Lucian Freud: Real Lives exhibition at Tate Liverpool

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Lucian Freud never had, as he puts it, “a regular domestic life”. Her sex life was, notoriously, “surprisingly active,” Martin Gayford said in Country life: he married twice and courted “a legion of lovers”; when asked how many children he has fathered, he replies that he has “no idea”. He gambled compulsively – once losing nearly £ 1million in a single lunch – and he enjoyed mixing in both high and low society. “Freud’s subject was a continuation of his private life. His work is almost entirely concerned with what he knew and loved, both people and things. Freud’s portraits were “largely friends, lovers, wives, children and acquaintances.” A “remarkable range” of them have been brought together for this exhibition at Tate Liverpool. The exhibition presents a selection of paintings and prints that Freud made during his long career, retracing his development as an artist from the late 1940s to his death in 2011. This is a preview an explicitly personal career full of “masterpieces”.

There is something decidedly uncomfortable about many of the works here, said Alastair Smart in the Daily mail. Freud left in his wake a trail of “damaged individuals”, many of whom are depicted in these portraits. As uncomfortable as the visitor may feel about it, it is undeniable that they make “fascinating subjects” of them. In one of the first works, 1947 Girl with a kitten, Freud’s first wife, Kitty, gazes out of the composition with “eyes wide with apprehension”, refusing to meet our gaze. She hugs the titular cat “so tightly around the neck that it is almost strangled”; the gesture alludes to his “troubled psychological state”. Much later, in Girl in a striped nightgown (1983-85), the 60-year-old Freud still explores familiar territory, capturing his much younger sweetheart, Celia Paul, lying in bed. The “disconnect between the two is clear” in the way she directs her gaze to the mattress, avoiding eye contact with the artist; her nightgown, you notice, “is buttoned all the way up.” But there are also moments of levity: At one point, we come across a photograph of Freud performing an unusually “playful” pear tree on a bed to amuse his teenage daughter, Bella.

This excellent exhibition shows Freud in a new light, said Waldemar Januszczak in Sunday Times. Most of the retrospectives devoted to him are dominated by the immense posed nudes without elegance for which he is probably best known. Here, the curators bypass them to focus on the most delicate and inventive aspects of his work. It is a relief after “the crowded Freudian bodyfests of the last few years”. His prints are a peculiar revelation, almost “remorseful in his thoughtfulness”: a magnificent engraved portrait of his longtime studio assistant David Dawson, for example, captures him staring out of the frame with palpable “sadness”. Elsewhere, some of his “most notorious babysitters” – including Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery and Freud’s own mother, whom he generally tended to portray as off-putting figures – are portrayed “with warmth and empathy” in close-up portraits that are “pleasantly simple and without confrontation”. In short, it is an excellent exhibition which presents “a kinder and less cruel side of Freud than the one that is usually served”.

Tate Liverpool, Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool (0151-702 7400, tate.org.uk). Until January 16, 2022


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