Is it possible, or desirable, to truly distinguish your appreciation of an artist’s talent from your misgivings about their private conduct?

This and related questions have risen to the fore across the creative arts in recent years, and one has to wonder whether Lucian Freud’s romantic entanglements would have had more impact on his reputation and painting career if he were alive and working today.

By focusing on some of Freud’s regular sitters and their relationships with him, this exhibition at Tate Liverpool, forces the visitor to consider what they feel about the man even as they applaud, as surely most do, his skill with a paintbrush. The wide-eyed stare of his first wife Kitty (to whom Freud was, in the words of their daughter, “spectacularly unfaithful”) in the early work Girl with a Kitten offers a warning to the female subjects who come later. Whether that would be about the realities of domestic life with Freud or the sometimes-arduous nature of modelling for this demanding and intense portraitist (subjects were in some instances required to sit naked for six hours, four nights a week), we don’t know.

Lucian-Freud-Girl-with-a-White-Dog-1950-1-©-Tate-scaled.jpgWhat is unmistakable from this collection of works, however, is his obsession with depicting the human form in unflinching fashion. The nudes for which Freud is most famous are here, of course, but so are close-up etchings of, among others, his mother Lucie and lover Celia Paul. Perhaps least distinctively Freud is an intricate painting of Two Plants (he apparently turned to depicting vegetation when his human relationships had become strained). This solitary botanical flourish serves as a welcome counterpoint to the world-weary human forms, including an unflinching self-portrait of late middle age, that otherwise dominate much of the space.

Freud, Leigh Bowery, 1991Another change of pace comes with the David Dawson photographs of Freud’s studio which, along with a well-constructed audio guide, offer an insight into the realities of the artist’s working life. These prints also offer glimpses of what isn’t in this exhibition. In the background of one photograph is the monumental work Leigh Under the Skylight, whereas visitors here get only a relatively modest painting of performance artist and regular Freud sitter, Leigh Bowery.

Nevertheless, this is the first major display of Freud’s work in the north west for 30 years and Tate Liverpool has made clever use of the works it could assemble to deliver a nuanced and insightful take on a big name, crowd-pulling painter. Those expecting a comprehensive retrospective featuring Freud’s most well-known works will be disappointed. Those wanting to know more about the humans behind all his painted flesh will leave stimulated and possibly conflicted.

By Fran Yeoman

Main image: Lucian Freud, The Painter’s Mother 1982 © Tate. 



Lucian Freud: Real Lives is at Tate Liverpool until January 16, 2022. For more information, or to book tickets, click here