- Lucian Freud
- Self-Portrait with a Black Eye
- oil on canvas
Emerging from the private collection in which it has resided since its conception over thirty years ago and never previously exhibited in public, Lucian Freud's extraordinary Self Portrait with a Black Eye is without doubt his most important self-depiction ever to appear at auction. That the artist's few self-portraits provide arguably the most exhilarating setting for his legendary explorations into the condition of human life; and that Self-Portrait with a Black Eye exhibits all the psychological intensity and painterly virtuosity of Freud's most celebrated painting attest the exceptional stature of this work within the History of Art. Famously acclaimed as "the greatest living realist painter" by Robert Hughes (Exhibition Catalogue, Washington DC, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and travelling, Lucian Freud: Paintings, 1987, p. 7) and "the Ingres of Existentialism" by Herbert Read (Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35), Freud's critical reputation across the past seven decades remains unmatched and undiminished. Advancing his own, uniquely illustrious heritage of self-depiction that includes Man's Head (Self Portrait) of 1963 in The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, and Man's Head (Self Portrait III) of 1963 in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the present work represents a critical shift in the role of self-portraiture within Freud's art. Remarkably rare as a self-portrait from the 1970s, this painting inaugurates the extraordinary depths of self-analysis that Freud would subsequently mine in the internationally revered paintings Reflection (Self-Portrait) of 1985, Painter Working, Reflection of 1992-93, and Self-Portrait, Reflection of 2003-04. Considering the sheer Herculean effort that Freud invests in his work, typically executing not more than a handful of paintings each year with every one demanding dozens of sittings and tireless reworking, the present work will always be of the utmost significance to the oeuvre of this venerated artist.
Self Portrait with a Black Eye is quite unlike any other painting by Lucian Freud. It not only captures the singular event when both literal and allegorical mirrors are turned onto the artist's genius, but also reveals unique insight into the character of this intensely reclusive man. Since the 1940s Freud has focused on painting a close coterie of friends and acquaintances, and as the self-confessed compulsive interrogator of those subjects he knows best there cannot be a more important or revealing subject for this artist than himself. If the single figure portrait constitutes the kernel of Freud's life's work then depiction of himself presents the consummate challenge: "You've got to try to paint yourself as another person. Looking in the mirror is a strain in a way that looking at other people isn't at all" (cited in: William Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 31).
With the unique and paradoxically complex subject of himself trapped forever within its masterful layers of pigment, Self Portrait with a Black Eye is among the most impressive responses to this challenge the artist has ever achieved. The artist's life-size visage fills the composition, the cropped editing heightening its focus and power. Like Francis Bacon's intimate portrait heads, most prominently of George Dyer and Freud himself, the artist's careful selection of scale is key to this painting's startling impact. Indeed, Self Portrait with a Black Eye is almost exactly the same dimensions as Freud's incomparable 1952 portrait on copper of Bacon, which Hughes likened to having the "the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off" (Op Cit, p. 7), and which Lawrence Gowing declared "the most even and judicious deposit of pictorial information in all his work" (Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 112). In the present work Freud's resolute stare pierces out of the canvas to confront the viewer; the pupils and blue-grey irises that were once focused on his own reflection in the mirror now holding us transfixed in awe. The immediately recognisable features of the artist, aged almost sixty, have been temporarily distorted by a swollen black eye. Painted with the meticulous exactitude of a surgical dissection, it was the result of an altercation between Freud and a taxi driver, in which the artist sustained a punch in the face. According to anecdotal legend and with characteristic eccentricity, rather than continue his journey to his prearranged appointment or retreat to convalescence, Freud diverted to his studio to record his newly crumpled appearance. His newly-acquired shiner, which for most would be a painful, inconvenient and potentially embarrassing injury, provided Freud with a terrific opportunity for an important new work. The circumstances evoke the account relayed by Martin Gayford that when Freud was told he may have to have his front teeth removed he immediately began to plan a Self-Portrait with no Front Teeth (Exhibition Catalogue, Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Lucian Freud, 2007, p. 19).
Commenting on the role of Bacon in his life, with whom he was close friends until about the time of this work, the artist has confessed: "I used to have a lot of fights. It wasn't because I liked fighting, it was really just that people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them. If Francis was there, he'd say, 'Don't you think you ought to try and charm them?' And I thought, 'Well...!' Before that, I never really thought about my 'behaviour', as such – I just thought about what I wanted to do and did it. And quite often I wanted to hit people. Francis wasn't didactic in any way. But it could be said that if you're an adult, hitting someone is really a shortcoming, couldn't it? I mean, there should be some other way of dealing with it" (cited in: Bruce Bernard, David Dawson and Sebastian Smee, Freud at Work, London 2006, p. 15). Self Portrait with a Black Eye thus enshrines on canvas the brutal truth of what returned Freud's gaze from the mirror and bears frank witness to the convolutions of a turbulent life. Freud avoids posturing histrionic physical vulnerability, or the allegory of the injured and insulted artist, but forensically records the naked evidence of reflection. Together with the full-length nude self-portrait of 1992-93 this painting is perhaps the most candid self-assessment of his life's work.
