Astonish, Disturb, Seduce, Convince: Lucian Freud's Mature Works Can Be Merciless - but His Early Paintings, Now on Show at the National Portrait Gallery, Show a More Delicate Side to This Most Autobiographical of Artists

Article excerpt

Most people who like art would recognise a painting by Lucian Freud, who died last summer at the age of 88. His mature style is unforgettable. Today his reputation rests upon his unflinching nudes, craggy flesh-monsters seemingly sculpted out of encrusted paint. Even the pigment he used for pasty bodies, known as Cremnitz white, is unusually stiff and indestructible, since it is saturated with heavy lead carbonate. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (3995), which sold for more than [pounds sterling]17m at auction in 2008, typifies the monumentality of his pictures. An overweight woman lies, oblivious to our presence, on a careworn sofa. Freud paints the great mounds and gorges of her flesh, creating a cacophony of lived-in, mottled carnality. Under his eye, Sue Tilley (aka "Big Sue"), who modelled for the artist, becomes a symbol of abundance, a Venus of Willendorf for today.

Not everybody is enamoured with his approach - and you can understand why. Scrutinised with dead-eyed detachment, Freud's nudes are far from idealised. There is nothing flattering about them: no nip-and-tuck here, no graceful elision of blemishes or wobbly bits there.

The British artist Frank Auerbach, whom Freud painted in the mid-1970s, once described his friend's work as "raw". I would go further: the skin in his pictures, by turns bluish and tinged with yellow, suggests decay. Flesh may be massed before our eyes but the prospect of its disintegration is encoded just beneath the skin. More often than not, Freud's art has a brutal, merciless aspect.

Yet, as a new exhibition of more than 100 of his paintings, drawings and etchings at the National Portrait Gallery makes clear, Freud didn't always paint in this fashion. During the 1940s and 1950s, his work, fraught with psychological tension, was rendered in a filigree linear style that earned him a reputation, in the words of the English art critic Herbert Read, as the "Ingres of existentialism". It was in these early years that Freud made an exquisite series of portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, (1926-2011), daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. If there were a painterly equivalent of the phrase "love poem", then Freud's pictures of Kitty would be its definition. I encountered one of them recently on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Girl with Leaves (1948) is a smallish pastel study of the head and clothed shoulders of Kitty, a pale-skinned brunette with mesmerising, slightly startled eyes. Above her, a solitary branch budding with leaves coloured a fierce, tart green unfurls like a praying mantis. Kitty stares past the viewer anxiously, like quarry flushed out of foliage. Tips of her hair stand on end, as though brimming with static electricity, an effect echoed by the spiky, serrated edges of the leaves. An encounter is about to take place. Something hidden and intimate may be revealed. The mood is charged with erotic frisson. But tenderness softens the sexiness, too, since the picture has been fashioned with obsessive precision (we can practically count Kitty's eyelashes).

The expression "to stop in one's tracks" is a cliche but that is what happened as I strode past this picture. It is a modest masterpiece, to be sure - less ballsy and brash than many other pictures in the museum's collection - but it practically glows with psychological intensity. To understand why Freud made pictures such as this - and why he stopped - it is necessary to learn a little about his life.

He was born in Berlin in 1922. His father, Ernst, was an architect and the youngest son of Sigmund, the founder of psychoanalysis. (Significantly, given his love of animals, Lucian preferred to emphasise his grandfather's early work as a zoologist.) His mother, Lucie, whom he would draw and paint more than anybody else, was the daughter of a wealthy grain merchant. Lucian grew up in a well-to-do apartment near the Tiergarten. On the walls were reproductions of famous works of art, including prints of Diirer's celebrated watercolour studies of a hare and a clump of turf. …