The Freud Project at IMMA begins with the artist’s mother. Lucian Freud’s relationship with Lucie (née Brasch) was coloured by resentment. If he spoke of her in his lifetime, it was to tell stories of her smothering attentions in his childhood and adolescence, confiscating his adolescent love letters and pressuring him relentlessly into a career in art. She did not become the subject of one of his paintings until her old age. But here she is, beginning the exhibition in The Painter’s Mother Resting I (1976), on her back in bed with forearms raised, looking somewhat absent, like a dog mid-roll amongst some freshly cut grass. It is a gentle image. A single, dull, steel bar in the bed’s structure behind however belies its playfulness, evoking the clinical and furthermore how closely linked are this resting and, simply, dying. A curatorial gesture that on first glance appears an ironic nod to Freud’s family background – his grandfather (and Lucie’s father-in-law) was Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalytic theory – in fact serves to exemplify one of the painter’s greatest gifts: that for expressing within the image a deep ambivalence.
Freud painted for some 70 years up to his death in 2011, aged 88. This exhibition focuses almost exclusively on his later works, mainly from the 1980s onwards. Of the 30 painted works exhibited, only two (Self portrait, 1949; A Filly, 1970) predate the mid-1970s, by which point both his mature style – painting mainly whole, often nude, figures with the liberal use of the lead-based paint Cremnitz White that became his trademark – and his notoriety were well established.
The selected works contain a mélange of stupefied women and big men. On the latter, a particular emphasis has been placed. See The Big Man (1976-1977), and Head of the Big Man (1975). The eponymous Big Man’s head – ruddy, dour and tight-lipped – is overshadowed by his goitrous neck in the latter, while in the former a seated position in front of a mirror reveals a bald spot incongruous with his easy and magisterial pose, fingers interlinked above a bulging, suited crotch. Freud’s men are grotesque in their bigness. Meanwhile the scattered, splayed forms of women intrigue and unsettle, with these images sharing too the genital focus of their masculine counterparts. See the portraits of his daughters: Bella and Esther (1988-1989) depicts the two sisters squeezing lazily onto a chaise longue, their gazes vacant, while Annabel (1990), a nude portrait, sees its subject’s shoulders hunched forwards and head bowed in an implacable gesture of resignation or loss.
The highlight of his familial portraits though is The Pearce Family (1998). It is an uncanny, loveless scene of the artist’s daughter Rose with her husband and two children. Three dark and furrowed faces contrast with that of the baby, held in father’s meaty hand, whose blanched, smiling gaze towards the artist is that of a death mask. The under-layer is still visible through its forehead, painted apparently as a sort of grim afterthought. Directed thus at his own family, Freud’s bleak, satirical gaze is truly horrific, truly pathetic. It is quite literally shudder-inducing.
The later period of Freud’s career borne witness to here sees a focus on the haute bourgeoisie. Two Irishmen in W11 (1984-1985) depicts an ostensibly successful, ageing bookmaker of solemn, downcast manner and enormous, signet-ring adorned hands, and his son – wiry, nervous and waiting in the wings – in a sparse, decidedly un-magisterial interior. Its staging and quiet irreverence evoke Velázquez. One gets the sense from these that the artist did not have to dig too deeply to uncover the monstrous, or what he himself would surely call the animal. Guy and Speck (1980-1981) shows a diminutive, bloated character reclining on a tan sofa with a terrier dog lying on its side on his lap. The gentleman’s louche, leering expression is echoed in the dog’s sideways glance, a sort of wink or menacing smirk towards perspective. An erstwhile gambling addict, Freud was no stranger to London’s seedy underworld, and imbues these superficially masculine or hostile scenes with a weird, characteristic sickness. Laid bare in all their glory are the truculence and perversion masked by power and “status”; in these painted images is a depth beyond quotidian perception. They are also, of course, queasily funny.
To what extent the subversive energy of the artist’s gaze was and can be re-incorporated into the aesthetic sensibility of power is debatable. These subjects were, of course, willing participants in their disgrace. To that end, Freud’s having painted the portrait of the British Queen Elizabeth II – clothed – is a fact not without significance. His trajectory took him from enfant terrible of figurative painting (though always in Bacon’s shadow) to ghastly caricaturist of the Court and the Mayfair set. In the Freud Project we see only the latter, downwards half of the parabola.
The exhibition in turn places great emphasis on Freud’s relationship with Ireland. As well as the aforementioned Two Irishmen in W11, we have Head of a Young Irishman (1989), Head of an Irishman (1999) and Donegal Man (1996). Man in a Check Cap (1991) and Woman in a Butterfly Jersey (1990-1991) both too bear the signifiers of rural Ireland, even if the latter is of Bindy Lambton, wife of Conservative MP Lord Lambton. Pictured in woolly jumper and neckerchief, she returns the artist’s gaze with a sort of resolute weariness. It is a wonderful portrait, and exceptional for its defiance amongst the paintings of women exhibited here. Of the portraits of actual Irish subjects, few however stand out.
Meanwhile, amongst the etchings and drawings downstairs, two works in particular impress. First, 1943’s Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit, a sort of fairytale landscape rife with the playfulness of youth and, significantly, absent of the human figure. Second: Susanna (1996), a middle-aged woman rests her chin on her fist and addresses the artist. Her face and pose speak of tiredness – a common feature it seems in Freud’s subjects, who were often made to sit for hundreds of hours – but nonetheless one senses a resilience, a listening. However, it is her gaze, fixed back on perspective, and most crucially her mouth, opened as if in the midst of speech, that assert the particular significance of this etching. In them is suggested something that the image cannot incorporate, that transcends the artist’s gaze. This picture is a dialogue.
The Freud Project will run at IMMA for the next five years, incorporating “interventions” by contemporary artists. Whether you consider Freud’s greatness a fait accompli or a matter for debate, it’s fair to say that the works exhibited here do not constitute a full enough catalogue to be decisive one way or the other. The journey embarked upon by one here curiously mimics Lacan’s re-reading of Oedipus, after Sigmund Freud: from mother, to not-knowing.
IMMA will exhibit 50 works of Lucian Freud until October of 2017 as part of the Freud Project.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall