A defining image of an artistic career devoted to the study of human existence, and selected as the cover image of the catalogue to the artist's major 1974 retrospective exhibition, Lucian Freud's 1952 Self Portrait broadcasts a quite remarkable psychological intensity. Even amid the artist's epic oeuvre, spanning seven full decades, it would be difficult to identify a better visual parallel to Herbert Read's contemporaneous acclamation that Freud was "the Ingres of Existentialism" (Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35). Self Portrait turns both literal and allegorical mirrors onto the artist's genius, providing unique insight into the character of this intensely reclusive man. Speaking of this period Freud has commented, "I felt that the only way I could work properly was using absolute maximum observation and maximum concentration. I thought that by staring at my subject matter and examining it closely I could get something from it...I had a lot of eye trouble, terrible headaches because of the strain of painting so close "(Exhibition Catalogue, Musei Civici Veneziani, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 33). Consequently, since 1954 Freud has always stood to work, yet this portrait of 1952 exhibits levels of forensic self-study rarely evident in his oeuvre. The famous grey-blue irises and depthless pupils, for so long the catalyst of the man's craft, here pierce out to confront the viewer: once focused on the mirror's inversion they here turn to hold us transfixed.
This work's execution took place during a voyage on a banana boat from England to Jamaica, as the artist has explained: "I did a little self portrait of myself while I was on board, biting my finger in the mirror alone in the cabin bathroom" (the artist cited in: Martin Gayford, On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, London 2010, p. 197). Freud was en route to visit Ian and Ann Fleming at their Jamaican villa Goldeneye, which they had acquired from Noel Coward in the previous year, and Mrs Fleming, formerly Lady Rothermere, became the first owner of this painting. She played a significant role in high society and delighted in gathering together political figures and aristocrats alongside artists and writers. Indeed, in 1948 Freud was invited together with Francis Bacon, to a ball she was hosting, which was also attended by a girl who would transform his life immediately before he painted Self Portrait. Largely excluded from the elite cabal of English aristocracy, the nonconformist young Freud was condescendingly deemed an erratic bohemian, whom Mrs Fleming described after a shooting party in Northern Ireland: "of course I am blamed for encouraging bizarre tartan-trousered eccentric artists to pursue virginal Marchionesses' daughters...Lucian retrieved the birds faster than any retriever which shocked them deeply" (cited in: Nancy Schoenberger, Dangerous Muse, A life of Caroline Blackwood, London 2001, p. 88). Nevertheless, it was that Marchionesses' daughter, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who would radically change Freud's existence, and her appearance in his life and art forms the backdrop to this Self Portrait.
In 1948 Freud had married Kitty Garman, daughter of the illustrious sculptor Jacob Epstein and niece of Freud's former lover Lorna Wishart, who had given him the stuffed zebra head and dead heron that are such startling protagonists of his early paintings. Through the late 1940s and turn of the new decade, Kitty was subject to a sequence of penetrating portrayals, including Girl with a Kitten (fig. 1), that detail the disintegration of psychosomatic security. These works have been considered as wider allegory to the imminent collapse of their marriage, which occurred in 1952 with eventual divorce in 1953. 1952 also witnessed the advent of a new heroine in Freud's art: the twenty-one year old Lady Caroline Blackwood, daughter of the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, and for whom he had left Kitty and their young child. Freud's portraits of that year depicting his new paramour, Girl in Bed (fig. 2) and Girl Reading, adopt the perspective of an admiring bedfellow, and relay a profound affection for Caroline's beaming innocence, very literally broadcast through enormous and spellbinding eyes that glisten like liquid glass. Freud and Blackwood spent most of 1953 living at the Hôtel La Louisianne, above the Buci market of St.Germain in Paris, before marrying at the Chelsea registry office on 9th December 1953, the day after his 31st birthday. Thus this Self Portrait of 1952 belongs to a moment of foundational alteration in Freud's life and a time, if not necessarily of crisis, then certainly replete with drama.
