work, which is probably more familiar to most people, is a wild, textured riot of uncompromisingly portrayed flesh; every fat roll, wart and wrinkle brought to thrusting, vigorous life.

I particularly enjoyed the insights from practicing artists who have been influenced by Freud. I have come to expect irritating, vacant platitudes along the lines of: ‘without the godlike inspiration of [insert artist’s name here] I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I love’, from these sections in art documentaries. Here however, to my very pleasant surprise, the artists were not competing to show who was Freud’s most devoted disciple. Instead they were able to give practical, technical insights into the nature of self-portraiture, and the techniques employed by Freud.

Ultimately though, while I think that Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait makes a fantastic art documentary, how effective is it as an ‘Exhibition On Screen’: a democratising force to increase the accessibility of the often insular and exclusionary world of fine art? Unfortunately I would have to say that it is only successful to a limited degree. While this cinematic rendition of an exhibition has merits which a physical art gallery may not have, primarily that of the often illuminating commentary which accompanies the paintings; and the ability to bridge physical distance, it is not equivalent to the experience of an actual, physical exhibition.

Particularly the latter of these two chief benefits of onscreen exhibitions, for UK audiences at least, applied more to Leonardo: The Works than to Lucian Freud. While Leonardo was able to grant some form of access to artworks in a series of far-flung locations that could not otherwise be seen by anyone but those with a quite astounding holiday budget set aside for the specific purpose of art-tourism, Lucian Freud is instead entirely based on a single exhibition in London.

An onscreen exhibition is a very valuable experience in its own right. It cannot, however, act as a substitute for the experience of coming face-to-canvas with a real life artwork, unmediated by documentary directors. Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait, feels more like an, admittedly excellent, documentary companion-piece to the London exhibition than a democratising counter to London’s stranglehold on cultural events. The only way to grant true nationwide accessibility to art in the UK is to challenge the incorrigible London-centricity of the art world, and take physical exhibitions out to the rest of the country.

Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait will be shown at limited screenings from 14 January 2020

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