Having spent the former decades of his career negotiating an aesthetic dialect between draughtsmanship and painting, by this time Freud was editing pictorial information with exceptional economy and the material of paint became inextricable from his subject. Such fluency was reached only after decades of struggle to communicate form with the most judicious array of brushstrokes. Here the precisely organised schema of colour areas resonates in magnificent compositional concert. The interlocking permutations of hue breathe life into the variously taught and sagging compartments of skin and flesh; a minute fleck of white impasto, seemingly landed on the surface by accident, perfectly conveys the glassiness of the inflamed eye; and scuffed drags of desiccated pigment exactly describe the artist's dry and slightly static hair. Indeed, Self Portrait with a Black Eye stands as concrete manifestation of Freud's declaration: "I want paint to work as flesh...I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn't want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I'm concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does" (cited in: Lawrence Gowing, Op Cit, pp. 190-91).
A photograph taken by David Dawson in 1999 offers a glimpse of a large reproduction of Ingres' Self Portrait of 1858 hanging in Freud's studio acting as onlooker and gatekeeper. As a lifelong student of Art History, Freud inevitably drew upon centuries of precedent when he painted Self Portrait with a Black Eye and within the distinguished genre of self-portraiture analogy can be struck with numerous Masters from Ingres to Constable, Reynolds to Courbet, and Frans Hals to, of course, Rembrandt. Freud's position as the inheritor of this grand legacy has often been discussed: his understanding of their work is profound and often implicated directly in his most celebrated paintings. However, whereas these canonical predecessors frequently exploited the opportunity of self-portraiture as self-promotion to indulge a certain vanity, or to reveal the private side of their profession, no such motive has driven Freud's painting. While addressing the age-old, dilemma of self-portraiture – how to portray an outward appearance that is, to its possessor, essentially and ironically unfamiliar - Self Portrait with a Black Eye also furthers a more existential line of enquiry involving concepts of perception and the artist's ontological relationship with the viewer. In this way Freud continues thematic approaches of the likes of Van Gogh, who infamously and repeatedly recorded his bandaged appearance after he had amputated part of his ear, and Bacon, who also depicted himself with a black eye amid his epic and staggeringly diverse assault of self-analysis.
However, what distinguishes Freud's portrait quite apart from this antecedent is the total absence of theatricality or symbolism. It is no coincidence that this artist vehemently dislikes being photographed: "The whole thing of being photographed underlines a rather ludicrous cult to do with the artist: this 'creative animal' caged with his work. The fact that he is there passionately doing something which is entirely useless has an idiotic fascination for some people and I'd like to be out of all that. I'd like to be anonymous in the most potential way" (cited in William Feaver, Lucian Freud, Op Cit, p. 319). This passionate desire for anonymity is also expressed by the adage scribed in charcoal on his studio wall among the smudged paint flecks and scrawled telephone numbers: 'Art is Escape from Personality' (cited by William Feaver in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, and travelling, Lucian Freud, 2002, p. 49), an echo of T. S. Eliot's phrase that poetry "is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (in his 1919 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent). For Freud, personality (yet alone celebrity) has no place in the portrayal of the human animal. Considering that the elite nucleus of his commissioned portraits are invariably branded Man or Woman, despite rendering the likes of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Duchess of Devonshire, perhaps the artist was once tempted to label Self Portrait with a Black Eye simply as Man with a Black Eye. For the fanatically private artist who is nevertheless instantly recognisable, the self-portrait necessitates a virtually insurmountable proposition: depiction of his own celebrated identity. Conceptually Freud becomes his own ultimate subject, and this sensational painting sustains both halves of the double-entendre in his maxim "I intend to paint myself to death" (cited in: Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud 1996-2005, London 2005, p. 12). That said, Freud once criticised Bacon for being an artist who "was afraid of death" (cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Dublin, Op Cit, p. 19) and, unlike so many self-portraits, Self Portrait with a Black Eye is not this artist's reluctant admission of his own mortality. After painstaking observation and exceptionally adept execution of artistic truth, Freud finally exposes the crisis of his own self, thereby turning the mirror to an unavoidable and incontrovertible fact of life: the isolation of the individual that lies at the heart of the human condition.