This iconic oil on copper delivers an intense testimony of the artist's extraordinary character as often accounted by his contemporaries. While the illustrious poet Sir Stephen Spender described someone "totally alive...Like something not entirely human, a leprechaun, a changeling child, or, if there is a male opposite, a witch" (Marina Warner, 'Lucian Freud, the Unblinking Eye', New York Times Magazine, 4th December 1993), in the late 1950s the journalist Quentin Crewe observed a "nervous man, whose eyes dart around like fleas in a snuffbox" (William Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 19), and Daniel Farson, Soho habitué and broadcaster, jovially described how the artist "slide[s] into a room with an air of apprehension and a sideways glance in case a crucifix or ray of sunlight might suddenly appear" (Daniel Farson, 'A Freudian Lunch in Mayfair", Sacred Monsters, London 1988, p. 174). The minutely observed Self Portrait encapsulates the essence of this mysterious character precisely, and relates to a chapter in the artist's life that would have readily precipitated profound self-analysis. Here Freud enlists none other than his own appearance to account a visceral atmosphere of turbulence and anxiety: the painstaking observation of reflection in turn providing a remarkable window onto the artist's soul.
The immediately recognisable features of the twenty-nine year old artist inhabit the copper substrate, physically and compositionally held in place by the fingers of his left hand nervously attending the corner of his mouth. It is a startlingly intense scene of self-scrutiny and the artist's careful selection of a focused scale, consistent with works of this period, is key to its impact as it enables the maximum exertion of control over the subject. Furthermore, enlisting a copper substrate over panel or canvas suited the artist's precise analysis and delicate use of fine sable brushes perfectly, and he achieved some of the most exactly observed paintings of the time in this medium, such as Head of a Woman (1950), Boy Smoking (1950-1), and Girl Reading (1952). Most famous of all is of course the Francis Bacon portrait on copper, also of 1952 and completed over two to three months. Originally intended to hang in Wheelers, the Soho fish restaurant that Bacon visited daily, it is now tragically missing having been stolen from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin in 1988. While Robert Hughes likened this work to having the "the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off", Lawrence Gowing declared it "the most even and judicious deposit of pictorial information in all his work" (Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 112). Self Portrait stands as worthy extant counterpart to that masterpiece, providing another site of Freud's incomparable interpretation of the human animal.
At the beginning of the 1950s Freud was recognized as one of the leading artistic talents of his generation. His large-scale masterpiece Interior in Paddington, completed through the winter of 1950-1, was exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951 where it won Freud an Arts Council prize of £500, and was offered to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool where it is now permanently housed. Additionally, the extraordinary Girl with a White Dog, also executed between 1950-1, was included in his 1952 exhibition at the Hanover Gallery along with the Bacon portrait, and was bought by the Tate in that same year. However, despite such prodigious success for a man yet to turn thirty years of age, Freud's personal life was somewhat chaotic at this time, certainly by comparison to conventions of the period.
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 2007, Op Cit p. 31). With the uniquely complex subject of himself trapped forever within its beguiling surface, the present work represents a shift in the role of self-portraiture within Freud's art. Although its objective analysis is some distance from the narrative symbolism so abundant in the early self-portrait Man with a Feather of 1943 (fig. 4), this painting is neither determined by the utterly dispassionate observation of later self-portraits, such as Man's Head (Self Portrait) (The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester), and Man's Head (Self Portrait III) (National Portrait Gallery, London) both from 1963. Rather it holds close affinity with the self-depiction included in the open window of Hotel Bedroom of 1954 (fig. 5), which John Russell suggested "looked as if he had been skinned alive with his own hand; suddenly we realised that there is a point beyond which interrogation and torture are one and the same thing" (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Hayward Gallery, Lucian Freud, 1974, p. 18). In both that painting and the present work the artist achieves an intangible character that he described in 1954: "The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life" (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate, Lucian Freud, 2002 p. 15). From Durer to Rembrandt to Bacon, truly great self-portraiture reveals an incommunicable essence of the artist that speaks directly to the viewer and transcends the distance between the work's execution and our today: in short, an incontrovertible dissection of the author's real self, a psychosomatic x-ray. While addressing the age-old, pervasive dilemma of self-portraiture – how to portray an outward appearance that is, to its possessor, essentially and ironically unfamiliar Self Portrait furthers a more existential line of enquiry involving concepts of perception and the artist's ontological relationship with the viewer. The present work inaugurates the depths of absolute self-presentation that Freud has mined throughout subsequent decades with the internationally revered paintings Reflection (Self-Portrait) of 1985, Painter Working, Reflection of 1992-93, and Self-Portrait, Reflection of 2003-04 (fig. 6), and is thus a major contributor to the extraordinary history of his art.
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