“Life Above Everything” – Lucien Freud and Jack B Yeats

Back in 2016, the Irish Museum of Modern Art secured a five-year loan of 50 works by Lucian Freud. To house these works, the IMMA set up the Freud Project in the Garden Gallery in the grounds of Kilmainham Hospital, which has previously been used for temporary exhibitions. The project involves presenting

a series of different and exclusive Lucian Freud related exhibitions, with a new programme of events and openings each year. 

IMMA website

I went to see the inaugural exhibition in this series in March 2017 and enjoyed having the opportunity to view 30 of his works. This week I’m back over in Ireland with work and caught the early boat over on Sunday to spend the afternoon visiting the IMMA as I hadn’t been there for a while. During my visit I decided I’d take a look at the latest Freud Project exhibition – Life above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats – which, as is clear from the title, features works both by Freud and one of my favourite Irish artists, Jack B Yeats. As is usually the case with these types of exhibition, no photos were allowed, so the images in this post are taken from other sources.

Photo Ros Kavanagh from IMMA website (Jack B Yeats paintings)

The IMMA website describes the objective of the exhibition

Exploring the affinities and interconnections between these two artists, this exhibition draws the work of these two stubbornly individual painters into dialogue, placing them side-by-side for the first time in 70 years. While Lucian Freud’s work has been exhibited in the past in group exhibitions alongside other artists from the ‘School of London’, Life above Everything is one of the few exhibitions to date in which Freud has been shown with a single other artist.

IMMA website

Jack Butler Yeats was the brother of the famous poet, William Butler Yeats. He was born in London and spent his childhood between London, Dublin, and Sligo, eventually returning to live permanently in Ireland in 1910. He began his artistic career, in the 1890s, as a black and white journalistic illustrator for various publications before eventually becoming a professional artist. He initially painted in watercolour, but about 1906 he began painting regularly in oil. His early paintings were rather conservative in style but in the 1920s there was a major change in his approach. He started to use bright colours and he began to paint with extremely free and loose brushstrokes with the paint thickly applied. The paintings became much more interesting, over the years becoming more and more abstract and Expressionist in style.

Although Freud and Yeats could both be considered as figurative painters, their styles were very different – particularly when referencing Yeats’ later works. So pairing the two artists in this way isn’t a particularly obvious thing to do. But it was interesting to have the opportunity to “compare and contrast”.

Apparently Freud

had a lifelong interest in the Irish painter’s work, holding a deep admiration for its force and energy. He did not cite Yeats as an ‘influence’ but instead seems to have felt a common purpose with his originality and independence, his continuous searching observation, and his sense of the connection between painting and life. A pen and ink drawing by Yeats, The Dancing Stevedores (c.1900), hung beside Freud’s bed for over 20 years.

IMMA website

The exhibition includes 33 paintings by Freud and 24 by Yeats on two floors of the Garden Gallery, with a good selection of drawings and works on paper by both artists in the basement.

Photo Ros Kavanagh from IMMA website
Photo Ros Kavanagh from IMMA website

I’d seen most, if not all, of the works by Freud previously during my visit to the inaugural exhibition back in 2017 – and Manchester City Art Gallery had loaned a painting I’ve seen many times before, Girl with a Beret (1951-52). However, although I’ve seen the sizeable collection of Yeats’ paintings at both the Irish National Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, I was particularly keen to have a good look at his works included in this exhibition, most of which I’d never seen before. Many were from his later period painted in his wild, colourful expressionist style where the figures of people and horses are almost just suggested. I wasn’t disappointed.

Paintings I particularly liked included one on loan from the Tate

The Two Travellers 1942 Jack Butler Yeats 1871-1957 Purchased 1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05660

the curiously named ‘Left, Left / We Left Our Name / On the Road / On the Road / On the Famous Road / On the Famous Road / On the Famous Road / Of Fame.’ and several paintings which included horses, a favourite subject of the Irishman, including The Flapping Meeting (1926) and White Shower (1928).

I doubt I’d have paid the entrance fee to see the Freud paintings again, but it was worth it to see those fantastic paintings by Jack B Yeats.

Lucien Freud at the IMMA


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.


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.


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).


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.