Freud Museum London until 29 January 2023; curated by Martin Gayford
A small but well-curated exhibition at the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens looks at the relationships between artist Lucian Freud and his family – up and down the generations. Given that the Museum is dedicated to the life and work of Sigmund Freud who lived there, it is not surprising that there are some photographs and film footage of the young Lucian with other family members in his grandfather’s back garden. Less expected in a museum not dedicated to art exhibitions is the collection of portraits of other family members. The individual personalities of his children in particular are reflected in Lucian’s striking compositions.
Lucian was born in Berlin on 8 December 1922 to Ernst and Lucie Freud. Ernst (1892-1970) was an architect. He was already living in St John’s Wood with Lucie and their three sons when Sigmund fled to London in 1938. Ernst had arranged the purchase of the Maresfield Gardens house where Sigmund lived with his wife and daughter Anna (who was herself a founder of child psychoanalysis) until his death in 1939.
The exhibition describes the friction between Lucian and his father. But a sketch (ink on paper, 1965-66) shows Ernst in older age in a sympathetic light: his worn face and patient smile suggest a caring nature.
Lucian was his mother’s favourite child, a status which he disliked. Lucie Freud (1896 -1989) was university-educated, studying classical philology and art history. Her desire for her son to be an artist was so strong that Lucian said it made him “feel sick.” She is best represented in the exhibition through family photos. Sitting on grass in the sunshine with Lucian and his brothers Clement and Stephen Gabriel Freud, she looks the devoted mother (photograph, c.1930).
It is however the paintings of Lucian’s children that are perhaps the most evocative. Head of Ali (etching, 1999) captures the worldly experiences of his son Alexander Boyt. The exhibition quotes Boyt (born 1957) as saying that he battled with a drug problem for a lot of his life. At the time of the etching he was “pretty wild” after the death of his girlfriend and a stint in prison over Christmas of 1997. The etching shows a half-closed left eye which is a visible sign of drug-taking. Much of the exhibition emphasises Lucian’s own wildness. He was expelled from school, gambled for much of his life and rode horses without a helmet even in his 80s. At around the time of the etching, he had made a concerted effort to spend time with his son, painting a portrait of him and making the etching immediately afterwards. The wildness of the father shows in the sympathetic treatment of the son.
By contrast, the group portrait of Lucian’s daughter Rose Pearce with her husband Mark, baby Stella and stepson Alex is almost kitsch (oil on canvas, 1999). Rose Pearce has described how she did not like sitting for the portrait as she wanted to focus on her new marriage. She is quoted as saying that the portrait liberated her as it showed her as part of the Pearce family and not just as Freud’s daughter. The painting seems to echo her thoughts, emphasising the division between its subjects and the artist. It shows the family as entirely ordinary except the oversized baby with enormous feet being held close to her father by his oversized hand. The family have unremarkable clothes and sit in a featureless corner of a bland room. They look bored and only the baby’s eyes meet the viewer. The subjects each look in different directions as if disdainful of the task of sitting for the painter.
Not all the works in the exhibition depict family members. Other works show Freud’s art as a child and young man, such as a wood box painted in c.1935 for his maternal aunt Gerda. The cover of the box depicts brightly coloured fish swimming among leafy sea plants. There are leafy trees such as the vibrant and expressive Palm Tree (pastel, chalk and ink on paper) from 1944. There are pictures of horses (painted and drawn) as well as a photograph by David Dawson showing Freud in 2003 holding the bridle of a grey gelding. Dawson captures Freud’s own painting of the gelding mounted on an easel nearby. The head of the painted horse faces the viewer with its lightly outlined body merging into an abstract background. Dawson (born 1960) was Lucian Freud’s assistant and remains an artist and photographer of standing.
The exhibition is accompanied by an intelligent catalogue written by its curator Martin Gayford (the art critic) and Bryony Davies of the Freud Museum.
It was the artist R.B. Kitaj who first used the phrase “School of London” to describe “strange and fascinating” artists who worked in the capital in the post-war years. They included Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin. Although Kitaj did not seek to draw strong parallels between members of the School, there are similarities between Freud’s work and (say) Francis Bacon. The exhibition catalogue quotes Dawson as saying that Lucian Freud “believed in the individuality of absolutely everything.” Whether people, animals or plants, the Freud Museum has gathered a diverse collection of his work helping us – the viewers – to see the individuality of his subjects.
Lucian Freud died in London in 2011. This thoughtful exhibition, marking the centenary of his birth, is well worth a visit by Belsize Parkers interested in art, even those who have visited the Museum on other occasions.
The Freud Museum is at 20 Maresfield Gardens NW3 5SX. For further information and booking, visit www.freud.org.uk
If you are interested in Lucian Freud’s work, you may also want to know about:
Lucian Lates: Playing Up – artist interventions, performances and films: A night of artist interventions, performances and films that explore the relationships between play and family dynamics. Journey around the Freud Museum to experience poetry, creative activities and evocative films. Freud Museum, 24 November, 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Lucian Freud: New Perspectives: This first major exhibition of Lucian Freud’s work in 10 years brings together paintings from more than seven decades. National Gallery, Trafalgar Square until 22 January 2023
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits: The first exhibition to delve into Lucian Freud’s paintings of plants and gardens. Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 7LB until 5 March 2023
Modernists & Mavericks Bacon, Freud, Hockney & the London Painters by Martin Gayford. Published by Thames & Hudson and available in the Freud Museum shop at £12.99 (some of the information in our article is from it).