Under his studio’s skylight, Lucian Freud would invite the people he knew – friends, family and acquaintances – to pose.
Often the artist would allow his subjects to roam freely in his studio to find the position best suited to them. After all, they were in for a grueling time.
When Freud died in 2011, art historian Catherine Lampert noted that his work had at its heart “a wilful, restless personality, fired by his intelligence and attentiveness and his suspicion of method … ”
Parts of this private, restless personality can now be gleaned through the 50 works of art on display at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Kilmainham.
The Freud Project, running until 2021, offers the opportunity to focus in on the realist painter’s work. And, as curator Johanne Mullan explains, focus in on a man who rarely let his subjects off the hook.
Although Freud was widely known for his raw portrayal of the human form, few of his nudes feature within the Freud Project. “There are only two nudes in this exhibition,” says Mullan. “That’s more to do with the lenders than anything else.”
Conspicuously, the nudes are of women, while the men in the exhibition are clothed.
But the collectors who lent their Freuds to the exhibition didn’t have male nudes on offer, says curator Mullan.
“I think a collector would like any Freud though,” says Mullan. “They’re not exactly sexualised figures as well.”
An Oeuvre Overview
Born in Berlin in 1922, Freud was the grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund and son of architect Ernst, who moved to England with his family in 1933, recognising the rising threat of Nazism.
Obsessed with human and animal forms, as a painter, Freud’s work gained notoriety in the late 1970s and 1980s. Marked by his often visceral portrayal of those who sat for his portraits, his subjects were always close.
“He always painted people he knew and he didn’t take commissions,” says Mullan. “He was quite a private person.”
As curator, Mullan was tasked with deciding how to display the 30 oil paintings and 20 etchings, dating mainly from the 1970s onwards.
“The way we installed the work is not chronological at all. We’ve kept all the prints and works on paper together for instance,” says Mullan. “They’re kind of themed rather than chronological.”
These themes provide an overview of Freud’s oeuvre: his penchant for gambling, his love of horses, his obsession with human and animal forms, with his privacy denoted by the closeness of many of his sitters.
Two paintings within the exhibition are part of larger series of works portraying the artist’s mother, who slid into a deep depression after her husband’s death.
Others are of characters from around London whom Freud came to know: an Ulster bookmaker and his son, a Covent Garden newspaper salesman, an antiques dealer and former jockey.
Many more are of friends and family. “He painted every day,” says Mullan. “He painted in the morning, then had a nap in the afternoon and then he painted that evening into the night.”
These parameters were tough on the sitters, yet Freud insisted.
By the time Freud died in 2011, aged 88, he was already internationally regarded. Larger and larger exhibitions of his work began to take place.
“There was a huge one in the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate [in London],” says Mullan. “We [IMMA] had an exhibition of Freud in 2007 so we already had that relationship with some of the lenders. The fact that it’s a five-year loan as well really gives us an opportunity to focus in. We’ve never had a focus on one artist for so long.”
The works themselves are spread across three floors in different rooms. The earliest dates from 1949 and the latest from 2008.
This particular work, Donegal Man, is a portrait of Harcourt Developments Chairman Pat Doherty. His features are given the typical Freud treatment.
Employing the impasto technique, Freud’s works became known for their visceral quality, the paint often thickly applied in grey or brown hues.
The close-up view of his portraits was central to Freud’s work. His palette was muted and he never used saturated colours.
For his time, says Mullan, this made him hard to pigeonhole as a painter. “He always stayed away from abstraction and painted the way he wanted to paint,” she says.
“In terms of the sittings, even if he was painting the corner of the skirting board or the wall the person had to be there,” she says. “He didn’t let you off the hook.”
It took the museum two years to gather all these works together from a number of private collections. How many collections, exactly, can’t be revealed.
From a curatorial standpoint, Mullan says that made the task daunting. They had to be extra careful. “It’s a long-term loan so there are a range of little issues in terms of how they’re assessed and set, in terms of the building, the climate and condition.”
It’s worth it though, says Mullan, as it’s unlikely Dublin will see such a retrospective for some time to come. And you’ve five years to see this one.
Over that period, the works will be included in other exhibitions. Contemporary artists will be asked to respond to Freud’s work to give it a contemporary spin.
“It gives us a chance to work with post-docs and long-term students as well,” says Mullan. “There won’t be an exhibition on this scale, or that many works of Freud on view, until 2022 which is the centenary of his birth.”