Since his death in 2011, Lucian Freud’s reputation has transcended the standard procedure of posthumous artist careers, where respect for their talent rockets. Internationally, he still maintains a scarcely wavering status as a master of figurative painting. What has largely established Freud’s reputation has been his penetrating insight (at the extreme it could even be called a psychological invasion) of his chosen subjects through an almost anatomical rendering of their flesh, posture and facial expression. In an exhibition of works from the UBS Art Collection, Martin-Gropius-Bau presents an insight into the Berlin-born artist’s later work, in which we are shown what interested him visually. Yet Freud once asserted that his work was ‘purely autobiographical,’ an attempt at recording himself and his surroundings. As suggested by the exhibition’s title ‘Closer,’ visitors will gain insight into the artist’s formal skill and his animated character. What is less obvious from the outset is the gallery’s bold move in displaying a lesser known aspect of his oeuvre: his etchings. Considering that Freud saw his approach as scientific, this style of working creates an apt image of his lifelong inquiry into the human psyche and its corporeal form.
In terms of channelling revealing depictions of his subjects, one might expect that Freud’s nudes would expose his subjects at their most vulnerable. On the contrary, it is the artist’s portraits that feel the most intrusive in their analysis. Presented with a mixed bag of representations, viewers are veered from rattling portrayals of the mental toils encasing the human condition to those that lurk in a state of absent-mindedness; all of them declare the trialling duration that Freud famously imposed upon his sitters while capturing them in paint or drawing. Sometimes he opts for a more noble treatment of figures, managing to communicate an intelligence in his subjects regardless of their weariness. In ‘Head of An Irishman’ (1999) the man’s head is drooped, submerged in depths of thought. While not entirely alert, he shows much more consciousness than the character in ‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’ (1996), who supports her heavy head by allowing her contorted face to be squashed into her palm, all in a display of her yielding into fatigue. Despite this apparent lethargy in the majority of his subjects, the starkness of the etched lines enable his subjects to pulsate with vitalised energy in a way that painting cannot quite reach. The room is large and contains many works, and taking in this range repeatedly probes us with reaffirmation of Freud’s skill in rendering corporeal form.
Freud’s production of etchings were rare up until the end of his career, and so the choice to present a familiar subject of the artist in this medium allows us to gain an insight into Freud’s eye for line and shape. The difficulty of using this medium lies in the irreversibility of the etched mark, which bears some relation to ageing skin. This seems appropriate with regard to Freud’s nude (or, more accurately, naked) human forms. Although he preserved a signature style throughout his long career, Freud was renowned for constantly emboldening these invasive representations, returning again and again with advancements of his pictorial onslaughts on the idealised figurative body. We see this mastered in works such as ‘Girl Sitting’ (1991-1992). With so much attention to bodily details in the etchings, these figures are immortalised by Freud; often expanding to the edges of the frame, they are almost given monumental status, and not one of his subjects are spared from his forthright eye. The exhibition space feels slightly over-crowded with work; while there is plenty to leave the viewer in awe of the bundles of raw, tumbling skin, it is an overwhelming combination that does not seem to entirely do justice to each individual work.
Moving through this show it is hard not to reflect on mortality and our relationship to it, and encountering a group of etchings dedicated to natural settings provides an intense reiteration. Coiling in harsh etched strokes, the works of this topic seem almost Expressionist in their manufacture. This is perhaps due to the anthropomorphic mood that looms in the gaping forest glades; nature is granted its own melancholic intensity. What is also moving in this show is the inclusion of a subject of devotion that is often left out in Freud’s solo shows; his beloved whippet Pluto. Momentarily, we are returned to Freud’s painting work, but this switch in medium does not result in the animal being spared from the artist’s analytic observation. Treated to the same psychoanalytic inquisition as everyone else in the show, the dog’s half-open eyes in ‘Double Portrait’ (1988-90) are equal to someone caught blinking in the middle of a photo shoot. Despite being apparently caught unaware, Pluto appears more engaged in thought than the inattentive demeanour of Susanna Chancellor, reclining next to her.
To set up Freud and his subjects within a patient-psychoanalyst relationship might indicate a lopsided power dynamic, but this show does not exhibit a struggle for the power of knowledge. Indeed, Freud’s subjects frequently appear forlorn, but he also preserves them as majestic nonetheless. Experiencing his etchings alongside an assortment of his paintings testifies to the duration that Freud devoted to understanding his subjects. Yet, above all, they serve to remind us not only of his strength in mastering the figurative perspective, but of how this rendering can reflect the character beneath the skin.