Lucian Freud is currently widely acclaimed as one of the greatest painters of the last half a century or so, being perceived as an epitome of artistic idiosyncrasy, with little, if any, interest in following cultural trends, being turned into a source of greatness of some sort. He is admired for what could be called either his stubbornness or his consistency, as well as he is generating tons of petty curiosity with respect to his biography, which, presumably, would be that of a typically eccentric artist (though it strikes an attentive observer how actually uneventful, in terms of great drama and crazy gestures, his life actually was, perhaps with some predictable exceptions in his youth). Praised also for his exceptional mastery of the painterly matter, though, by more than one set of technical or stylistic criteria, this presumed mastery could actually be seriously questioned, Freud is somewhat idolized as a sort of an old master, with modernist attitudes towards the meaning and practice of art, as well as regarding the role of the artist, who yet somehow managed to thrive into the postmodernist climate of contemporary art.

This perception is not necessarily wrong, yet I’m not sure how relevant it is for comprehending the amplitude and the true obsession generated depth of his art. For the London based and London loving artist was not actually an outsider of the local art scene, no matter how dominated it might have been, at moments, by a Pop mindset or by a conceptualist / minimalist / language focused disposition. Moreover, it must be noticed that he acted in an art world, namely the British one, which was, until recently (by this understanding the last two decades or so) kind of conceptually conservative in many regards and respectful towards traditions of historically established art. To grasp this, one only needs to think, for example, about the evolution of the British enfant terrible and Freud sitter David Hockney, with the Hogarth’s interpretations from the beginnings of his career and the English landscapes painted in nature in his mature years. In such a milieu, sort of old fashioned artists’ gangs such as the Soho ones, where Freud was indisputably one of the charismatic characters, were naturally accepted entities and far from being outcast by a presumed academism of the conceptualist trends. Nothing said above, however, downplays Lucian Freud’s merits as an artist. It only proves that, far from being a strange animal in the contemporary artistic jungle, he –as others such as his fellow Bacon or even, somewhat, Kiefer– is a perfectly fitting postmodern figure, for there are artists like Freud which demonstrate that, in our contemporary era, the famous anything goes fully functions, thus allowing art that is far from being cutting edge (from a medium or a political point of view) to be appreciated, to be largely and rightfully praised.

During the last decade, his oeuvre has been the subject of several exhibitions with retrospective ambitions and aims. I have been fortunate enough to see no less than three of them and I can say, without any shadow of doubt in my mind, that the current show at the National Portrait Gallery in London is the most compelling, by far the most dense and tensed and the one that offers the most poignant image of what truly, essentially, makes Freud a mesmerizing artist. The retrospective show in 2005, concomitant with the Venice biennale of that year, was hosted by the Palazzo Correr in Piazza San Marco and was what can be coined as a prestige show: some fifty of the artist’s most famous works, comprising all genres of painting he approached. It offered a comprehensive view on his artistic production, without necessarily offering a stance regarding it. The Pompidou show in 2010 was titled L’atelier and aimed at offering a more comprehensive image of Freud via his crucial relationship to his workspace. Impressive and well documented, the Paris exhibition convincingly showed Freud as being an artist with tremendous force of energetically, so to speak, organizing his environment, one able to shape the world around in order to serve his artistic endeavours and maybe obsessions. There were the two above mentioned shows that made me believe that he was truly a great painter and an artist that was hard to look over when writing the art history of the 20th century. I also thought that his most poignant source of painterly greatness was his ability to tackle textures, human flesh included, with a forceful combination of lively realism and sensual pigment deployment. The current exhibition in London though made me understood I was wrong: his most impressive strength lies in his complicated understanding and arduous execution of portraiture.

From the very beginning, it needs to be noted that scrutinizing the face or the body of a person with the persistence, the apparent lack of empathy and the inquisitiveness which are deployed by Freud in realizing his portraits is an act of aggression. Observing the other which such intensity kind of burns down the protective layers of facial expressions, gestures and words, meant to safeguard the inner identity of the sitter, as it is perceived by him or her. This aggression does not necessarily exclude affection: it might just as well be the case that Freud was sincere when stating that he only paints people he cares about. But the sharpness of the scrutiny renders any affective stance or approach secondary, at best. In other words, he probably depicted people he cared about, but not because he cared about them and not because he wanted to show that he cared about them. He might have been sympathetic; his painting though is fierce and unbelievably cerebral. And this is far more important than the well known fact, somehow fascinating in its own right, that he was often “torturing” his sitters by authoritatively asking them to sit for tens of ours, many times exceeding one hundred hours, actually. The long hours are a necessary instrument deployed in order to get to the bottom of things, the way Freud perceived it, and nothing less was satisfactory to him.

