Lucien Freud at the IMMA

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At the end of last year the Irish Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition featuring fifty works by Lucian Freud which have been lent to the Museum’s Collection. The loan, from a number of private collectors, includes thirty paintings and twenty works on paper comprising nineteen large-scale etchings and one early drawing. To house these works, the IMMA have set up a new Freud Project in the Garden Gallery, which has previously been used for temporary exhibitions.

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The IMMA’s website tells us that

During this unique five-year project IMMA will present a series of different and exclusive Lucian Freud related exhibitions, with a new programme of events and openings each year.  All 50 works will be on display across this first year. Subsequent exhibitions will include works and new commissions by other modern and contemporary artists in response to Freud, and will reveal exciting new perspectives on this major artist today.
As I’m back in Ireland working this week, I caught the late morning fast ferry from Holyhead so I could spend a little time having a look at the exhibition.

As with most temporary exhibitions, especially those featuring loans from private collectors, photographs were “verboten”. Here’s one from the IMMA website, though, a self-portrait.

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Reflection (Self Portrait) (1985) (IMMA website)

The exhibition occupies all three of the public floors of the Garden Gallery. Paintings on the ground and first floor with prints displayed in subdued light in the basement.

The exhibits are mainly later works from the from 1970 onwards, and so reflect his style from that period. Like many artists his approach changed over the years so the exhibition doesn’t give a full reflection of his work. Also, although Freud is well known for is paintings of nudes (which pull no punches painting people as is rather idealising their bodies), there are only two in the exhibition. (I felt a little uneasy that one of the nudes was one of his, albeit grown up, daughters).  In both cases this is because the exhibition is made up of loaned works and so is limited by what the owners had available and were prepared to lend to the IMMA.

The majority of the works included in the exhibition are portraits. Freud painted people he knew and the subjects in the exhibition are family and characters from around London. They included his daughters and grandchildren, the “Big Man” – a bookmaker from Ulster and his son, a Covent Garden newspaper salesman, an antiques dealer and former jockey. “The Big Man” appears in several paintings His son, appears with his father in Two Irishmen in W11 (1984-1985) when he was 19 years old and then a few years later in Head of an Irishman (1999).

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Two Irishmen in W11 (1984-1985) Source Wikiart

Another Irish character, Pat Doherty, is the subject of Donegal Man (2006), a later, companion piece: Profile Donegal Man (2008), a portrait fragment and an etching (and the plate for the etching is also on display). There were also paintings that featured animals – whippets and horses. Probably related to his “interest” in gambling – also reflected in his portraits of the “Big Man”.

One of my favourite portraits was Man in a Check Cap (1991). The subject is Mick Tobin, a retired boxer who sold newspapers outside Covent Garden underground station. He has an interesting “lived in” face which I think Freud captures really well.

There are two unfinished works on display which provide an insight into how Freud began his work,

drawing in the forms in charcoal and moving outwards from a central area, often the eyes. (exhibition guide)

During his later period he used a thick “impasto” to create the texture of the skin. looking closely at the paintings I could see  indistinct blobs of thickly applied paint with a relatively limited palate – white, grey, brown and fleshy tones. The exhibition guide tells us

Freud’s choice of palette was always muted and earthy; he never used saturated colour, considering that it conveyed an overtly emotional significance that he wished to avoid.

As my son once said when looking at some of Monet’s later paintings – “close up they look like a mess” but stand back and they merge into a coherent whole.

Another aspect of his work is that they are not completely naturalistic. Proportions are not always accurate. This is particularly noticeable in The Pearce Family (1998) of portrait of his daughter Rose Boyt and her family where her husband’s body, particularly his arms, are out of proportion. He also adopted some “multiple viewpoints” in some of his paintings including the portrait of the Pearce family.

I’d never seen some many paintings by Freud collected together in one place and this was a really good opportunity to gain a better understanding of his work, albeit covering only a limited period. It will be interesting to see how the IMMA develops this project over the next few years.

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