Intense, thus, is by far the best, albeit exasperatingly imprecise, single word to describe the display at the National Portrait Gallery. The way the show itself was conceived actually helped in this respect. Not allocating a huge space to Freud’s portraits forces the viewer to take in the works as if they were somewhat crowded. It is the organizers merit that they understood how something that would be a mistake in an overwhelming majority of cases could actually strengthen this particular show. Surrounded by all the faces and all the bodies, not having the normal resting intervals while moving from piece to piece made the paintings uncannily present, it even made somehow the artist eerily present. It appeared as if someone had opened a box with some family and friends’ photos and made the gigantic effort of obliquely translate a life, as seen through the photos, into a painterly saga, sometimes using some surrealist filtering in the process.

And still, each painting was mesmerizing in its own right. I will not speak of any of them in detail. I find it pointless, as no short list could actually be meaningfully drafted and this is no monographic work. I’ll just notice how most of the faces in Freud’s paintings tend to linger in the back of your mind. It happens with the rather unsophisticated portraits of the mid – forties, where the eyes of seemingly gracious and innocent women stare into the void revealing a more turbulent inner life than meets the eye and an almost abstract unhappiness (see Girls with Roses, for example). It happens just as well with some of the latest male portraits, in which one sees, if carefully scrutinizing the surface, how strong, accomplished men, winners in more ways than one, just cannot shake some sort of fundamental, inherent vulnerability (see Man in a Blue Scarf or David Hockney). The same power to haunt is to be found in his most famous works (see his 1985 self – portrait) and in those less discussed and acclaimed (such as the superbly discreet Girl with Beret), as, again and again, one gets the impression that, if the whole intellectual world knows that there is no such thing as the one and only reality, no one told Lucian Freud, the painter who keeps trying to depict nothing less than people as they really are. Some capital issue of human relationships is forcefully revealed in almost all of his paintings in the exhibition. I have hardly ever seen a more crushingly sharp image of sentimental and familial estrangement than his 1954 Hotel Bedroom or glimpsed more comprehensively at the tensely complex relation between a man and his mother than when gazing at The Painter’s Mother Resting I (a painting that confronts the viewer with someone who irradiates power all the more forcefully as she is depicted as being frail).

Many of the previous remarks fit his nude paintings, too and the inclusion of a large number of nudes in the portrait show in London is more than justifiable. It is actually crucial for shedding light on an utmost important aspect of his work, namely that in his obsessive strive for describing individuals he somehow treats nudes as portraits. Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly visible than in his painterly descriptions of Leigh Bowery, a bizarrely tragic figure of nineties hip, London’s Australian apostle of (extreme) cool.

Thus, Leigh Bowery (Seated) from 1990 and Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery) from 1992 are likely to be two of Freud best ever several works. The sitter’s massive, overweight body is given a painterly attention fit for royalty, so to speak. However, the textile textures and that of the floor are also painted by a Freud at his best. And still, all you see in the end, staring the works insistently, is a man called Leigh Bowery. His massive body is not a subject for meditation about proportions; it is not simply a pretext for masterfully painting flesh, with or without transforming it into a memento mori or an instance of joie de vivre. Respectfully, yet mercilessly, Freud simply paints Bowery: a rich character, which is not a hero in any way, who’s big and, yes, fat body doesn’t make him either utterly powerful or utterly frail. Lucian Freud painted someone who is not afraid of his gentle inner demons not because he can dominate them, but because he has learned that being afraid of what you cannot defeat is downright stupid. This indeed difficult to attain and somewhat painful simplicity of describing a human being is to be found again and again in his nude representations. They always possess a touching banality which renders both their sexuality and their sensuousness frighteningly futile and their humble humanity uncannily plain.

I’ve been roaming the National Portrait Gallery’s rooms, after finishing a first, long, tiring and intense tour, in one last attempt to find joy or happiness, in any shape or form, being irradiated by Freud’s models. I can sincerely say I couldn’t find any. Still, his portraits are not elegiac renderings of pitiful human beings, or, with maybe a few notable exceptions, manifestations of an existentialist type of nausea. It’s just that, after looking at them stubbornly for a while (for the intensity of the gaze deployed in order to paint them requires equally passionate scrutiny from the viewer, in order to grasp more than meets the eye at a hasty glance) you come to the unsettling understanding of the fact that, for Freud, some essence of the human condition can actually be circumscribed by painting. Call it a hubristic obsession; however, it lies at the core of his art. Nevertheless, this presumed essence consists in a sheer banality that doesn’t exonerate one from striving to be special, nor from suffering because of not actually being important, ontologically speaking.

Lucian Freud did not, as was often dully said and did not try to revolutionize the genre of portraiture (rather, as argued above, he used nudes in an unusual way). He just made portraits in one of the best possible ways, not unlike Velasquez. Like the Spaniard, he approaches his models fiercely and with the cold, yet benevolent eye of a strange aristocrat. Again like Velasquez, he succeeds in forcing the viewer to tantalize between the temptations of getting deeply acquainted with the depicted person and of taking delight in the refined, perverse beauty of the paint. Thus, Freud asserts his belonging to that species of rare, fascinating painters that resemble the best illusionists, namely those who do not even allow you to understand that magic is about to occur until it is already too late to try wrapping your mind around it.